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September 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1446

Painted Love: Renaissance Marriage Portraits

Reviewed by Karen Hearn

Holburne Museum, Bath, 26th May–1st October

So few British regional museums are currently holding exhibitions of art that was made prior to the twentieth century that this thoughtful and visually rich one-room show is especially welcome. Between 1400 and 1600 interest in portraiture exploded throughout western Europe. Painted portraits often played a role in marriage negotiations and celebrations among the elites. This exhibition considers the various related roles and purposes of portraiture, especially among ruling and noble families. Marriage alliances were, of course, central to the politics of the period. 

Curated by Lucy Whitaker, a former Senior Curator of Paintings in the Royal Collection, the exhibition comprises fifty-two objects – mainly painted easel portraits, but also portrait miniatures and portrait medals, pieces of jewellery chosen to match examples depicted in the portraits, and maiolica and metalware related to marriage celebrations. It encourages slow and detailed looking. Although English painted portraits from the Tudor period predominate, likenesses from Italy, Flanders, France, Scotland and the Holy Roman Empire are also included. In Italian art the challenge was to balance the representation of ideal beauty with the reality of a likeness, whereas northern European images were more explicitly crafted to convey a sense of naturalism. In a single space, painted a distinctive strong green intended to represent the idea of fertility, the works are divided into themed sections titled Royal Marriages and International Alliances; Italian Renaissance Marriage and Portraiture; English Marriage Portraits; Portraiture in the Holy Roman Empire; Holbein’s Drawing Technique; and Constancy and Death. 

The idea for the exhibition arose from the loan to the Holburne Museum of a group of paintings from the collection assembled by the bankers Baron John Henry Schroder (1825–1910), his nephew Bruno Schroder (1867–1940) and Bruno’s wife, Emma (1870–1944), as part of the Schroder heirs’ project to make significant loans to public museums in Britain.[1] Other lenders include the Royal Collection, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and the Courtauld Gallery, as well as the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and a number of English private collections. Disappointingly, funding did not run to producing a catalogue or accompanying book. Thus, the clearly written wall-texts and labels, which eschew present-day political and societal preoccupations, must do extra work to articulate the curatorial choices. The international currency of recurring symbols is clear – flowers held in the hand, especially pinks or carnations (Fig.5), represent betrothal or marriage; rings and other jewellery might allude to love; and various head-coverings signal that a woman was married. 

On entering, the viewer is faced with Hans Burgkmair the Elder’s double portrait (Fig.6) of the thirty- nine-year-old banker Jacob Fugger (1459–1525) and his eighteen-year-old bride, Sybilla Artzt (c.1480–1546). In this uncompromising work, Jacob awkwardly grasps the arm of the luxuriously dressed and bejewelled Sybilla, and the glacial couple, who were among the wealthiest people of their age, appear self-absorbed and distant. The words written on the frame, which identify the date of their union as 19th January 1498, remind us how important are original inscriptions written on, or within, early portraits for conveying key information. The exhibition mingles familiar portraits with lesser-known ones. Although the identities of the subjects, such as the Fuggers, are generally known (through such means as inscriptions, heraldic elements, provenance or authoritative tradition), which enables a context and narrative to be established, the six painted portraits whose sitters’ names are now lost are among the most evocative; they include an exquisite profile portrait by Alesso Baldovinetti (Fig.7) of an unknown lady with a distinctive nose, who wears the presumed heraldic emblems of her husband’s family – palm leaves and gold feathers – embroidered on her sleeve. 

Some of the portraits here had, or may have had, companion images – and paired portraits do also feature. Clearly composed to be displayed side by side, Hans Eworth’s sumptuous matching three-quarter-length portrayals of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, and his second wife, Margaret Audley, both dated 1562, have been in separate collections for more than 150 years (Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, and English Heritage), although this spectacular pair have, in fact, appeared together in a number of recent exhibitions, including Tudor Mystery: A Master Painter Revealed at Compton Verney, Warwickshire (4th February–8th May). Poignantly, Margaret was one of Thomas’s three wives, all of whom were to die following childbirth. Indeed, as the begetting of children was such a key aim of early modern marriage, the inclusion of a sixteenth- century ‘pregnancy portrait’, such as Hans Eworth’s Mildred Cooke Cecil, later Lady Burghley (c.1563; Hatfield House, Hertfordshire) or Marcus Gheeraerts II’s Unknown lady (c.1595; Tate), might have added yet a further dimension to this richly layered show.[2] 

Also by Eworth are two companion portraits of 1566, generally identified as of Joan Thornbury (d.1598) and her husband Richard Wakeman (d.1597). This pair, again apart for well over a century, are now in two different British private collections. Their reunion here in Bath is special because, until it reappeared at Sotheby’s, London, on 10th December 2021, the whereabouts of the female portrait had been unknown for decades.[3] Recent research has suggested that the Wakemans may not have been sufficiently socially elevated to be thus depicted, but the Holburne has retained the traditional names for the labels, because ‘the couple’s identity rests on a possible continuous provenance from the sitters to the late nineteenth century’.[4] Discreetly but richly dressed, they are displayed here together for the first time in more than fifty years. The dialogue between their matched inscriptions turns the female portrait (which is signed in monogram ‘HE’ on the upper right) into a vanitas meditation, of the kind often found on funerary monuments of the same period. It is indeed a jolt for a present- day viewer to read the following words associated with a 36-year-old woman: ‘MY CHYLDODDE PAST THAT BEWTIFIID MY FLESSHE / AND GONNE MY YOVTH THAT GAVE ME COLOR FRESSHE / Y AM NOW CVM TO THOS RYPE YERIS AT LAST / THAT TELLES ME HOWE MY WANTON DAYS BE PAST / AND THERFORE FRINDE SO TVRNES THE TYME ME / Y ONS WAS YOVNG AND NOWE AM AS YOV SEE / AETATIS XXXVI / M.D.LXVI.’ This text appears to respond to the inscription on her husband’s portrait: ‘WHY VANTIST THOWE THY CHANGYNG FACE / OR HAST OF HYT SVCHE STORE / TO FORM A NEWE OR NŌNE THOWE HAST OR NOT LYK / AS BEFORE AETATIS XLIIII / M.D.LXVI’.[5] 

Other powerful personal narratives appear. Behind Corneille de Lyon’s small portrait (private collection) of the sickly Madeleine of France (1520–37), the third daughter of François I and for a few months Queen Consort of Scotland lies a politically appropriate but genuine love match – at least on the part of her Scottish husband, James V. Although engaged to another woman, James became infatuated with the fragile sixteen-year-old princess, and in Paris the couple were married in Notre Dame on 1st January 1537. They reached Scotland on 19th May, where Madeleine was to die ‘in her husband’s arms’, as the label states, seven weeks later. A portrait drawing from life by Hans Holbein the Younger of an unknown woman (c.1532–35; British Museum, London), once thought to represent Anne Boleyn, is a reminder that one of his roles was to take likenesses of potential brides for Henry VIII after the death of Jane Seymour in 1537. The German goldsmith and engraver Israhel van Meckenem’s image of himself with his wife, Ida (c.1490; British Museum) – according to the wall label ‘the earliest known self-portrait and double portrait in print’ – is the sole engraving in the show. The closeness of the heads of this weary-looking older couple suggests the closeness of their relationship. 

The exhibition cannot, of course, fulfil the impossible task of establishing whether the individuals or couples depicted did enjoy the experience of love in the twenty-first-century sense, or the extent to which their lived reality may have contradicted these painted statements of rank, wealth, familial connections and social conformity. But in assembling works that are principally about relationships, the exhibition certainly encourages visitors to look slowly and deeply at these constructions of long-deceased fellow human beings. 


[1] See also A. Aymonino, S. Davoli and L. Macnaughton, eds: exh. cat. Treasures from Faraway: Medieval and Renaissance Objects from The Schroder Collection, Twickenham (Strawberry Hill House and Garden) 2023, reviewed by Kirstin Kennedy in this Magazine, 165 (2023), pp.641–43. 

[2] See K. Hearn: Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media, London 2020, pp.33, 36–39 and 41–42; the exhibition was reviewed by Maria Cruz de Carlos Varona in this Magazine, 162 (2020), pp.336–38. 

[3] See Sotheby’s, Old Masters Evening Sale, Lot 7, available at auction/2020/old-master-paintings-evening- sale/portrait-of-joan-thornbury-mrs-richard- wakeman, accessed 7th August 2023. 

[4] The female portrait was first mentioned in print as ‘Joan Thornbury, wife of Richard Wakeman, of Beckford’ in 1914, see R.W. Goulding: ‘Notes on additional HE portraits’, Walpole Society 3 (1914), p.118. 

[5] For a thoughtful account of these portraits, see E. Honig: ‘In memory: Lady Dacre and pairing by Hans Eworth’, in L. Gent and N. Llewellyn, eds: Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture, c.1540– 1660, London 1990, pp.60–85, esp. pp.71–78.