‘In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion’ is a superb excuse by the Queen’s Gallery to air some of the most extravagant and sumptuous portraits in the Royal Collection. This was an age when monarchs and their courtiers literally wore their wealth, so the detailed and adept depiction in paint of costly jewels and embroidery was of primary importance when commissioning portraits; at the same time, these accoutrements were often loaded with symbolic detail, opening a window onto the narrative of the sitter’s life.
The first room runs swiftly through the changing history of dress over the two centuries on which the show focuses, using annotated diagrams to point out the main features illustrated in the nearby paintings. These include several delicate Holbein drawings as well as the famous image of Elizabeth I as a Princess in red brocade and cloth of gold, her headdress and square decolletage edged with substantial pearls. After this a fashion for ruffs suddenly develops; illustrating this trend is an anonymous ‘Portrait of a Lady’ by Cornelius Johnson (right, 1624). Unusual in its scale, being slightly less than lifesize, the most intriguing feature is a single earring in the form of a hand holding a gold drop, and attached by a chain to the sitter’s shoulder. With her enigmatic and self-contained expression, its symbolism or personal meaning is anyone’s guess.
Anne of Denmark shows off an alternative, and more regal, look in the early Stuart fashion stakes. In this portrait, attributed to Marcus Gheeradts the Younger (left, 1614), she wears a richly embroidered dress, the fabric pleated rosette-like around the plateau of her farthingale, the daringly low neckline edged with exquisite lace, and swathes of pearls looping down over the exaggeratedly low stomacher. Anne was keen on statement jewellery, and here shows off a crowned ‘S’ on the edge of her ruff, referring to her mother, Sophie of Mecklenburg, and a crowned ‘C4’ in her hair as a token of support to her brother, Christian IV of Denmark.
The double portrait of Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley and his brother, Charles Stewart, Earl of Lennox by Hans Eworth (right, 1563) illustrates how clothing was used to mark the right of passage from boyhood to manhood. Boys like Charles, here aged six, would wear long dresses until they were officially ‘breeched’ (usually between the ages of four and eight). At 17, Henry is elegantly, if austerely, dressed – still ‘beardless and baby-faced’ as Sir James Melville commented two years later as Henry began his ultimately fatal flirtation with Mary Queen of Scots. He would be dead by 21. They appear in an unusually realistic interior space; however, it is in fact believed to be copied from a print in Vredeman de Vries’ ‘Scenographie’ (1560), which showcased his skills in architectural design and expertise in perspective.
It was Charles II who made a decisive and deliberate change to everyday male fashions – replacing the short doublet with a knee-length coat, its oversize cuffs turned back to show off the linen shirt beneath. Breeches remained standard, but were now decorated with bunches of black ribbons, while the fashionable shoe was square-toed and red-heeled. Ruffs were replaced by rabats of expensive needlepoint lace gathered at the neck, and Charles completes his outfit with a black hat of what is deemed to be beaver fur. It was unusual for the King to be depicted in such informal dress; official portraits would demand ceremonial robes or armour, at once more timeless and more awe-inspiring. Perhaps Charles was keen to show off and popularise his new wardrobe? The painting (above, c.1675-80) shows him presented with a Pineapple, a rare and exotic treat – this one supposedly the first to be cultivated in England and proffered by the Royal Gardener, John Rose. The house has in the past been identified as Dorney House, though why is a mystery – as the curators acknowledge, it bears no resemblance. If it is a royal residence it does seem odd that it should never have been definitively identified, since it holds such an important position in this composition – and in the narrative of the pineapple’s cultivation.
In terms of women’s dress, fashions became much less restrictive, the decolletage free of fussy decoration, the hair natural and relieved of ornament. However, this was as much an artistic fashion as a cultural one, with artists such as Lely and van Dyck popularising a nonchalant, languorous style that emphasised the overall effect of rich fabrics draped or ruched over alabaster skin rather than the minute details of its construction. Lely painted a whole series of ‘Windsor Beauties’ in this vein, of which ‘Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond’ (left, c.1662) was the most celebrated. Frances was a Maid of Honour to Catherine of Braganza and relentlessly pursued by the King – a fact clearly observed by Lely who tacitly praises her willpower by depicting the bow of the virgin goddess Diana in her hand.
Interestingly, Frances appears again nearby in an entirely different guise. Jacob Huysmans’ painting (1664?) shows her dressed as a man – ‘in a buff doublet like a solder’ as Pepys recalls from his visit to the artist’s studio. Though women might well have worn more masculine-style riding habits at this time, the curators concede that actually dressing as a man, complete with wig, was highly unusual. That it was probably painted for Charles II, whose romantic pursuit of Frances was ultimately unsuccessful, makes this costume even more bizarre.
The exhibition continues in a more thematic vein. In the large central room, a section is devoted to children; next door to a small waxen-faced Prince Henry Frederick, tightly encased in clouds of intricate lace and stiff embroidery, and far too serene for a toddler, is the ‘Portrait of a Young Boy’ by Paulus Moreelse (1634). In contrast he appears a normal, healthy child, clutching a coral rattle in a chubby hand, his face alive and mobile. The plumed cap and starched apron, no less than the chequered marble floor, testify to his wealthy parentage.
Elsewhere, focus alights on the use of botanical studies in costume, and more exotic accoutrements adopted for masques or associated entertainments.
This ‘Portrait of a Young Girl’ (right, c.1625-35) is shown alongside a copy of ‘The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes’ by John Gerard (1597) to illustrate the direct inspiration that embroidery took from botanical publications such as this. The embroidery is unusual for the naturalistic vertical alignment of each species of flower, where they would more often be arranged in a serpentine pattern. Though this fashion dated from the late sixteenth century, the outfit here can be dated to the 1620s by the distinctive virago sleeve and the closed fan, which replaced the earlier rigid fan.
Marcus Gheeradts the Younger’s ‘Portrait of an Unknown Woman’ (below right, 1599) represents similarly detailed floral embroidery, though this is more symbolic than scientific in tone. The painting is typical of Elizabethan allegorical portraiture, with the stag, the swallow in the tree, and the flowers all contributing visually to an enigmatic narrative. This is elaborated by the melancholy inscriptions and the sonnet in the cartouche which begins, ‘the restless swallow fits my restless minde’, and continues in the second stanza, ‘with pensive thoughtes my weeping stagg I crowne’… The costume is believed to be designed for a masque, with the headdress copied from J. Boissard’s ‘Virgo Persica’ in his Habitus variarum orbus gentium (1581); it may have been connected to the entertainment given by Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s Master of the Armouries and Champion of the Tilt, on the occasion of the Queen’s visit to Ditchley in 1592.
In a costume of a very different order, Mary, Princess of Orange is depicted by Adriaen Hanneman (left, c.1655) at an entertainment, perhaps at The Hague in early 1655, where she appeared ‘very well dressed, like an Amazon’. She wears a feathered cloak like those worn by the Indians of North-East Brazil, which from 1630-1654 was a Dutch colony ruled by Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen. Curiosities such as this would have been imported into the Netherlands and submerged within the European fantasy of the noble savage.
In the final room, the greater proportion of space is given to paintings of other European dynasties whose fashions, due to intermarriage and diplomatic ties, strongly influenced British style. Princess Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, later Duchess of Saxe-Altenberg (right, 1609) appears in a costume very similar to that which Anne of Denmark popularised in England in the early seventeenth century.
Eleonora of Austria, Queen of France (below, c.1531-4) was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and this painting by Joos van Cleve helps to underline the complexity of monarchical interrelationships in Europe, courtesy of the vast network created by the Habsburg dynasty. Eleonora is dressed in stately Spanish fashion, and holds a letter in Spanish, referring to her coronation as Queen of France – a betrothal brokered following the French defeat at Pavia and the subsequent Peace of Cambrai.
Meanwhile, The Spanish Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia – portrayed by Frans Pourbus the Younger (below right, c.1598-1600) – married her second cousin to become Archduchess of Austria and rule the Spanish Netherlands with the Archduke Albert. As unusually enlightened monarchs, it was unfortunate that the couple were childless – and consequently it seems tactless and slightly macabre to have painted her accompanied by the childlike figure a dwarf.
The double portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia as a child, with her sister Catharina (below, c.1569-70), shows the same style of rigid conical dress and tight ruff, so distinct to Spanish fashion in this period.
The other corner of the room focuses on the military and hunting dress of British monarchs, among them William of Orange, who is depicted by Willem Wissing in armour, lace cravat and Garter sash in a portrait commissioned by his father-in-law whom he would subsequently depose. These are accompanied by several intricately etched and gilt damascened suits of armour of the early seventeenth century. But to finish, let us return to Anne of Denmark, whose riding habit is just as flamboyant as her courtly dress, though embellished with fewer pearls. Paul van Somer (below, 1617) depicts her encircled by five greyhounds on a leash, her horse held by a black groom hidden just over her left shoulder, with Oatlands Palace in distance under a dramatically darkening sky. Hand jauntily on her hip, and an ostentatious red plume in her conical hat, she is the picture of fashionable, theatrical excess, and as such rather sums up the show.