I am jealous of ‘Elizabeth and Her People’ at the NPG

baby A bit of ruff: meet the middle-class Elizabethans

My article from The Times, 28 October 2013

‘A genteel confrontation is about to take place.  No one is going to shout; tea will probably be drunk; it will all be very middle class.

I’m at The National Portrait Gallery to see the the new exhibition ‘Elizabeth and Her People’ and to meet Tarnya Cooper, the gallery’s chief curator.

Now, Cooper and I have history.  We were at university together, and I can reveal that Tarnya was a bit of a swot and a better student than me.  Now I’m chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and I have to admit that ‘her’ collection is better than ‘mine’.  I’m expecting to be jealous.

And yes, I did come away horribly envious, but not the reasons I was expecting.  ‘Elizabeth and Her People’ isn’t going to be a high-gloss, in-you-face kind of exhibition, trotting out the greatest hits of the gallery’s great collection.  It’s much more subtle and intellectually ambitious than that.

It all goes back to Cooper’s student research.  She was working on minor, forgotten and overlooked portraits from the Elizabethan age, and grew increasingly fed up with finding them misidentified as nobility.

Art historians tend to assume that anyone who could afford to commission a portrait must have been an aristocrat.

As Cooper investigated her sitters, though, she found that many of them were members of what we might call a very early version of the middle class.

MoorishAmbassador_to_Elizabeth_IIn this exhibition, you’ll meet a butcher, a bishop, a cloth merchant, a spy, an artist, a publisher, a nurse, a preacher, a soldier, a physician, and the first known portrait of a business woman: a female calligrapher.  Just as surprisingly, there’s Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, the Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth I, and the impressive Richard Clough, son of a Welsh glover, who ended up as a buying agent based in Antwerp, the financial heart of Europe.

‘Elizabeth and her People’ argues that Elizabeth’s forty-year reign was the first time that an ambitious person could move out of his or her birth position in society, and make a lasting name.

Yes, Hilary Mantel has persuaded the world that Thomas Cromwell did this in Henry VIII’s reign.  But he was exceptional.  In Elizabethan England, the long period of political stability, combined with an economy bursting with opportunities to set up a business, meant that ‘counter-jumpers’, or shopkeepers-made-good, were common.  There were now grammar schools to educate the talented, and the new Protestant religion encouraged people to rely on themselves rather than on priests for guidance.  The land-owning elite still owned two-thirds of the countryside.  They still dominated Parliament and the justice system.  But London more than doubled in size in Elizabeth’s reign, and the cost of living in it doubled too.  If you were a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, there were rich pickings to be made.

The ranks of sober, successful, self-made people in this exhibition will provide a wonderful corrective to the popular image of the sixteenth century, which is so heavily skewed towards the court.  (Yes, as one of the curators at Hampton Court, I am guilty of this myself.)  ‘I do think the Tudor court gets too much attention’, Cooper says.  She admits that there are benefits to this: amusingly, the National Portrait Gallery are sending a Tudor to show to France next year, because the French rather like Jonathan Rhys Myers and the ‘The Tudors’ TV series.

Yet the court provides only an entry-level version of Tudor life.  In the conservation workshop Cooper shows me two portraits upon which preparatory work is taking place.  First, we have the Duke of Norfolk, striking, splendid and richly bejewelled.  Second cousin of the queen, he was the only duke in Elizabethan England.  In the background of his portrait is a massive coat of arms that demonstrates just how well connected he is.  He grasps his enormous and presumably weighty purse.  Only a few years after this portrait, he was to be executed for treason.  Everything that initially attracts us to the Tudor age – jewels, glamour and head chopping – is here.

JacobBut there’s something rather more moving about the serious face in the portrait propped next to the Duke on blocks on the studio floor.  This is Jacob Wittewronghele, a brewer, who’d come to London from Ghent to escape the Inquisition.   The contrast is inescapable.  Wittewronghele wears a black suit.  His hand rests upon a skull.  There’s a clock in the background.  He is well aware that his life is ticking away, and he’s already preparing himself for the life to come.

The image expresses sobriety and humility.  Who knows what energies Wittewronghele had to expend to get to the position where he could afford to commission such a quietly magnificent portrait?  I found myself admiring his tenacity and calm.  He makes the duke next door look like a shallow peacock.

Cooper next shows me Sir Walter Raleigh, representing the profession of poet, in a wonderfully camp suit covered with pearly buttons.  On his cloak, rays of moony pearls represent the reflected light of the queen herself, Elizabeth the moon goddess, projecting her glimmer onto her subjects.  Full marks to Raleigh for sucking up.

Where the queen herself is present, it’s usually as ‘her people’ saw her.  To this end, Cooper has tracked down portraits known to have hung in Guildhalls, or in universities.  These are often rather odd, for the merchants or scholars who commissioned them either weren’t interested in, or couldn’t afford, the really high-quality pictures of the queen that would have graced the walls of courtier’s country houses.  They made do with images copied from other images.

ElizabethThere are plenty of high-class images of Elizabeth too.  The Darnley portrait of the queen is included, one of the few images known to have been painted from a personal sitting.  The gallery’s technical analysis has revealed the drawing under the paint, and the researchers could see how the artist was constantly changing his mind about the way to do her hands.  If he was just copying another image, this kind of energy and creativity wouldn’t have been there.  This image shows Elizabeth as rather more realistic and lifelike than she appears in many of the hieratic, ageless and alien portraits of ‘The Virgin Queen’.

However, one doesn’t look at Elizabethan art expecting to see real people.  As Cooper explains, it’s a period that’s quite difficult to appreciate.  ‘There’s a gap in art history between Holbein and Van Dyck’, she says.  Look at a Holbein drawing from the earlier sixteenth century, or a Van Dyck portrait from the seventeenth, and you feel you’re meeting a real person, face-to-face.  But examine Elizabethan portraiture from the years in between, and you’ll find that line is much more important than the illusion of colour and beauty.  You feel that you’re seeing just a diagram of a face, with what Cooper calls ‘an element of awkwardness’ in it.   This applies even to Nicholas Hilliard, the best-known English artist of the period.  All the fabulously realistic, ‘nice to meet you’ faces in this exhibition will be by Netherlandish, rather than English, artists.

Is this, then, a hard sell? This weird Elizabethan aesthetic that’s so different from our own notion of beauty; these ranks of stolid professionals in black? Personally, I think that it’s such an unexpected vision of the sixteenth century that people will be surprised and moved.

I ask if there’s any deeper reason behind Cooper’s interest in these neglected images.  She says she likes to imagine going back in time, and meeting the sort of person that she – a middle class person herself – might have been.  At this point we discover that we are both the granddaughters of drapers.  These are Our People.’

7 thoughts on “I am jealous of ‘Elizabeth and Her People’ at the NPG

  1. Debs

    I am jealous of both of you. I would love to see this exhibition. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Ben

    Im hoping to get down there next weekend, you have fuelled my keenness even more now!

  3. peter Jones

    Lovely writing. As usual

  4. Kimberley O'Connell

    I went Wednesday to this fantastic exhibition
    Truly enlightening.

  5. Bess Chilver

    Sounds interesting. I too (from a costume perspective and social history perspective) get fed up with any woman in Elizabethan Dress having being labelled as “Queen Elizabeth” so nice to have peoples names given back. Makes them very real and with their backgrounds discovered puts them in their proper place in history – the emerging “middle class” was what kept England going along with the backbone of the working and farming class and craftsmen and women of England (and Wales at the time).

    One name which is an example of a very successful climb up the Tudor social ladder was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Without him, Thomas Cromwell wouldn’t have had a chance. Admittedly it was a hard fall for him but still – his life shows how a young man of intelligence and ambition could reach the highest echelons of society. Of course, the difference in Elizabeth’s reign is that the same kind of man didn’t have just the church to get him to that position.

  6. B.Lloyd

    A refreshing slant – especially the points made about education and the New Age, too often left out of the equation when the endless debate re-surfaces about how Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written all those plays….I look forward to ‘meeting’ some of these people – especially the spy… (umm, will there be scones to go with the tea?)

  7. Ray Hunter

    Maybe thats where you get your exuberance and delight when you dressed up for the documentary’s you have made, from your grandparents hours spent handle-ling fine cloths. sorry to say it , here it comes ….”Its in you genes” Many thanks for an interesting piece.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.