I’ve just watched James Fox’s “A Very British Renaissance: The Elizabethan Code” on BBC i-player (available for the next few weeks) and he highlighted two extraordinary paintings from the Elizabethan Age, well worth watching (from about 14minutes in).
The first stretches the concept of what a portrait might be:
It’s a “portrait” of Sir Henry Unton, commissioned by his widow in about 1596 and at the National Portrait Gallery. Unfortunately the artist is unknown, but the painting shows scenes from Upton’s life – from birth in the lower right hand corner to his death.
I find it quite amazing – indeed rather exciting! It seems to recall medieval church wall-painting rather than suggesting the ‘face’ portraits that would come to dominate British art.
The second rather fabulous painting James Fox discusses is again a portrait which currently resides in the archives of Northampton Art Gallery:
Sir Christopher Hatton, by an unknown artist again (although the artist has pictured himself at the bottom left).
In turn the painting includes all sorts of symbolism to decode – and what brilliant colours! – but to fully appreciate the whole it also needs to be turned about as the imagery continues onto the back.
There are some notes about the work online at artuk.org – including the possibility that the artist was from the studio of portrait painter William Segar (1554-1633) and even that an astrologer (depicted at the bottom right?) may have been involved in the painting.
Otherwise there seems to be very little information, so it’s fascinating to see the programme.
And how very intriguing these pictures are, so very “eccentric” – showing, as Fox says, that English Renaissance painting was experimental, rich and sophisticated.