There are many reproductions of all kinds of art and much written about art too, particularly the ‘Old Masters’, but coverage of female, amateur artists is fairly limited.
This is particularly so for visual images produced during the time of Puritan England when many aspects of everyday existence became very stiff and starchy. For a wealthy Englishwoman prayer, reading and piety would be expected over any hint of personal expression through the visual arts. This is why the Hawstead panels are so fascinating.
The 61 painted panels originally covered the walls of a closet (a small room similar to our idea of a study) in Hawstead Place, the home of Sir Robert and Lady Drury near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. In 1924 the complete set of panels was purchased by Ipswich Borough Council and built into a small room in Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. Nowadays you can visit this intriguing space and experience its almost claustrophobic intensive quality.
It is interesting that despite the survival and uniqueness of this work and its complete condition, there is little detailed writing about these panels except for the excellent 2013 monograph ‘The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury’ by Heather Meakin.
Standing in the centre of this small space, about seven feet square, it is hard to interpret whether there is a narrative thread to be found in the complete set of panels. This question is even more difficult to answer when you discover that the panels are no longer arranged in their original order. This was lost some time after their removal from Hawstead Place to Hardwick House in the early 17th century, and, by the time they were bought by the council in 1924 the panels were no longer part of a square room, but hanging in a long corridor.
Nowadays it is agreed that the panels were painted by Lady Anne Bacon Drury (1572-1624). Most of the panels consist of an image together with a Latin motto that combine to form a single visual device the purpose of which is to prompt Protestant contemplation, reflection and meditation. From this understanding of the panels it is reasonable to consider there was never any conscious narrative to the room as a whole, but instead one can view the panels as a collection of spiritual and philosophical themes.
Lady Drury most likely took inspiration for her panels from ‘Emblem’ books. Many of her panel ‘prompts’ appear to have originated from two such popular emblem books of the period; ‘A Choice of Emblemes’ (1586) by Geffrey Whitney and ‘Heroicall Devises’ (1591) by Claude Paradin. And, we can see over 41 of the panels have both a picture and motto and a further 15 panels show flowers and herbs with symbolic meanings. It is also worth noting that at the time of their painting there was a wider Jacobean fashion for symbolic decoration with designs and text covering the walls of domestic interiors.
However, it is unusual to find a gentle woman expressing herself through the medium of oil paint even within a private context. Creativity through needlework was the norm even though some religious orders had seen nuns illuminating religious texts as early as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) in the twelfth century and, indeed, by the seventeenth century a contemporary of Lady Drury’s, Esther Inglis (1571-1624) was a well-known miniaturist illustrating manuscripts for royal patrons. But ‘Ladies’ working with oil paint in Puritan England seems a rarity.
Of course, it might be that many gentlewomen were painting the walls of their private studies in such a thoughtful and considered fashion and the Hawstead Panels are simply the only ones to survive. However, there are several factors which suggest that the Hawstead Panels may be an exception as opposed to the norm. Firstly, Lady Anne was the granddaughter of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, secondly Anne had grown up in a family that believed in educating their daughters, thirdly she had a generous dowry (£1,600) from her father on her wedding to Sir Robert Drury (1575-1615) and finally she was the older sister of the court, amateur painter Sir Nathaniel Bacon. And, during Anne’s lifetime Nathaniel Bacon was considered to be England’s finest amateur artist. Here then we have a wealthy, educated woman from an aristocratic family, a family that included an exceptional if amateur painter and it is therefore not unreasonable to conclude Anne Drury had the desire, means and knowledge to create her own very personal and private prayer closet.
Sadly, for Lady Drury despite beginning her married life (1592) in privileged, and hopefully optimistic circumstances, she lost her first daughter, Dorothy aged 4 in 1597 and her second daughter, Elizabeth, aged 14 in 1610. On the death of Elizabeth, the poet John Donne wrote the elegy ‘An Anatomy of the World, wherein, by occasion of the untimely Death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and decay of the whole World is represented’. Lady Drury was a patroness and friend of Donne and corresponded with the poet. According to historical records a family inventory states the existence of 25 letters from him bound together though these are now lost. From this time onwards it appears Lady Drury, now childless, spent much time alone at her Suffolk home whilst her ambitious husband was away fighting his way round Europe or attending the Court. In the end she died in 1624 outliving her younger husband by more than a decade. She left us a painted insight into another time and another way of living.
As most of these panels appear so strange to our 21st-century sensibility I feel a more detailed examination of them is worth the time and I’ve split this post into two with ‘Lady Drury and The Hawstead Panels -Part II’ to follow next week.