Sometimes I see an old painting and immediately it strikes me that something about it is not of its time and has instead a familiar, more contemporary quality. And this was precisely the case when I looked at the painting of the Gosnall twins, Master Thomas and Master John, painted in around 1749 by Francis Cufaude (c.1700-c.1750).
The twins were born on 8th August 1745. and their family, the Gosnolds/Gosnalls, claimed descent from Edward III through their great-great-grandmother, Winifred Pole. This painting is currently hanging in the Rococo Drawing Room of Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich.
Obviously, this representation shows the twins in the appropriate dress for their age and class during the eighteenth century. However their staring, blank expression with a hint of smugness, looks modern to me. They could just as easily have turned up with the twin girls in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’. I think it’s the foreheads?
Last week I had to ring an information telephone number and when my call was connected I was informed the current waiting time was 60 minutes. Interestingly the voice didn’t say one hour, but 60 minutes. Maybe, they think you’ll mishear and be hoping it was only going to be a 16 minute wait. Eventually after 57 minutes of holding on, I spoke to a human who endeavoured to help, but when they attempted to put me through to another department the advisor inadvertently cut me off.
Momentarily I was stunned. Disbelief was rapidly followed by R A G E. My blood pressure must have rocketed into the stratosphere. I felt I needed to get out of the house as quickly as possible. Breathe some fresh air. Go for a walk. Visit somewhere soothing and peaceful.
I strolled over to Christchurch Mansion which is near to where I live and at 10.15 on an August weekday morning it was open and thankfully still quiet. Of course, I have visited the Mansion on a number of occasions since I moved to Ipswich, but as yet had never investigated the Toy Room. To my surprise, along with the usual faded dolls and well-cuddled teddy bears, there was this fascinating gem. It is a Victorian Glass Dome display called the Doll’s Toy Bazaar.
It’s difficult to understand the scale of this piece from photographs even when estimated measurements are given so I thought I’d include a sequence of photographs with ‘normal sized’ reference points.
The Doll’s Toy Bazaar is packed with miniature versions of familiar homeware. It’s relatively easy to spot candlesticks, glasses, porcelain ornaments and a few crocheted doilies.
But something I didn’t notice until I looked at my photographs was this grouping of three very tiny houses. I think you can tell how small they are by the brush behind which has a head of bristles the size of a modern toothbrush head.
Looking at the entirety of the Doll’s Toy Bazaar made me consider the nature of the person who had collected and selected and arranged this display. Her name was Henrietta Clarke and she died in 1869. I’ve not been able to find out anything else about this Victorian woman at all. There’s no indication of her marital status or age at the time of making the display nor even if she grew to adulthood.
Mind you examining her creation we might presume that she had had steady hands and a patient temperament although lurking beneath the Victorian etiquette of feminine passivity there might have been an inner core of turmoil and vexation.
In January I posted a few comments about the ‘Creating Constable‘ Exhibition currently on at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich. Along with many works by Constable himself and his Suffolk contemporaries, there are also sketches and paintings from artists influential and important to Constable during his formative years. However, something I did not mention in that post were the few 21st-century works by Suffolk artists currently working in Constable’s county such as this engaging work by local artist, Hayley Field.
Hayley Field has been painting the colours, light and landscape that can be see from her studio window by the River Deben since 2017. Below in her own words she describes her work and the process of painting colour maps.
I began making ‘colour maps’ nearly three years ago when I was working in residence in Mary Potter’s house and studio in Aldeburgh, as a response to the surrounding landscape. Once back in my own studio I began to make them of the view from the window, across the river Deben to Suffon Hoo. I gradually developed their format to become an analysis in one sitting of the colours I observed, making a vertical journey – river to sky or sky to river – including the water, mud, islands, river bank, land, trees and sky. I enjoy the complexity of understanding and describing the colours and the intense, deep focus it requires.
The pencil notes record the pigments I have mixed to make the colours, and the date. What started as documentation has become an ongoing, cumulative piece of work. I have exhibited it three times to date – each time in a different way – gridded, a section of the whole, and in a line. During lockdown I have been making colour maps from a room in my home, with a view to the river Deben, through trees and across fields.
Hayley Field, article for an exhibition at The Cut, Halesworth, Suffolk.
When you take in ‘Across the river in the trees, 2021’, as a whole you can see that it is a visual diary, a year in colours.
The subtle changes across the watercolour map impressively detail the changes of hue resulting from the varying quality and type of light associated with different weather and the different seasons.
Very much on a personal level as colour is central to my work, I find this visual record makes a fascinating piece. And, the delicate yet precise changes painted, for example, 18th June above and 26th September below, beautifully capture the essence and difference of an English summer’s day to a Suffolk day in autumn.
Last month I went to see the ‘Creating Constable’ exhibition at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich.
Born in East Bergholt, Suffolk, John Constable (1776-1837) is known as one of the most important of all British artists with many of his famous works featuring the gentle countryside of his bucolic home county, Suffolk. Constable’s landscape paintings not only showed a new way to paint, but through sharing his visual interpretation he also encouraged his audiences to view the landscape in a different way.
I think this idea of a historical and different way of perceiving reality, as well as a historical way of viewing any re-presentation of that reality by an artist of the corresponding period, is more difficult for us to imagine than we realise. We are, after all, living in a time after the Impressionists, after the Post-Impressionists and after the Modernists, indeed, we now appear to exist in a time considered so postmodern much of our realities are viewed with deep skepticism. Please just hold this in mind as you look at the next two paintings and as you read the context for their creation.
On show in this exhibition is a very special pair of paintings. In the summer of 1815 with the health of Constables’ elderly father, Golding, failing and his wife, Ann, John’s mother, having died earlier that spring, John came to visit with his father in East Bergholt. During the course of his stay he spent many hours in the fields sketching and painting. Two paintings produced at this time were ‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’ (above) and ‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’ (below).
Constable never exhibited or attempted to sell these two paintings during his lifetime. Although highly finished, these were private works, records of the landscape that was precious to him at a difficult time. I think this is a fine example of the difference between the sensibilities of the early 19th century and our ‘show all, tell all’, skeptical 21st-century existence.
Returning now to the exhibition more generally it is possible to detect that Constable believed in the necessity of being skilful at drawing. A capability in the world of art that has not always been fashionable. At the beginning of his career Constable often copied from Old master prints, to develop his technique. He continued this practice into later life, collecting prints by Dutch and Flemish artists such as this copy of Jacob Ruysdael’s ‘The Wheatfield’ (below).
Of course, the exhibition also displays some of Constable’s original drawn creations such as this pen, ink and watercolour study of East Bergholt church.
On the picture it is just possible to make out a faint set of pencil grid lines drawn in preparation for the transfer and enlarging of the church into the finished oil painting.
Naturally, there can’t be a Constable exhibition without at least one painting that includes some aspect of Willy Lott’s Cottage.
I had just taken the above photo and was about to leave the gallery when the Gallery Steward approached me and asked if I’d spotted the kingfisher flying over the water in the Mill Stream painting. I hadn’t.
I paused and looked. And looked closer, and closer and squinted and eventually he pointed it out to me. There it was a brush stroke of red and two of blue, the kingfisher.
The other week, before Omicron arrived, I popped into Christchurch Mansion to catch up on the latest ‘Creating Constable’ exhibition. The gallery is only a 15 minute walk from where I live and I always enjoy walking through the Mansion’s park on my visits, particularly at dusk.
As I said I went to see the art, but I was distracted by the fine sunset and then the Christmas Trees on display. And, as this is my last post before Christmas this year, I thought we might make a toast or two in the Servants’ Hall.
The servants’ hall was first recorded as such in the 1840s, although it was probably used in this way much earlier. The space was conveniently situated near to the kitchen, to the servants’ staircase to the attic bedrooms and to the service wing of the mansion where the work of running the house was carried out.
All the servants ate together in the hall, but it was expected that the butler and the housekeeper would retire to take wine and a dessert. These formal meals provided an opportunity for junior servants to learn how to serve by waiting on the older servants.
The furniture now on display is not typical of a usual servants’ hall, but represents the sort of pieces that might be found in a large farmhouse kitchen or country inn. I think the idea is to give the visitor an essence of Victorian life rather than historical accuracy. Also, I am not sure how many servants would have been offered a serving of the rather fancy apples à la Parisienne!
This week I visited the latest exhibition on show at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. ‘Power of Stories’ is a collaborative endeavour and melds the loan of three of the Oscar-winning costumes from the Disney/Marvel film ‘Black Panther’ with historical pieces already held by the Ipswich Museum. Together with a team of Community Curators made up of local people, the exhibition also tells the story of how and why the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) was formed during the 1970s.
It is not a new idea that human beings express their lived experiences and histories in narrative forms. Storytelling is and has been an essential part of human existence and as the anthropologists inform us it is present in one form or another in every community and culture across the world.
To begin with there was the storyteller and the story listener, but each time humankind discovered or invented a new medium for expression then a song, a cave-painting, a stone carving, a stained-glass window, a book, a photograph, a play, a film, a computer game or even an exhibition told a story.
As you enter ‘Power of Stories’ there is a large block of text written on the wall introducing the exhibition. It states:
A world of stories.
Sharing stories is something all people have in common. The more stories we know, hear and share, the wider our view of the world becomes.
Museums have historically presented a European view of history, which has excluded many voices and ways of knowing.
As Community Curators, we have woven our perspectives into this display, recognising that everyone has valuable stories to share. This is part of a developing collaboration around history, community and belonging.
The exhibition begins with a series of cabinets containing objects from the Ipswich Museum collection including puppets, metalwork sculptures, books and comics.
There couldn’t be an exhibition about stories that didn’t include comics. Naturally this exhibition includes some of the most iconic Marvel issues, including copies of editions from ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, ‘X-Men’ and ‘Iron Man’ series. And, of course with the main draw for the exhibition ‘Power of Stories’ being the three costumes designed for characters from the Marvel film, ‘Black Panther’, there’s versions of the earliest Black Panther comic book appearances.
I have not seen the film, ‘Black Panther’ but I know it was critically acclaimed and heralded for its mostly black cast especially for the lead actors’ strong performances and, notably, an all-female army.
Predictably from a film franchise based on comics that revel in the mythic superhero, Thor/Loki, Iron Man, X-Men, Spider Man amongst others, and, with only 12 percent of the superhero comics having female protagonists, it is not surprising that ‘Black Panther’ is about a king, T’Challa, and his kingdom of Wakander. Despite two of the three costumes on display being those for the female characters, Shuri and Okoye, the story is not primarily their story, but the king’s.
The film costumes for fictional characters are, no doubt, the crowd-drawing, eye-catching spectacle and next to them the real life, local story of how and why the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) came into being feels quiet in the telling.
However, there’s no doubt though that the loan of the ‘Black Panther’ costumes has offered an exciting opportunity for the wider community of Ipswich to be engaged with the presentation of the town’s heritage, identity and culture. And, this sentiment was expressed by Carole Jones of Ipswich Borough Council when she said:
“The exhibition is a thrilling collaboration between museums and Ipswich’s community. We did not want to tell people how to get the most out of Power of Stories – we wanted them to inspire each other and visitors with their stories and, hopefully, to bring new audiences to the mansion.”
Carole Jones, Ipswich Borough Council (portfolio holder for planning and museums).
The exhibition as a whole is offering a variety of stories to coax the visitor to consider how storytelling can either unite or divide peoples. However, one of these stories more in focus than the others is the predictable ‘individualistic hero’, particularly as told through the hereditary king. In the 21st century perhaps we need dramatic tales of collaborative governance and democracy as surely this is the way forward for a united and peaceful planet regardless of gender or race. We are, after all, all members of one storytelling species.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister announced further changes as part of the loosening of the lockdown in England. Amongst other cultural venues, museums and galleries will once again be able to open their doors and admit the general public from the 4th July .
I can’t help but consider when looking at this portrait of Tobias Blosse (photo from a pre Covid visit) that his expression and pose suggests he might just be thinking ‘yes, yes I have seen this all before and humans will, as usual, forget surprisingly quickly all the horror of this plague’.
On a personal level, I am not sure how I feel about going to the cinema, which necessitates sitting inside with little ventilation for two or three hours. However, walking through the galleries of my local museum or visiting Christchurch Mansion to find inspiration for my work will be much welcomed. It will be interesting to see if wearing a mask is suggested – I think it might be necessary in some of the smaller venues. Following the advice given at the final daily Downing Street Briefing, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty called for individuals to mitigate risk. They said wearing face coverings was one way to fulfil that requirement!
Earlier this morning I received an email from ‘The Wallace Collection’ announcing their reopening on 25th July and informing everybody of the ‘new normal’ procedures for visiting the Collection. Strikingly, the opening hours have been reduced to 11 am to 3 pm and you have to pre-book your visit. I am waiting to see if this version of the new normal at a busy London gallery will be replicated at local museums and galleries across the regions.
I expect with local museum’s often occupying much smaller premises there may have to be even more restrictions. The days of spontaneously popping in for a 15 minute break to look at a favourite painting, or wander randomly through a display of Roman finds to divert oneself from the present, would appear to now also belong to the past.
During the lockdown I have found books and the Internet have been useful along with strolling through the park and cemetery, but I am most definitely in need of being up close and personal with treasured objects from our past, even portraits of grumpy looking gents like Bailiff Blosse. In Tobias’s defence, I would just say that when standing in front of the canvas he does not appear quite so grumpy (apologies for the lens distortion Tobias).
As the gradual loosening of the lockdown continues and we find a new normal we will be reminded that as with much of human life, that some things are simply better experienced directly in person even if it now means more planning and less spontaneity.
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.
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.
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