The conjuring power of paintings

Today I have been reading John Matthews’s insightful posts about Cornelius Johnson’s portraits of the Temple family (‘Countesses of Arundel and Pembroke’ 2013). I was interested by his comments on this Cornelius Johnson of 1619 in the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art at Yale. The portrait was sold at Christie’s in 1993 – along with the Johnson called the Countess of Pembroke that I mentioned a month ago -as a portrait of Lady Arundel. It is now correctly catalogued at Yale as ‘portrait of a lady formerly called…’ Matthews says that the conventions of the portrait are inconsistent with the portrayal of a married woman, and the Countess had been married for thirteen years by 1619. He points out that the sprig of juniper that the sitter has fixed in her collar is an emblem of chastity, and the hair worn down on her shoulders was a fashion for unmarried woman.

(c) The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art
(c) The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

He also suggests that the sitter may be a member of the Temple family of Stowe. The lady’s earring might be a martlet, a bird that appears on the Temple arms. The Tate’s Portrait of Susanna Lister nee Temple painted by Johnson in 1620 shows a martlet in the sitter’s earring. I should think that there must also be some significance to the pattern of heraldic ermine on her costume. A pedigree of Temple in ‘The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicestershire’, John Nichols, London 1811 pp 958 – 959 gives one version of the Temple arms as ‘ermine on a chevron sable three martlets or’, though the more usual version of the Temple arms is argent two bars sable each charged with three martlets or.

If this is a portrait of a lady from the Temple family it is appropriate that she has ended up at Yale, where she hangs with Johnson’s portrait of Sir Alexander Temple (1583 – 1629), Susanna Lister’s father. I hope that she is a Temple. I like the idea that family portraits might magically refind each other like this.

This reminded me of another mystical power of portraits – the ability to remake their sitter. This portrait of the famous beauty the Hon Frances Howard (1578 – 1639) by Marcus Gheeraerts at Compton Verney also appears to show the sitter as an unmarried woman with the free-falling hair, as well as the plunging cleavage that the French ambassador in the 1590s said that Englishwomen displayed until they were married.

(c) The Peter Moores Foundation Compton Verney
(c) The Peter Moores Foundation Compton Verney

The painting is usually dated to c.1600. By this time Frances Howard had been married to the rich vintner Henry Prannell in 1592  and widowed in 1599. Should it, therefore, be dated earlier in Gheeraerts’s oeuvre? Or was Frances Howard using her portrait to transform herself into a born-again virgin, as if her first marriage had simply never happened? Becoming Mrs Prannell was convenient at the time; Frances Howard was a Viscount’s daughter but she was also an orphan and Henry Prannell was rich. But as the grand-daughter of two Dukes it was not what she might have hoped for. During her marriage Frances Howard consulted the doctor and astrologer Simon Forman, who prophesied that she would ‘change her Estat 3 times’ [DNB]. Dr Forman later encouraged her as a young and beautiful widow, inundated with marriage proposals, to marry the Earl of Hertford. This marriage brought instant respectability, but it also had its faults; Lord Hertford was forty years older than her and not always a kind husband:

‘When she was Countess of Hertford, and found admirers about her, She would often discourse of her two Grand-fathers, the Dukes of Norfolk and Buckingham; recounting the time since one of her Grand-Fathers did this, the other did that. But if the Earl her husband came in presence, she would quickly desist; for when he found her in those Exaltations, to take her down, he would say, Frank, Frank, How long is it since thou wert Maried to Prannel? which would damp the Wings of her Spirit.’

A. Wilson, ‘The dutches of Richmonds legend’, The history of Great Britain: being the life and reign of King James the First (1653), 258 quoted in the DNB

Lord Hertford lived until 1621, when the widowed Lady Hertford married Ludovick Stuart Duke of Lennox (1574 – 1624), who was created Duke of Richmond in 1623. This marriage – the third change of estate which fulfilled Dr Forman’s prophecy – was at last a happy one. Her relationship with the Duke even had its moments of courtly romance, and when she was still Countess of Hertford he would visit her ‘in disguises.’ After the Duke’s death the Duchess said that she would not marry again unless it was to the King.

Frances Howard sat for further portraits, including to Gheeraerts again in 1611 (Private Collection) and to Van Dyck in 1639 (Unlocated), but none of these were as widely copied the Compton Verney portrait. It even exists in versions with the Countess’s coronet added. This could suggest that it remained an acceptable likeness of a married peeress but we do not know the exact spirit in which it was displayed. It may have been hung by her admirers as an icon of a great beauty, an exceptional likeness of an exceptional woman.

Frances Howard Countess of Hertford

(c) Philip Mould Historical Portraits

This is proof of the power of images, as Frances Howard recognised. And she was an exceptional woman. Later writers tried to portray her as a sort of Jacobean Marquise de Merteuil, a sorceress of love who had poisoned her first two husbands. This was untrue, but her life was dramatic stuff.  After her remarriage in 1601, the poet Sir George Rodney wrote her a letter in blood (not his own, but from the kitchen of the inn where he was staying as he stalked the Hertfords on their honeymoon) begging her to become his mistress, and saying that he would die if she refused him. She replied in a verse-letter including the lines:

‘No, no, I never yet could hear one prove
That there was ever any died for love.’
F. Seymour, ‘The answer of the countess of Hertford’, BL, Sloane MS 1446, fols. 32r–36in DNB
Sir George then wrote a final verse and cut his throat. But that proved a point of sorts. No wise man ever died for love. Nor, Frances Howard may have felt, would a wise woman ever live for it. Becoming Sir George Rodney’s mistress was never an option; what she gained in love she would have lost in clout. Frances Howard played her hand well, putting herself in the strongest possible position each time the music stopped. Her first marriage was beyond her control, but it left her as a rich, beautiful widow. She was well-placed for the next marriage, and able as widows could, to chose her own husband. If Gheeraerts’s portrait is evidence of it, she was also able to present herself to the world afresh and on her own terms. She chose position and security with the Earl of Hertford, gambling that her 61-year old husband would still leave her a young widow. Her third marriage to the Duke of Lennox was for love, at last, and short as it was it was happy. Frances Howard had played the marriage game carefully, patiently, prudently, always by the rules, and it had finally paid off in spades.

2 thoughts on “The conjuring power of paintings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s