Friday, June 21, 2013

Elizabethan Portraits at the Yale Center for British Art

This past Sunday my mother and I took a trip to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven Connecticut. I was aware of a specific portrait of Queen Elizabeth that is in the Elizabethan Club at Yale, but it was unclear whether that facility was open to the public.

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth in a green dress, c.1585. The Elizabethan Club of Yale. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.


As it turns out, the Elizabethan Club is not open to the public, but the trip was far from a disappointment; after all, I was going to see a museum filled entirely with British Art. Amongst the paintings by Hogarth, Stubbs, and other notable English artists, the Yale Center for British Art holds an impressive collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits, the Paul Mellon collection. The Paul Mellon collection includes several significant Elizabethan portraits that I have drooled over for years and years in books and online, but I until my visit I never knew that they were located only a few hours away from where I live! 

It should come as no surprise that I spent a lot of time in the Elizabethan portrait room, relishing the fact that I was surrounded on all sides by so many familiar faces. I am sharing my photos and facts that I discovered during my visit, as the museum kindly permitted photography without flash.

The first wall that I beheld in the Elizabethan and Jacobean portrait exhibit included one of the two existent versions of the Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII, and a portrait of a pregnant lady, thought to be Katherine Carey-Knollys, aged 38. Katherine was the first cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, (Katherine's mother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Queen Anne Boleyn) and there is some evidence that Katherine may have been Elizabeth I's illegitimate half-sister. In any case, Queen Elizabeth I and Lady Knollys were extremely close; you can learn more about their friendship in my article, "Death Could Not Separate Them: How Elizabeth I Connected to Her Deceased Mother" under the section Elizabeth and her Carey cousins.

One of the impressive displays of Elizabethan and early Jacobean portraiture at the Yale Center for British Art. Photo taken by the author, Ashlie R. Jensen.


The portrait that took my breath away was the Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII. This version is by an unknown artist after Lucas de Heere from about 1590. I appreciate allegory and symbolism, and Elizabethan portraiture never disappoints in either category. Henry VIII, enthroned, hands the sword of justice to his son, Edward VI. To his right stands his daughter, Mary I and her husband, Philip II of Spain. Mary and Philip are accompanied by Mars, the God of War. To Henry VIII's left stands Queen Elizabeth I in all her glory, accompanied by the personified forms of Peace and Plenty. Peace steps on a shield, thus vanquishing the violent past of Mary I (and Henry VIII's) reigns. Since the exhibit allowed me to get up close and personal with the paintings, I was delighted to discover that a figure of a man looking suspiciously like Will Sommers, Henry VIII's fool, is peering through the window at the royal family. Will Sommers is humorously included in many Tudor family portraits; I like to think of him as the "where's Waldo?" of the 16th century!
The author stairs up gazes upon a portrait of a pregnant lady, thought to be Katherine Carey-Knollys. Seeing this portrait in person was almost as exciting as seeing the Allegory of the Tudor Succession. Photo by L.Jensen.

During my visit, I learned that the attribution of a sitter in a famous portrait has changed; this is common in the study of 16th century art. The Portrait of a Woman, Aged Sixteen, Previously Identified as Mary Fitzalan Duchess of Norfolk is now thought to be an unidentified Maid of Honor of Queen Elizabeth. The museum finds that this portrait by Hans Eworth cannot be of Mary Fitzalan, Duchess of Norfolk,  (1539/40-1557) the first wife of Thomas Howard, the 4rth Duke of Norfolk, who died in labor at the age of 17, unless it was a posthumous likeness. The jewellery, particularly the ornate "pearl girdle set full", suggests the court dress of a Maid of Honor to the Queen.

Portrait of a Woman, Aged Sixteen, Previously Identified as Mary Fitzalan Duchess of Norfolk. Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen.
Another portrait, this one of a woman with haunting eyes, now has a "new" identity. While I had previously read that this portrait was of Dorothy Bray, Baroness Chandos, (you can read about the scandal Dorothy's husband, William Knollys caused at court in our article on Mary Fitton) the museum identifies this portrait of a woman, painted by John Bettes the Younger in about 1579 as Frances, Lady Chandos. Frances Clinton was the fifth daughter of  Edward Clinton, 1st Earl of Lincoln and the wife of Giles Brydges, 3rd Baron Chandos of Sudeley Castle; Queen Elizabeth I visited Lord and Lady Chandos twice, once in 1576, (two years before this portrait was probably painted) and again in 1592.
Frances, Lady Chandos. By John Bettes the Younger. Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen.
 
Photo of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits, Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen.


More Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits, including a portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen.

One of my favorite portraits of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was on display, and I have to say that Elizabeth's "Sweet Robin" looks even more handsome in person! The portrait, by Steven van der Meulen, was painted sometime in the 1560's. In the portrait, Leicester wears the chain for the Order of the Garter around his neck, with the badge known as "the lesser George". Affixing a feather to his hat is a jewel that represents the ancient Roman legend of the Devotion of Mettus Curtius, who was a paragon of chivalry and self-sacrifice. 

The author gazes longingly at her "Sweet Robin". Photo by L.Jensen.

A portrait of an older gentleman named Sir Percival Hart (1496-1560) caught my eye; Sir Percival was Chief Severer and Knight Harbinger under Henry VIII as well as Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Few people remained in consistent royal favor during the successive regimes of these vastly different Tudor monarchs, so Sir Percival was probably not one to rock the boat politically. In his position, Sir Percival acted as the taster of the monarch's food (lucky him!). In the portrait, he holds in his right hand the staff of his office, the hilt of which contained a watch said to have been presented to King Henry VIII by King Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Sir Percival Hart, circa 1555-60. By an unknown artist. Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen.

A rather impsoing portrait of a woman by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger stood out, thought to be Mary, Lady Scudamore from 1601. Mary, Lady Scudamore was a member of Queen Elizabeth's privy chamber, and was not-so-flatteringly described as "a barbarous, brazen-faced woman". The portrait was previously misidentified, and the Center for British Art sought to clear up its previous attributions. The portrait cannot have been of Ursula Pakington (d.1558), the wife of William Scudamore of Holm Lacy, Herefordshire, nor can it have been the first wife of their son, the courtier John Scudamore, Eleanor Croft (d.1569). But, it could be Sir John's second wife, Mary, the daughter of Sir John Shelton of Norfolk; the Scudamore's married in 1574. Interestingly, the arrow-head pendant worn by the lady in the painting is an emblem of the Sidney family, not the Scudamores or Sheltons. 

Portrait of a Woman, Probably Mary, Lady Scudamore. By Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1601. Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen.

I will no doubt be returning to the Yale Center for British Art when they have finished their renovations and the rest of their collection is back on display. The museum, which is free, also includes an archive that visitors may use by appointment and a charming British-themed gift store with products from England and complimentary cuisine native to the U.K.- I snacked on Guinness bread and drank birch beer while I shopped! I highly recommend my readers visit.

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