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.
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
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.