Whose ermine? The Tate’s Lady in Red by Marcus Gheeraerts

A couple of posts ago I was looking at heraldic motifs in the costume of portrait sitters c.1600. Tate Britain’s 1592 portrait of a lady, probably Mary Rogers Lady Harington includes a string of pearls in the form of a Harington knot, and a black and white dress echoing the Harington arms. It confirmed my feeling that heraldic elements in a sitter’s costume must invariably refer to their family arms, rather than being random decoration chosen simply because they liked the look of it.

The other Tate portrait that I mentioned, the portrait of a lady in red 1620, is one of two portraits by Gheeraerts in the collection that show the sitter pregnant. Pregnancy portraits became fashionable around 1600. Childbirth was risky; this might be the last time a pregnant woman could have her portrait painted for her husband and children. In the same spirit, a pregnant woman might write diaries and letters for their children to read in later life, in case she didn’t survive their birth (Karen Hearn Marcus Gheeraerts II Elizabethan Artist Tate 2002 pp.41 – 51).

This portrait belonged to the Dukes of Norfolk, who inherited it from Gwendoline Constable-Maxwell Lady Herries (1877 – 1945) who married her cousin Henry 15th Duke of Norfolk (1877 – 1917) in 1904. The portrait was acquired by Tate Britain in 1982, along with the tradition that it represented a member of the Constable family. The date and the fact that the sitter’s headdress has a pendant apparently in the form of a letter R have suggested an identification as Anne Roper, daughter of Sir William Roper and wife of Sir Philip Constable Bt. Lady Constable had several children between 1618 and 1630 which would fit the date of the portrait and its subject as a pregnancy portrait.

Portrait of a Woman in Red 1620 by Marcus Gheeraerts II 1561 or 2-1636

(c) Tate Britain

If you look closely at the portrait, best viewed here on the Tate Britain site, you can see that the lace collar and cuffs are figured with little spots of heraldic ermine. This is a very specific motif, and I wondered whether it referred to the sitter’s arms.


(c) Armorica ABC

Neither the Constables nor the Ropers have ermine in their coat of arms, but some of their in-laws do. The Walmsleys of Lancashire have gules a chief ermine between two hurts a trefoil slipped vert. This means a red shield with a broad ermine zone at the top, with a stemmed clover leaf on it between two blue-berries. The arms are shown here (without the clover-leaf) in the Walmsley Arms pub sign. I like heraldic pub signs, and I’m sad that they are dying out. They are one of the last echoes of the old use of heraldry, and its purpose of showing you who owned what in the area, embodying something of their power and presence.


(c) Thwaites Brewers The Walmsley Arms, Rishton near Blackburn.

Elizabeth Walmsley married Sir Richard Sherburne of Stonyhurst (1586 – 1667) as his second wife; their children were Richard (1626 – 1689), Elizabeth and Anne. Elizabeth’s daughter Anne married Sir Marmaduke Constable 2nd Bt (1619 – 1680).

It seems possible, then, that the sitter’s dress could allude to the red and ermine of the Walmsley arms, in which case she might be either Elizabeth Walmsley, or another lady of the Walmsley family. I can’t make out the pendant to the Tate sitter’s headdress well enough in the illustrations but it would be interesting to see in the flesh whether it might be read other than as an R.

The embroidery on her dress is particularly suitable for a pregnancy portrait. The birds on her sleeves with tufted crests on their heads look like lapwings. Lapwings had various associations at this date; they were known to be brave mothers leading predators away from the nest to protect their chicks, and it was believed that the chicks themselves were so eager to be hatched that they would burst from the egg and run around still wearing the shell. A good omen for a birth.

When Hamlet and Horatio are making fun of Osric trying to act the witty courtier (Hamlet V ii), Horatio suggests that Osric has only just hatched, saying: ‘This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head.’

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