Painting the Tudor Middle Classes: Tarnya Cooper on ‘Citizen Portrait’

In Citizen Portrait Tarnya Cooper examines the patronage and production of Tudor and Jacobean-era portraiture, focusing on how the middle class adopted and found new uses for this classic art form. In this exclusive author article, Cooper discusses her inspiration for writing the book, and what it tells us about class and social mobility in sixteenth century England.

Article by Tarnya Cooper

Of the around two million visitors who came to the National Portrait Gallery last year, many would visit the Tudor Gallery. Here they would see an array of famous portraits of kings, queens, princes, and noble courtiers wearing resplendent costume of embroidered silk, velvet, satin and cloth of gold. These well-known sitters from Henry VIII, Mary I, Elizabeth I to men like the courtier Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester present imperious air which commands authority. As the art historian and the curator responsible for hanging these galleries, it is perhaps strange I have spent the last five years working on a book about the portraits of the Tudor middle classes, or ‘middling sort’ as they were sometimes called at the time. However, it is the stories of the less well-known men and women from the past that often provide the most telling insights into what it was like to live in the Tudor period. The sitters of the portraits in this book have different stories to tell. They often, for example, present themselves in ways that reveal their own frailties, uncertainties about their social status, or most importantly their pride in distinct identities as for example, merchants, lawyers, physicians or scholars.

Over the years, I have received many letters from both scholars and members of the public attempting gain my approval that specific surviving portraits must represent this or that famous Elizabethan. Of course, it is understandable that owners would like to know if their portrait represents a figure that looms large in the history books, while historians working on the biographies are also keen to come face-to-face with their particular hero. I haven’t always been able to satisfy them and the truth is that a large number of portraits from this period have been wrongly identified as famous men and women with colourful stories such as Mary Queen of Scots, Francis Drake, William Shakespeare or the solider and traitor Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Some of the identities of these portraits remain lost, but many others are known and represent wealthy embroiderers such as William Brodrick (dated 1614) or important London merchants and their wives such as Clement Newce (dated 1545), William Cockayne (dated 1592), and Katheyrn of Berain, (dated 1569) or the poets John Donne (c.1595) or Michael Drayton (dated 1599).

There is perhaps a lack of understanding about who commissioned portraits and also the reasonably low cost, relative to other decorative artefacts, of producing one. In a way, these responses are also part of the same misunderstanding about social class in the sixteenth century that has fuelled anxiety about the authorship of the plays by William Shakespeare. Some scholars and supporters of alternative candidates for the authorship of the plays have argued that William Shakespeare from Stratford could not have written the plays – that remain one of the most dazzling achievements of English literature – because of his lack of a university education or social advantages. What this book shows is that there were other men (and occasionally women) of wit, talent, energy and passion without social advantages (and sometimes limited education), who managed to create a place for themselves in society and succeed within the circumstances they found themselves.

Thus one of the big challenges for this book has been determining the identity of sitters in portraits, as many are little known. The specific identities of many Tudor portraits have often been lost over time, and this is particularly true of the middle classes. After all, we rarely write our own names on photographs of ourselves we put on display today; we know who we are, and what we look like. With old family photographs we might begin to do this as generations pass on and memories fade, perhaps identifying great aunts, grandparents, cousins and uncles. Inevitably looking back at photographs over long periods there will be people families can’t identity. Similarly, many identifying inscriptions placed on portraits are applied several generations, if not centuries later. And of course some are inaccurate.

The mania for labelling and categorising seems to be particularly strong in the eighteenth century when later ancestors who owned rows and rows of portraits wanted to know who was who. Piecing identities back together from a distance of over 400 years is always challenging. Many of the people in this book do not feature in the Dictionary of National Biography or other standard biographic sources and detailed research into surviving wills, inventories and parish records has been needed. The provenance of the pictures, the costume of the sitters and the survival of other comparative portraits are also hugely helpful in dating and identifying portraits. Also useful is the fact that many portraits also include original Latin inscriptions stating the date and age of the sitter, which can sometimes help identify the person depicted where their birth dates are known.

Citizen Portrait

Citizen Portrait by Tarnya Cooper

What has also been interesting in researching this book is just how many important early British paintings still survive in little known private and institutional collections and it has been a huge pleasure and a privilege to visit many such collections as part of my research. Along the way many people has been hugely helpful, but there are also memorable moments of being left alone with two giant wolf hounds as I climbed a tall ladder to see one picture high up on the walls of a private castle, unsure of whether to come down. Or pre satnav days, of getting hopelessly lost driving all over the English countryside when visiting private houses, and these moments will stay with me. But I am delighted that so many little known and unpublished paintings can now be illustrated in this book which I hope will stimulate further interest and research into an aspect of Tudor and Jacobean visual culture we knew less about.

Tarnya Cooper is chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales is available now from Yale University Press.

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1 Comment

  • April 10, 2013


    굳이 건건이 반응할 필요없다 고소영처럼 숨어있다 꼭 필요할때만 언급하는 정도 좋더라 16:10|

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