Walking through Trafalgar Square in the evening these days is still a noisy and bustling affair, but with all the cleaned buildings and the National Gallery artfully lit, the experience is definitely an improvement from my first memories as a newly arrived student in 1979.
Also, back in 1979 the fourth plinth beneath the towering Nelson’s Column was empty. In fact it had been empty for 150 years until the current series of temporary artworks was begun in 1999. The present sculpture is the twelfth artwork to top the plinth. It is a replica of an Assyrian lamassu statue that was destroyed by ISIS/Daesh at the Mosul museum in 2015. The original had guarded the entrance at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh (near modern day Mosul) from c700 BC.
Lamassus were protective winged deities with the body of a bull or lion and the head of a man. Some of these statues that stood at the gates of ancient Assyrian cities and palaces as symbols of power are nearly three thousand years old.
This particular lamassu has been created by the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. He is an artist who, within his creative practice, has been considering peoples and cultures that have been under threat of being deliberately erased, and, to this end he has created counter-monuments such as this lamassu. This piece is one of his series ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’, a project he began in 2006. His hope is to recreate many of the 7000 cultural objects that have been lost forever. Some of these were looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003, whilst many others were destroyed across the country during the Iraq War.
From the pavement below it isn’t obvious at first glance precisely what this sculpture is comprised of. However, gradually you realise the surface decoration is tin cans. The Lamassu is made from 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans and you can even spot the date tree motifs. Selecting date syrup cans was not a random choice. Of course not, this top decorative layer is informing us about another type of loss as a result of the Iraq War, the loss of one of Iraq’s traditional food export businesses.
Placed on a plinth in Trafalgar Square beneath Admiral Lord Nelson, the lamassu’s style and content is very much a counter to the traditional representation of wars and war heroes as seen with the sandstone Nelson atop his granite column. This lamassu is colourful, transient and recycled, literally made from the remains of everyday food packaging. I think it challenges the hubristic ideas of permanence, stability and the ‘forever’ notion that the stone Nelson monument suggests. Trafalgar Square may not be under water within the next 30 years, but much of a London that even now is a forever changing building site, will probably be looking very different. See London 2050 flood map.
Now the statement ‘Not all that glistens is gold’ in this case is a bit of a naughty comment to attach to the Wickham Market Hoard of late antique coins. It implies the coins are not made of gold whereas it is just that they are not pure 24 Karat gold. Pure gold as we know is a soft metal and is unsuitable for circulating coins and therefore over the centuries various gold alloys have been used.
The Wickham Market Hoard is comprised of tribal coins made of one such gold alloy. The alloy in this case is a mixture of gold, silver and copper. The coins of different tribes of this period are known as staters and were marked with different symbols.
At the time these coins were in use in Britain, around 10 BC to AD 10, Julius Caesar had already been and gone from our shores, and Britain wouldn’t be officially conquered and part of the Roman Empire until Emperor Claudius’s campaign of AD 43 .
The Romans had, of course, been minting coins for the empire and Roman coins circulated in Britain from Celtic times, but regional tribes also minted their own coinage. Roman coinage had consisted of coins of gold, silver, orichalcum (a brass-like alloy of copper and zinc) and copper. However, the tribal finds dating from this time are hoards that comprise of gold coins only.
The Wickham Market Hoard was discovered in 2008 and is the largest hoard of British Iron Age gold coins to have been found in more than 150 years. There has been nothing of comparable size since the discovery of the Whaddon Chase Hoard in Buckinghamshire in 1849.
On display at the Ipswich Museum, the Wickham Market Hoard consists of 840 staters. That is 830 are Freckenham staters, five are Snettisham staters and five are Ferriby staters. These coins are named after the villages in which the coins were originally discovered. Freckenham is a village in west Suffolk and the staters found their were made by the Iceni tribe.
These coins have a horse motif on one side and on the reverse a pair of crescents motif with a cross formed of dots or a flower.
The Snettisham staters were first found near the village of Snettisham, west Norfolk, and were also made by the Iceni. These staters have a similar horse motif, but this time it has a sun symbol between its legs and the reverse of these coins is nearly blank.
Finally, there are the five Ferriby staters so-called as these were discovered as part of a hoard found in north Lincolnshire in 1900. These were made by the Corieltauvi who were a tribe from the East Midlands. These coins also have a horse on one side. It is a more stylised version as the horse’s head is a triangular shape and the body is made up of a series of crescents. The reverse of a Ferriby stater has a wreath of laurel leaves.
These coins struck with their fascinating images are over 2000 years old, and yet the design for the horse motif on the Freckenham staters has a timeless quality. When I first saw them I knew that they would be the basis for my next collection of silk scarves.
Last week I went to visit the ‘Marvellous Machines’ exhibition currently showing at the Ipswich Art Gallery. It is a fascinating, stylish display of visually elegant and appealing mechanical artworks.
And, what’s more you get to push small, red buttons to make the automata work in all their whirring and squeaky intricacy.
In these digital times it’s easy to take for granted all our speedy, convenient tech. We click and scroll without a second thought as to what is actually going on beneath the screen.
It wasn’t always so and the ‘Marvellous Machines’ exhibition reminds us of all those bewitching clockwork and mechanical objects from the past. Some examples such as mechanical toys were purely for entertainment and some were functional equipment that was often beautiful too.
Functional objects from the past on display in this exhibition included a braille typewriter, a rather attractive ‘shrimp’ sweet making machine
and a scale model of the an early Otis lift.
Of course, humans have used mechanisms to make moving toys for thousands of years.
Naturally, in an Art Gallery some of the works on display are examples of art. These delightful mechanical sculptures by Paul Spooner are exquisitely crafted, and are both beguiling and witty.
I particularly liked the manner in which the mechanics are also on display in this piece. It has become an expression of our contemporary culture to reveal inner workings. Here you can see the cogs and spindles are finely made and are assembled in a functional and satisfyingly ordered arrangement.
Another work by Peter Markey, Artist-Painter, resonated surprisingly strongly with me. It’s as if he has been spying on me!
‘Marvellous Machines’ featuring these quirky pieces from Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, continues at Ipswich Art Gallery until 3 November 2019. If you can’t get to Ipswich a list of upcoming events displaying some of these mechanical sculptures is available on the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre website. Finally, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre sell some of their work online offering one-offs, limited editions and even ‘build your own’ kits.
Last week I accompanied my father to a summer’s evening concert at Snape Maltings. I am old enough (just) to remember being driven past the old Maltings when it was being converted into a concert venue from 1965 to 1967. It was one of the earliest examples of an industrial building being repurposed for arts use. The whole site has expanded considerably over the intervening five decades. As well as the main concert hall there is now the smaller Britten Studio, rehearsal rooms, cafes, restaurants and bars, holiday accommodation and a variety of retail outlets including the Snape Antiques Centre and The Maltings Gallery.
All round Snape Maltings has pitched itself as a cultural centre and as such hosts visiting art installations that are placed amongst permanent works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
When I was at the Maltings back in June, for a sublime performance by Vox Luminis as part of the the Aldeburgh Festival, a fitting installation was on display called ‘To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms) by Ryan Gander.
Last week, we saw another art installation had joined ‘To Give Light’. Round the other side of the Concert Hall, near the main entrance, there is a slightly raised mound between the Maltings and the River Alde. Set on the lawn, unmissable and incongruous, currently stands a fisherman’s hut complete with ‘A’ board pavement signs.
However, there’s nobody selling fish from this hut. Instead, a small crowd of carved people trapped inside the hut gaze out at our world in dismay at the polluted and damaged oceans. (This work was originally sited on Aldeburgh Beach facing out across the North Sea. It had been commissioned for the Siren Festival, Aldeburgh.)
The pavement advertising boards draw our attention to the plight of marine mammals and
the sign written boards hanging on the hut further detail many of the shocking facts regarding the precarious state of the oceans.
‘Siren’ is an ecological art installation that disturbs and informs. It is the type of intriguing and evocative work that affirms a place for visual culture within the wider environmental discourse.
Apparently for 21st-century folk, ‘stuff’ is so last century. I am sure there are still plenty of people who are collectors, but generally the marketing people inform us that it’s experiences and not things we prefer these days. Of course, with more and more bad news regarding the climate emergency and all those shocking images of plastic waste, the old mantra ‘less is more’ could not be more necessary. However, for our more prosperous Victorian forebears it was very different and with drawing rooms, parlours and front rooms overflowing with collections of objects, more was definitely more.
Last month I made my first visit to the Ipswich Museum. It was opened in 1881 and was dedicated to the study of science and art. And, in that Victorian tradition of progress and improvement, the museum’s founding purpose was to ‘promote the study and extend the knowledge, of natural history in all its branches’. To this end it still displays its nineteenth-century collections of stuffed animals and birds.
The type and number of birds and animals is not as large as either Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum or Norwich’s Castle Museum (the town museums of the last two places where I’ve lived), yet it still offers visitors a thought-provoking display of the Victorian’s approach to a Natural History collection. Arguably, there is some scientific value from these various collections across the country as examples of life forms now extinct can be seen in their 3D form. However, all is not always what it seems as I read when I looked up ‘stuffed dodos’.
No stuffed dodos remain in any collections. Recently the last two were lost to fire and attack from museum pests. Some museums have made mock-up dodos using pigeon and chicken feathers, and there is a head, leg and single foot remaining at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Grant Museum, UCL, London.
I have mixed feelings about these stuffed creatures. I think today we are lucky. We have the luxury of digital cameras, computer animation, David Attenborough documentaries, wild life centres and opportunities to travel around the world to see some of the more exotic exhibits alive and in their natural habitats. It is understandable that in the past these stuffed creatures were prized objects within a museum setting. It is also intriguing that they found their way into many domestic parlours where exotic birds were the stars of glass dome dioramas. I suppose it can also be seen as part of the Victorian’s wider obsession for collection and display combined with their keen interest in Natural History.
Nowadays, these displays of exotic birds, survivors from over a hundred years ago, are themselves collected. Examples can be found in antique shops and popping up from time to time at auctions, but what other options are available for today’s avid collector interested in Natural History. If it’s now more about experiences than stuff then shooting exotic birds with a camera and not stuffing them must surely be the answer. (Is that a collective tweet of relief from birds around the world we hear?)
Finally, one of the most popular exhibits at the Ipswich Museum, especially with children, is a very large, 3D animal. It is the life-sized model of a woolly mammoth standing just inside the museum’s entrance. The model is based on the bones of a woolly mammoth unearthed in 1976 during the building of a local school. This woolly mammoth lived and died some 186,000 to 245,000 years ago, thousands of years before an accomplished taxidermist or even an experienced Ancient Egyptian embalmer ever drew breath, however the surviving bones tell their own story. It is suggested the animal died as a result of being stuck in the mud.
For a very interesting opinion regarding Ipswich Museum posted June 2019 see, current Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Charles Saumarez-Smith’s post.
It’s time to celebrate some rather well known, that would be Gainsborough and Constable, and some less well known Suffolk artists. From now until 28th July 2019 there are 76 works of art displayed in the Wolsey Gallery of Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich. These works are arranged in a salon-style hang, a style first presented to the public by the formidable Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 18th century.
This exhibition is perhaps one that Goldilocks would appreciate as it is neither too large nor too small. Several of the museum’s familiar favourites by Gainsborough and Constable are on show amongst paintings that have not been on public display for many years.
The earliest work in the exhibition is ‘The Entombment of Christ’ dating from the 15th century.
The gallery display is loosely chronological as you progress round the room with small groupings by theme, such as portraits or landscapes. For example, below and to the left, the pair of Constable paintings of the East Bergholt area, ‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’ and ‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’ are placed between Suffolk scenes of Woodbridge, Ufford and the River Deben painted by the 19th-century, Woodbridge artist, Thomas Churchyard.
Thomas Churchyard was born in Melton near Woodbridge, Suffolk in 1798. He was an artist who also worked as a solicitor in Woodbridge. Although, he was unable to support himself and his family through his creative endeavours during his lifetime, he left a legacy of paintings of local towns and villages and the Suffolk coast that now hang in art galleries around the world.
Wonder Walls also includes sketches and paintings of Ipswich in the past including a drawing of the beached whale that had lost its way and swam up the River Orwell in 1811. (The skull of this unlucky creature is now hanging from the ceiling in the Geology section of the Ipswich Museum).
Not all the art on display has a direct connection to Suffolk. There is a Walter Sickert oil painting of Bath, a Joan Miró lithograph, and, as you finish your circuit of the gallery, a Patrick Caulfield screenprint that brings us, chronologically speaking, almost to the present.
But for me this exhibition provided an opportunity to photograph a personal favourite. It normally hangs in a narrow corridor and is easily missed, but now on display in the gallery you can’t fail to notice this captivating yet somehow whistful interpretation of a very English moment.
It’s late May and the irises are in full bloom. Irises are definitely in my top ten favourite garden flowers along with roses, foxgloves, poppies, lilies, hellebores, tulips, clematis, dahlias, and, those great favourites of the medieval illuminators, columbines. Each May when the aquilegias flower I think of illuminated manuscripts and the unnamed artisans who spent hours in their workshops decorating religious texts.
And, it wasn’t just aquilegias that filled the margins, for illuminators included images of the different flowers found growing in their own local districts. From about 1300 onwards there is a wonderful variety of illustrations including daisies, honeysuckle, clover, cornflowers, the dog rose along with the blossom of fruit trees and the blooms of flowering herbs.
Gradually, during the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, the making of illuminated texts became a specialist business with the production of breviaries, prayer books, psalters and books of hours from workshops across Europe. Stylised and simple motifs of flowers gave way to more naturalistic representations such as the irises seen in the Bourdichon Hours (above) and the almost ‘impressionistic’ iris seen in the Huth Hours (below).
I haven’t got any irises in my backyard as yet, and I’m still wondering if there would be enough hours of direct sunshine for them to bloom, but, fortunately, halfway down my road I spotted some in the little community plot.
This plot was one of those small, unloved areas which didn’t belong to anyone and has now been turned into a shared space, a community veg plot with a handful of raised beds and some seasonal flowers to brighten the whole affair. A number of local people who live in neighbouring flats or homes without gardens, spend their spare time planting, weeding and harvesting. This attractive project was instigated by one of my neighbours who’s also the Green Party candidate for our ward.
There is something heartening and positive about the continuing existence of a genus of flowers, admired and illustrated, that way we can track through the centuries. It would be nice to think that humans will be around for the next 700 years to enjoy the iris and the rest of the natural world, but that requires the present generation of world leaders to put their own personal ambitions aside, take a longterm view and start to deal with the climate crisis – seriously.
In one of those strange moments several threads of my life came together over the Easter weekend. As a keen gardener a four day break with glorious weather was not wasted and I eventually managed to plant two pear saplings and a fig tree.
I also visited my nearest park, Christchurch Park, and popped into the beautiful Christchurch Mansions to take photographs of their 17th-century exhibits. It has been on my to-do list for a while following hearing the rerun of the brilliant recording of ‘God’s Revolution’ by Don Taylor (original broadcast back in 1988). The drama takes us through the English Civil War and as I listened I remembered how my school history lessons had completely drained me of any interest in the 17th century. I had also been left with the impression that the 17th century had been very grey, plain and practical under the influence of the Puritans. It has been a pleasure to discover that this was not the case.
Of course, skills and craftsmanship did not suddenly evaporate overnight with the Puritans and even though much religious art was destroyed or defaced by the likes of William Dowsing, plenty of interesting examples of visual culture survived the 17th century including new work created during that period. Just think of the monumental splendour of Wren’s St Paul’s. And, then we have at the other end of the scale of English creative expression, small, private handiwork such as this beautiful embroidered panel (above) dating from around 1650.
The full embroidery panel shows a young woman in a garden filled with images of nature. These flowers, animals, birds and insect motifs represented natural gifts from a bountiful God and were celebrated as such. The abundance of nature was a common theme for domestic pieces at this time as displaying overt religious imagery became less popular. It is interesting that the lion and leopard each have their own corner. Their placement is probably significant as it is not an uncommon arrangement, as seen below, in another similar embroidery from the mid-17th century.
Also included in the embroidered menagerie of the Christchurch panel is a unicorn. According to Ruby Hodgson of the V&A, when a lion, leopard and unicorn appear together it is thought to be a reference to royalty.
Looking at the Christchurch panel the most striking representation of the abundance of nature is the pear tree laden with ripe pears in the centre of the composition. It occurred to me that as this example shows a young woman alone in her garden, that the pear tree with fruit maybe a symbol of fertility and allude to her as a potential wife and mother, especially as she stands with her hand outstretched drawing the observer’s attention to the tree.
However, it might simply have been the convention to include a fruiting pear tree as the visualisation of the 17th century English proverb, ‘Walnuts and pears you plant for your heirs’. Old English varieties of pears take years to mature before they bear fruit perhaps not fruiting during a single lifetime and therefore are grown to benefit future heirs. I know that planting avenues of trees for the future such as the famous Spanish Chestnut avenue at Croft Castle, has been a long tradition for the grand and wealthy, but ‘pears for your heirs’ is a discovery for me.
And, that brings me to the third thread of my Easter Weekend, my heir, my daughter. She spent most of her four day holiday break in London moving between Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch as part of the Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience protests. Like so many others including all kinds of folk from all generations, she wants the climate crisis at the top of the global to-do list. Since Easter the recent summary from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted even more bad news regarding human beings’ detrimental effect on biodiversity. We have become accustomed to disregarding our natural environment and it appears that since the 17th century ‘pears for your heirs’ has faded from common use and yet . . .
. . . attempting to finish on a more optimistic note, it is not just me who has been planting a tree or two, the Woodland Trust hope to plant 64 million trees over the next decade.
Of all the 61 painted panels that originally covered the wall of Lady Drury’s closet at Hawstead House, only one panel was painted without an emblem or a motto. This ’empty’ panel, consisting of a hilly background and two Scots pines, offers a melancholy scene.
The Reverend Sir John Cullum did not discuss this particular panel at all in his eighteenth-century account. Perhaps he simply considered it an unfinished section. However, the twenty-first century scholar, H L Meakin, suggests the ‘blank’ panel may have been deliberately left empty to encourage spontaneous meditation.
It is also possible to read the two, stark, thin pine trees as visual metaphors for Lady Drury and her husband. They’re standing mature, living apart from each other within a dark and hilly landscape. After all they had existed in a world of challenges and grief following the loss of their young daughters.
More generally, in her summary of Lady Drury’s closet, Meakin offers ideas from Seneca and Montaigne as well as current research considering the lives of early modern women. She suggests there was not a simple division between the public and private spheres, and proposes this tiny, private room offered a space to both think about as well as retreat from the wider world.
Despite the gloomy appearance of the ‘pines’ panel, I find the silhouetted trees make a compelling composition.
And, I also admire the painted herb and flower decorative panels displayed at the bottom of the panel collection.
These panels show bugle, corn marigold, speedwell, dandelion, deadly nightshade, honeysuckle, scarlet pimpernel, wild pansy and a wild strawberry plant.
Overall, the panelled room is both intriguing and inspirational. So inspirational I decided to paint a series of neckerchiefs using the two pines, the scarlet pimpernel and the corn marigold. Here’s the first of the series showing how the scarlet pimpernel rapidly morphed into a larger, less delicate flower to balance the composition.
Christchurch Mansions in Ipswich is a fine historical house that these days uses its beautiful rooms to display art. Traditional art, oil paintings, sculpture and a few framed textiles cover the walls in an art gallery manner. However, some of the main rooms are still furnished as for their original purpose in a style you might see in a National Trust stately home and include using paintings and art pieces in a domestic setting.
Personally, I appreciate seeing a Reynolds or a Gainsborough portrait displayed in a drawing room or library with a Georgian atmosphere. I know some folk prefer to summon up their historical imaginations and quibble about authenticity, but I enjoy visiting these ‘posed’ rooms even if purists consider it a borderline Disneyesque experience. I think informed, well-curated rooms help to provide context for the paintings especially when some of the portraits are of people connected with the house’s history.
One such painting is the Reynolds’ portrait of Sir Hutchins Williams (1701-1758). Williams was the father of Mrs Anne Fonnereau (1732-1805) who had married the Reverend William Fonnereau (1732-1817) in 1758. Anne and William lived at Great Munden in Hertfordshire where William was Rector, before in later life they moved to Ipswich. The Reverend William Fonnereau eventually inheriting Christchurch Mansion in 1804.
However, it is not only art on display at Christchurch Mansions, in the library the curators have arranged a room full of smaller, functional pieces such as an antique desk that is set with writing paraphernalia and a gorgeous, elegant clock.
The room contains an eclectic mix as you might see accumulated over a century or two.
The library was not only a place for reading, it perhaps also provided an agreeable environment for a serious game of chess.
On a small table an Indian ivory chess set is displayed, pieces ready for the next move. These chessmen are typical of the work from the two neighbouring towns, Berhampur and Murshidabad, located in the West Bengal region of India.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was the custom for British families resident in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to take a voyage up stream on the Hooghly river to these two towns.
A chess set was a typical souvenir purchased by these visitors and was eventually brought to Britain when the family finally returned home. This set comprises of intricately carved figures, one set has pawns clothed as East Indian Company Sepoys and the other set are Marathi spearmen.
The Hawstead panels are a complete set of painted panels that covered the walls of a private, domestic closet, a room we would now consider a small study. The panelled closet was originally constructed for Hawstead Place near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and was created during the Jacobean times when domestic interiors painted with symbolic decoration were popular.
As discussed in Part I the Hawstead Panels were painted by the amateur painter Lady Anne Bacon Drury, and she most likely took her inspiration from the popular emblem books of the Jacobean period. For the English aristocracy there was an in-the-know understanding of symbolic imagery and mottos linked with heraldry. They could read overt information presented in the combined text and image device, but could also make additional, more subtle interpretations. (I must just say here at the outset that the Latin translations from the gallery guide (GG) and those offered by the academic Heather Meakin (HM) in her detailed monograph ‘The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury’ frequently differ so I have included both.)
At first glance many of the panels appear of a simple, unprofessional standard though not completely lacking in technique. And, when you look at each one in turn their content appears bewilderingly strange to our 21st-century eyes. Most of the panels have a motto in Latin although there’s one in Italian too. As I mentioned in Part 1 there doesn’t appear to be any conscious narrative to the room as a whole, but instead one can view the panels as a collection of spiritual and philosophical themes. The panels were painted within a Puritan Christian context, but include some philosophical notions of a stoic nature.
In her book ‘The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury’, Heather Meakin has put forward a slightly different order of panels to the one now on display at Christchurch Mansion in an effort to unlock meaning. She has based her selection on seventheenth-century records and a 1784 firsthand account of the panels installed as a closet by the Reverend Sir John Cullum in ‘The History and Antiquities of Hawsted and Hardwick, in the County of Suffolk’.
Group One – six panels
The first grouping of six panels has the heading ‘Quod sis esse velis, nihilque malis sumam nec metuas diem, nec optes‘. Translated as ‘Neither fear nor long for your death’ (GG) or a more nuanced and informed translation ‘Wish to be what you are, wish nothing better/don’t fear your last day, nor yet pray for it’. Both the ape/monkey panel above and the camel one below are in this grouping. The motto with the camel is ‘Pura iuvent alios’, ‘Pure things may help other people’ (GG) or ‘Let pure things please others’ (HM). The camel is shown standing in the centre of a pond in the process of muddying the water. There was a longstanding idea from the Ancient Greeks that camels only drank dirty water and such emblems were used to convey the idea that some people preferred and benefitted from troubled times. There are accounts that mention Lady Drury’s husband was a career soldier. Of course, there is always the obvious Christian reading that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Overall these panels seem to be a meditation on the balancing of worldly wealth with spiritual well-being.
Group Two – six panels
‘Quae cupio, haud capio‘,
‘My wants remain unsatisfied’ (GG)
‘What I desire, I do not get’ (HM).
This group has one of the most striking and strange paintings showing an elephant held in the talons of an airborne bird of prey. The painting also shows a living and a dead tree.
In this strange panel we could see trees representing family lineage, or in the Christian tradition as referencing the Crucifixion. Then there is the tradition in 17th century of the elephant emblematically standing for purity, intelligence, chastity and strength. Further complicating the panel is the bird of prey which is quite likely a Ruc, an enormous mythical bird. Finally add the motto ‘He has no leisure for trifles’ and Lady Drury has created an intriguing statement of symbolic imagery with text combining to give a whole, but what was she saying? A 21st-century reading could see this panel as a woman attempting to come to terms with the loss of her expected existence as a virtuous wife and mother.
Group Three – six panels
‘Parva sed apta mihi: nec tamen hic requies‘,
‘Small but suitable for me, yet there is no rest here.’ (GG)
‘This house is small, but fit for me, and yet I find no rest here’. (HM)
In this grouping we have a bearded man with the ears of an ass and
a neighbouring panel depicting an ass or mule.
Both these panels allude to a person or people as fools not least as the old man dressed in a combination of English and classical dress most obviously has ass’s ears. And, in the second picture the ass is half hiding behind a painting of a horse perhaps in attempt to deceive the woodcock (a bird easily trapped). Meakin suggests we could be looking at a subtle reference to an elderly King James I. At a time when outright criticism of the King and/or Parliament was impossible even a guarded negative opinion was highly risky. These were the times of the Gunpowder Plot. It is tempting to consider these images were coded dissent, however much of the closet content is personal and the space was only for Lady Drury’s private use and one wonders whether perhaps the criticism was for somebody else in her immediate family and she is herself represented by the woodcock. These panels are afterall under the heading ‘and yet I find no rest here’.
Group 4 – a group comprising nine panels
Nuquam minvs sola quam cum sola
Never less a lonely than when a lady alone (GG)
Never less alone than when alone (HM)
The above panel shows the frequently used icon of faith, the dog displaying trust approaching a hand from a cloud, perhaps the ‘hand of God’. Indeed in this group of panels the word ‘fides’ translated as ‘trust, faith, belief’ is used in three of the mottos. An interpretation of this section could suggest Lady Drury’s reflections on living a faithful life and its benefits during times of solitude. Another panel (below) in the section includes the familiar skull emblem as a memento mori. Lady Drury also added the motto ‘Live knowing you will die one day’ to reinforce the symbolism although the verdant growth from the eye sockets seems to allude to a vigorous existence after death.
Group 5 – six panels
Amplior in coelo domus est
There is plenty of room for me in my heavenly home (GG)
A larger home in heaven (HM)
The above panel is the first panel in this section under the group heading, a heading that may derive from scripture, ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’ and yet this panel shows two dead trees and what in the 21st century we could read as, if not a self-effacing motto, then an expression of withdrawal. However, Meakin informs us that the heavenly stars and a moon with a face could show a pious Lady Drury (represented by the moon) dying and faithfully, according to St Paul ‘For wee walke by faith, and not by sight’ (a scriptural interpretation of the motto) rising to heaven (depicted by showing stars).
Group 6 – the final six panels.
Frustra nisi dominus
Unless the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it (GG)
In vain without the Lord (HM)
The beehive panel is the first under the heading ‘In vain without the Lord’. It appears to be a very personal reinterpretation of a popular 17th-century emblem representing ‘Home is where the heart is’, a popular idiom even to this day, and yet, Lady Drury’s motto is ‘Cum melle aculeus’, ‘With honey, a sting’. The panel shows, along with the motto, a beehive (possibly Lady Drury in her home) in the midst of a flower strewn meadow beneath a tall, healthy tree (possibly, her husband, Sir Robert Drury), however, in the foreground there is a withered tree stump (her dead offspring). From the little we know about Lady Drury’s life we could surmise that despite living a privileged life within her substantial Suffolk home, all was not as it seemed, and the repeating of dead trees in various panels could be more than a representation of her dead children, it could also signify the end of her lineage.
A first brief reading of the various mottos suggests each offers a succinct possibly simplistic statement, but once we attempt to fuse these words with their respective images and then apply any in-the-know understanding, meanings become far more nuanced, complicated and difficult to decipher. No doubt for Lady Drury they offered multiple readings and advice and comment for both a practical and also a spiritual experience of the world.
Interpretation of even a single panel is not straightforward and with the pervasive academic preference for text above image inevitable assumptions occur. I have to comment as somebody who works in a visual field and, at the same time wearing my Art History hat, that to casually accept text comes first is a coarse assumption. If we believe that Lady Drury was inspired primarily by her Christian faith we could wonder whether she sought specific emblems to express an idea, a sentiment or a feeling? Indeed she may have experienced a thought that crystallised into an image in her mind’s eye offering a visual form she felt compelled to paint. Then once satisfied with her painting she added her text to complete the panel.
Looking at this work over the distance of 400 years some context can be provided by scholarly research, but even having read the details and multiple ideas in Meakin’s ‘The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury’ and also appreciating her historical imagination to help the reader gain insight, we are still left with many, many questions. I agree with Meakin when, towards the end of her account, she suggests of Lady Drury she had ‘a mind and heart not yet at peace with the path her life has taken’. I would further submit that the panels collectively display a talented, thoughtful and creative woman who, like so many similar women across history, have had to live lesser lives in the shadows and at the margins of the world of men.
Please note As you have probably realised I have only skimmed the surface in this post and for those seeking far more detailed and informed interpretations I strongly recommend tracking down a copy of the excellent ‘The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury’ by Heather Meakin, 2013 ISBN 978-0-7546-6397-3