Friday, March 16, 2012


Inscriptions such as the one at the bottom left hand corner of this fine painting by Cornelius Johnson were often added to Elizabethan and Jacobean family portraits long after they were finished, spelling out the name or title (and often the age) of sitters for the benefit of descendants who at length could quite reasonably be expected to become vague about their forebears’ correct identity. The higher up the portraits hung in the gloomy staircase or in the recesses of the long gallery, the more likely it was that following generations would quickly lose track of who it was they were actually meant to portray. More often than not, such well-meaning interventions were made at the behest of some self-appointed dynastic chronicler, a ferocious spinster aunt, say, with time on her hands, or a youthful bachelor cousin in Holy Orders with an antiquarian frame of mind, and were implemented under his or her cursory supervision by an artist-limner engaged by the factor, librarian, or keeper of the muniments. It is hardly surprising therefore that such bona fide inscriptions regularly perpetuated the very mistakes they were intended to prevent. Self-appointed chroniclers of noble houses are almost always sure that they are right, especially when they are in fact secretly or even unconsciously doubtful, and given the complexities of premature deaths, multiple titles and re-marriages, huge families of children, half-siblings, and whole tribes of cousins once or twice removed, there was plenty of scope for unremitting parades of error. To this species of dodgy inscription one may add another with far more deceitful intent—in other words the work of unscrupulous picture dealers and framemakers who were determined to sweeten a freshened-up Elizabethan or Jacobean picture by association with a famous sitter, or else as a way of hooking a specifically targeted client. This one, however, was almost certainly bona fide and added in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, and while it is not exactly wrong it is evidently only right for a brace of the wrong reasons. This lady looks nothing like other surviving portraits of Alathea Talbot, who was Countess of Arundel in 1619—Johnson dated the work in the lower right. Instead, the subject was more probably Lady Elizabeth Stuart, who became Countess of Arundel many years later in 1646 when her husband, Lord Maltravers (1608–1652), succeeded the fourteenth Earl. Clearing up small matters of this kind often requires many hours’ consultation of Burke and Debrett, and of course relies on the accuracy of such seventeenth-century pedigrees as are set out in successive editions of both. No guarantees there, because pedigrees can be just as vulnerable to cheerful optimism, crossed wires, and other points of confusion as the inscriptions added to those portraits we hope they will elucidate. Still, it can be rewarding work.

1 comment:

  1. Clearing out attics and looking through old family photographs and tin-types I can confirm your "self-appointed dynastic chronicler" hypothesis (and it was a spinster aunt). Once I realized the inscriptions were not to be trusted things became easier to figure out. At least most of them were on the back.