Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset (detail), attributed to William Larkin, c.1612–15.© National Portrait Gallery, London
Exhibition preview: On the Nature of Women: Tudor and Jacobean Portraits of Women, 1535-1620 at Montacute House, near Yeovil, until March 2010.
One married four times, another was a wealthy heiress, and one was caught up in a famous scandal.
The Tudor and Jacobean women featured in a new portrait exhibition at Montacute House, Somerset, were no ordinary women.
Their interesting biographies have been researched by MA History of Art students, who have curated the display in a special collaboration between the University of Bristol, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the National Trust.
Ten portraits dating from the 16th and 17th centuries are on show, all of them having recently undergone cleaning work in the conservation studio of the NPG, London. Some have never been shown before.
On some of the canvases, later additions to the paintings were removed and they were restored to their original appearance. This turned up a few new discoveries, including a painting of a man beneath a portrait of Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton - possibly an abandoned portrait of her husband.
The student curators worked with the NPG’s Heinz Archive to glean details of the life stories of the sitters, taking into consideration the debate that took place at the time over the female nature; male writers of the time tended to characterise them as either manipulative, shrewish and prone to vice, or the contrary, faithful, modest and prudent.
Postgraduates from the University of Bristol, looking at ‘Unknown woman, formerly known as Mary, Queen of Scots’, by an unknown artist, c.1560. © University of Bristol
These personas are explored in the display, which features both dutiful wives and mothers as well as those tainted by scandal and intrigue. The works were often painted to mark significant events such as weddings, deaths or births that created or continued dynasties.
The four-times married subject was Bess of Hardwick, who built the formidable Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, was also well-documented, having been implicated in a famous murder case during the reign of James I (she and her husband, the Earl of Somerset, were convicted of poisoning a nay-sayer of their marriage).
Another aristocrat, Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford, inherited her wealth and became patron of poet John Donne and playwright Ben Jonson, both of whom wrote about her.
Other portraits were more difficult to interpret, featuring unknown sitters. However, the novice curators looked for what clues they could find, and debunked the theory that one of the panels depicted Mary Queen of Scots.
Montacute House hosts the only regional branch of the National Portrait Gallery, with more than 60 of its earliest works on display. The grand Elizabethan mansion offers an appropriate setting for portraits on permanent display that include Henry VIII, Catherine Parr and Elizabeth I.
This is an exhibition preview. If you’ve been to see the show, why not let us know what you think?