Portraits of maternal bliss, Tate Gallery.

22 October 2012

The Cholmondeley Ladies, unknown artist, Tate Gallery. Photo: my own.

When I recently went to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Gallery, I made sure that I had a good wander around the now seemingly sadly depleted ‘Historical Gallery’ as well. I’m sure there used to be loads more paintings in that bit but there were still enough out to remind me why the Tate used to be my favourite London gallery when I was growing up.

Detail from The Cholmondeley Ladies. Photo: my own.

I think my favourite painting in the Tate has to be this superb early seventeenth century double portrait known simply as ‘The Cholmondeley Ladies’. I know plenty of people struggle with the more arcane rules of British surname pronunciation so I’ll just gently remind those of you who may be scratching your heads over this one that ‘Cholmondeley’ is pronounced ‘Chumley’. Yes, yes, I know YOU know that but some of you might not.

One of the Cholmondeley ladies. Photo: my own.

No one knows who painted this piece which depicts two rather magnificently dressed young women holding babies dressed in crimson christening robes but it is thought to date from around 1600-1610. The identity of the sitters isn’t known for certain either with the only real clue being the inscription in the corner which helpfully says: ‘Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family, Who were born the same day, Married the same day, And brought to Bed the same day.‘ It’s assumed that the two ladies are therefore twins (but clearly not identical ones) but it’s always possible that their shared birthday was a coincidence.

The other Cholmondeley Lady. Photo: my own.

The earliest known providence of the work dates back to the early seventeenth century when it was in the possession of Sir Hugh Cholmondeley and his wife, Mary. It’s been suggested that it therefore depicts their daughters, Lettice (later Lady Grosvenor) and Mary (later Mistress Calverley). We know that Lettice was born in 1585 but it’s not known when Mary was born, which would perhaps solve the mystery.

Detail from The Cholmondeley Ladies. Photo: my own.

This painting is considered somewhat unusual even for its period, when portraiture did often stray into the frankly bizarre as the stiff bed sharing pose of the two ladies isn’t commonly found anywhere other than in tomb sculpture. However, I think that if they had also died on the same day, the inscription would have said so therefore it must be assumed that the painting is in commemoration of their having given birth at the same time, which was probably considered quite a notable event. After all, I’ve seen plenty of magazine articles in my time along the same lines so why not record it for posterity with a lovely portrait?

Portrait of an Unknown Lady, Marcus Gheeraerts II, Tate Gallery. Photo: my own.

Very close to The Cholmondeley Ladies is another unusual maternal portrait, this time a probable Marcus Gheeraerts II painting of an unknown pregnant lady, which has been dated to around 1595. I love this portrait too because of her friendly direct gaze and proud smile as well as the elaborate richness of her superb pearl studded outfit. This portrait is considered unusual for its period precisely because of that smile as most high born sitters of this era preferred to be depicted stiffly unsmiling and looking rather stern and haughty so as to emphasise both their dignity and exalted position. Not so this mysterious lady who is clearly blooming with late pregnancy and thoroughly delighted about the fact.

Detail from Portrait of an Unknown Lady. Photo: my own.

The fact that the unknown lady opted to be painted in late pregnancy is also rather unusual (although not so much for the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when having oneself painted in pregnancy seems to have enjoyed a minor vogue amongst the flamboyant ladies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court) – commissioning a portrait has generally always been an expensive business and women have usually chosen not to have themselves painted while pregnant either because they felt it made them look unattractive (I can relate to that as I hated having my photograph taken when pregnant) or because it was considered rather indelicate if not a trifle shocking to have oneself recorded for posterity while great with child. I’m glad that the lady in this portrait clearly ignored all of this though as it is a superb work of art.

Detail from Portrait of an Unknown Lady. Photo: my own.

Again, we don’t know the identity of the lady in this painting but it’s clear from her sumptuous outfit that she was someone of very high rank indeed. Of course, the pearls give rather mixed messages as on one hand they are held to represent sorrow and tears but on the other, as is likely here, they denote love, marriage, purity, fertility and birth.

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