Identity and attribution. Recognising a lady from her jewellery.

English School 1607 Portrait of a Lady aged 19 (?Lady Mary Wroth 1587 - 1651/3)

English School 1607 Portrait of a Lady aged 19 (?Lady Mary Wroth 1587 – 1651/3)

At the moment I am hoping to establish that this portrait is a painting of Lady Mary Sidney Lady Wroth, who published The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania in 1621, the first novel in English by a female writer. So far all I have to go on is the sitter’s age – aetatis suae 19… anno 1607  meaning 19 years of age in the year 1607 – and the fact that she appears to be an exact match in likeness with two portraits identified as Lady Mary in the collection of the Viscount De L’Isle. I have been to see them at Penshurst Place, Lady Mary’s birthplace, and I am looking at them now in Margaret Hannay’s superb biography Mary Sidney Lady Wroth (Ashgate 2010). Professor Hannay uses one of them, a double portrait with Lady Mary’s mother the Countess of Leicester by Marcus Gheeraerts 1612 as her cover, and I hope she will not mind me advertising her superb book, available here.

Lady Mary Wroth by Marcus Gheeraerts 1612, cover of Mary Sidney Lady Wroth by Margaret P. Hannay Ashgate 2010 (c)

Lady Mary Wroth by Marcus Gheeraerts 1612, cover of Mary Sidney Lady Wroth by Margaret P. Hannay Ashgate 2010 (c)

A reversed engraving after the second portrait of Lady Mary at Penshurst, a full-length of c.1620 attributed to John de Critz is illustrated on Lady Mary’s wikipedia entry.

Likeness and age, of course, are not enough to fix a portrait’s identity, so I need to find out where our painting has been in the last 400 years, and whether its provenance connects with Lady Mary, or anyone else who is likely to have owned her portrait. Just to see what other portraits have been identified as Lady Mary I also tried a google search. I was interested to see this example here on Jennifer Wong’s pinterest page of a Talbot family portrait at Ingestre.

Attributed here to Robert Peake the elder (?1551 - 1619) Portrait of Lady Alathea Talbot Countess of Arundel (c) Ingestre Hall Residential Arts Centre; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Close to Robert Peake the elder (?1551 – 1619) Portrait of Lady Alatheia Talbot Countess of Arundel (c) Ingestre Hall Residential Arts Centre; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

If you blow the image up you can see that above the much later inscription identifying the sitter as Lady Alatheia Talbot there is an original inscription Aetat 32/ 1619. This means the sitter was, as Jennifer Wong says, born in 1587, the same year as Lady Mary Wroth. Is this, therefore another candidate for a portrait of Lady Mary Wroth?

Lady Alatheia’s date of birth is not given in the Dictionary of National Biography – simply her date of death, 1654 – and the face in the 1619 Ingestre portrait looks unlike the more famous portrait of the Countess of Arundel, painted by Sir Peter Paul Rubens the following year.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Lady Alatheia Talbot Countess of Arundel (1587 - 1654) 1620 Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya - Barcelona, Catalonia Spain

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Lady Alatheia Talbot Countess of Arundel (1587 – 1654) 1620 Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya – Barcelona, Catalonia Spain

You might not even say they were the same sitter, if it wasn’t for the pendant of IHS, the name of Christ, that the devout Lady Arundel is wearing in both portraits. And on closer comparison they are both portraits of the same sitter, Alatheia Talbot Countess of Arundel. The two portraits are a good illustration of how two painters can view the same sitter completely differently. But who painted the 1619 portrait? It is catalogued as ‘English School’ but stylistically it is very close to Robert Peake the elder who died in 1619. The date/age inscription is similar to the calligraphy that Sir Roy Strong identified in portraits by Peake (Burlington Magazine February 1963 ‘Elizabethan Painting an approach through inscriptions – 1. Robert Peake the elder ‘pp.53 – 57), but it is not identical. For the moment this late flowering of English Elizabethan style must stay as ‘Close to Robert Peake’ and I must be content with learning the Countess of Arundel’s date of birth.

The Talbot sisters are connected with Lady Mary Wroth through the Herbert family, and specifically through William Herbert 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Lady Mary Wroth’s love for William Herbert and his marriage to another – Lady Mary Talbot, Alatheia’s sister – were the driving force in her life and art. She had an affair with Pembroke over many years, and two illegitimate children by him. The Herberts were relatives of both families, and though the Sidneys were not connected by blood to the Talbots they grew up together almost as cousins, and their portraits reveal a curious likeness. This portrait called Lady Mary Talbot c.1620 by Cornelius Jonson – viewable on Angela Mombers’s fashion history – is interesting. The jewel that she is wearing at her breast is like the jewel that the sitter in our portrait is wearing in her hair. Lord Pembroke’s wife and his lover have very similar looks – you could say that he had a ‘type’. Might their portraits have become confused over time? What is Lady Mary Talbot’s date of birth? Clearly the next stage is to find out where the Cornelius Jonson portrait is, and to look into the iconography of Lady Mary Talbot Countess of Pembroke.

Cornelius Jonson, Lady Mary Talbot Countess of Pembroke. ?Private Collection

Cornelius Jonson, Lady Mary Talbot Countess of Pembroke d.c.1649 ?Private Collection

2 thoughts on “Identity and attribution. Recognising a lady from her jewellery.

  1. That is very interesting indeed. I’m inclined to agree with you, and I take the point of the Mytens. A Jacobethan and a Flemish Realist might see things very differently, but Mytens shows Countess of Arundel as she was in 1618, ‘the chief lady of the Court and Kingdom’ [Venetian Ambassador in the DNB] and the Ingestre painting doesn’t quite have this aura.

    The question of date is also important. The Ingestre inscription looks original – and I think we can agree that it is a British portrait – so this is a lady painted in this country, born in 1587. Lady Arundel’s year of birth is given as ‘after 1582’ [DNB], or variously elsewhere as c.1585. I will ask at Arundel if there is a more definite date.

    When I went to the NPG I saw that the Johnson was sold at Christie’s in 1993 as ‘Portrait of a lady called…’ and is filed as such in the Archive. There is in fact no accepted portrait of Lady Mary Talbot on file. I must see if there is a portrait at Wilton. Nor is there any agreement on her age; her birth-year is given as anything from 1580 to c.1594.

    One key question about the Ingestre portrait is when and how it joined the collection there.

    You are right when you say that IHS jewels are not unique but that they are rare. Other than the Ingestre sitter the only other ladies I can think of the top of my head of wearing them in English portraiture are Queen Jane Seymour and the Countess of Arundel, both of whom display it as a religious manifesto.

    So, a lady born c.1587, a contemporary of the Talbot sisters, whose portrait is in their family collection. And almost certainly a Catholic. A Howard or Dacre relative? Lady Mary Talbot, possibly? Or another lady in Queen Anne of Denmark’s Catholic Court circle? You have given me much to think about.

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