Some years ago in 2010, I was invited to examine a Tudor-period English painting by the anonymous Master of the Countess of Warwick, to determine whatever could be said about the keyboard instrument played by one of four children in the family group. Ultimately there was extremely little to be said about it, but the music books in the hands of two of the boys were of great interest. They remain a gift that keeps giving, with the possibility of the identification of a hitherto unknown major female artist of the Tudor period.
THE PART BOOKS: The book in the centre, most prominent to the eye, appeared to have been painted entirely legibly, and it seemed that a reading of this musical text may have had some symbolic significance. At the time, we came to the casual speculation that the music might, just possibly, be something to do with William Byrd, prompted by the significance of an obscured message whose meaning would be clear to anyone who could specifically identify the motet and comprehend its meaning. Given Byrd’s reputation as a Catholic recusant, and a circle of noble Catholic families that flouted the laws making their religion illegal, it all felt pretty watertight.
To add to the hypothesis, the part-books were presented upside down, making a quick reading much harder, and although the musical notation was painted with tremendous accuracy, any words were substituted with a series of parallel diagonal lines: ///// // /// ///. This seemed that the artist was purposefully censoring the words rather than substituting them with meaningless scribble. This was far too much of a mystery for me, so having got only so-far on the puzzle, I put it into the hands of my friend, musicological colleague, and William Byrd expert Kerry McCarthy who was in the midst of writing her book on the composer. At the time, I thought that it was simply up to her to find which work it was in order to support a slam-dunk hypothesis. I was wrong, and in 2015 Kerry published her findings in a superb article in Early Music that dealt with the identification of the piece by Josquin des Prez and its context in England.
In Renaissance musicology there are whole panel sessions devoted to Josquin des Prez who is studied and lionised to an almost irrational level, rather like Bach or Leonardo da Vinci – there are even people researching the question of why it is that so many people research him. Questions regarding any influence he might have had over English music have always been something of a mute point, with any speculation really getting nowhere. As a result, no one – just no one – expected to see evidence in the hands of a thirteen year old boy from a merchant family painted somewhere between 1565 and 1570. The very idea of such a thing felt absolutely preposterous. We offer no explanation. It just is, so there. A double page of Domine ne in furore and Turbatus est, extracted from the bassus part of Johannes Petraeus’s Tomus primus psalmorum selectorum published at Nuremberg in 1538.
With Kerry’s identification of the original 1538 printed source, the absence of lettering is all the more curious with a similar absence of the capital-letter block at the beginning of Domine ne in furore. The idea that this otherwise ‘photographic quality’ reproduction might have come from a secondary source – perhaps a manuscript copy of a manuscript seems unlikely because of the setting of the staves in relation to the page, leaving a generous margin below, and the format of the book which resembles the original. It seems more likely than not that the artist wanted to obscure any textual reference to the source, leaving the only clue in the musical notation, or in the visual familiarity gained from singing from similar part books. This may have been a simple conceit, and may have been more loaded with meaning, Kerry’s article examines these aspects better than I could.
THE SECOND PART BOOK: The reason for revisiting this painting in 2022 was the extent of further interest in a painting that hitherto I had been the only person to study from a musical perspective at first hand and materially. Another brilliant paper by the scholar Ellie Chan and further interest from Katie Bank provoked this blog, and particularly because of questions asked by art historians during a conference on Music and Image at Stratford upon Avon in 2022 so this blog really takes the form of an eyewitness statement about a painting where I am the only person in this field of musicology to have properly studied and appraised the image, now that it is in a private collection.
Both of my esteemed colleagues were curious about the inconsistencies in the painting, and the potential motives of the artist to make the second part book illegible. The problem is that without being able to properly examine the painting, now in a private collection, many of the questions that academic art historians may chose to ask, cannot be answered. I hope with the exceptional interest that this painting has garnered in the last decade, I can finally (and belatedly) put it on a firm footing as an established source with firm analysis to support its use.
It is true that the part book in the hands of the twelve year old boy to the right of the painting makes absolutely no sense. Although there is obvious attempts to show that the two books are from the same set and materially they are manifestly similar. They are of the same format, same gilding, same thickness, same binding with the same straps hanging from them. Nevertheless, these pages do not reflect anything found in Tomus primus psalmorum selectorum, nor are they musical. On the other hand, they have the same obscured writing (//// /// ////) that is found in Domine ne in furore and Turbatus est, and the legibility of each note is painted with the same photographic-like quality.
When I first examined the work, obvious questions emerged about restorations and retouches that potentially compromised the work, but it is clear that the quality of the notation is consistent throughout, but that the artist used a technique of highlights with bright bluish and pinkies whites in order to emphasise the reflection of light over the pages of both books and the technique is used coherently throughout the painting. The artist seems to have extended this further on the illegible book, in order to tone down the notation in order to obscure it, especially to apply a translucent wash over the parts of the page closest to the foreground. The effect is to make the legible book in the centre of the painting stand out more prominently so that despite superficial suspicions of retouch to this area, the painting, its legibility and the accuracy of the notes is as the artist intended.
THE VIRGINALS: The issues of illegibility or incoherence in the second part book are mirrored in the girl playing the virginal, where there is also the contradiction of a clear expression of accuracy in the attention to the muscularity of the hands, but a meaningless outcome in terms of anything that the fingers on the keyboard are meant to achieve.
The virginals are painted very economically with the details of the soundboard and strings substituted with a black spandrel. Combined with the perspective of the keyboard and the structure of the casework that is completely at odds with the overall perspective of the painting, it sets the work off with a rather unreal (or surreal) appearance.
The keyboard is mathematically worked out. The natural keys are evenly spaced and the spacing of the accidentals keys is sympathetic to how a keyboard would look with the complications of distributing the accidental keys. It is inherently dangerous to talk about the compass of the keyboard, with a compass going down to bottom C, or perhaps a note below, it is within the realm of what can be found in this period, so it may – or may not – reflect observed detail. Nevertheless, the way that the keys are painted, in a very flat manner, with lines delineating them rather than the spaces that would appear on a real keyboard, expresses the same very minimalist approach to the virginal that is seen in the economy of substituting the complex inner workings with a black void. This in itself creates quite a severe juxtaposition with the carefully painted musculature of the girl’s fingers.
The girl’s fingers show a difficult relationship to the well-marked out keys, and make very little sense in terms of a playing position. On the right (facing) hand, the ring finger and middle finger are touching the same note, and the index finger is so close to the edge of the key that it would probably depress both keys. The edge of the thumb would do the same. The left (facing) hand has similar problems and overall the fingers are close together, so that if the fingers were depressed as they are, the resulting mess would not simply make no musical sense, but no physical sense either. Whatever the interpretation, a detailed examination of the painting shows that the artist was satisfied for the painting to look this way, and it is not the result of later interventions. We can see from the fingertips and the way that the underlying colour of the keyboard shows through them that the keyboard was painted first. Underpainting that shows through to the surface demonstrates that the keyboard was market out early in the composition. In the finishing stages of the painting, the lines delineating the keys have been repainted, again offering an opportunity to modify the keyboard to better fit the fingers, had the artist thought it necessary, but the (original) top layers of paint merely clarify the originally-intended lines. Of equal significance, the spidery contortions of the hand are represent with significant attention to muscular detail. The hands may look misshapen, but the effort to produce them realistically is significant, further reinforcing the potential contradiction.
One clear argument is to liken the mayhem of the hands on the keyboard to the nonsensical score held by the middling boy, to suggest that the two elements of the painting reinforce a deliberate theme of disorder, that amplifies and contrasts the reception of the real-to-life Josquin motet.
To my mind the concept of disorder is a strong one, already evidenced in other elements of the painting, but I don’t think that this excludes a double meaning, for although I have argued that as a static pose, the girl’s hands are antithetical to keyboard playing, this would not be the case if they are depicted in a specifically temporal moment, like a photograph capturing a moment in the playing and singing of the motet. Elsewhere I have (or will) argue about the concerns of Paragone and Ekphrasis in Renaissance painting – specifically the discourse over whether one of the arts is superior to another. In painting musical scenes, it would appear that painters understood that painting a moment in which sound was emitted was creating a contest in which painting would ultimately fail because the perception of the senses would be unsatisfied when confronted by the silence of the canvas. However, there are a few Tudor paintings that seem to push the boundaries of this idea. I’m grateful to Ellie Chan for giving me a little more confidence to express these ideas, and her pointing towards the Hampden portrait of Elizabeth I, painted probably in 1563, whose awkward pose equally seems to be the portrayal of gesture as a snapshot of time, as if in anticipation of a partner for a courtly dance.
Hans Eworth’s allegorical painting Elizabeth with the three goddesses Juno, Minerva and Venus, painted in 1569 is absolutely contemporaneous to the painting of the four children, and expresses both static elements and clear depiction of motion.
Isaac Oliver’s painted a miniature of this work, and expressed the same ideas in his Allegory on Conjugal Love (1590-95 period) , not least in jumping dogs that would be defying gravity unless they were in motion.
In the same vein there are long-held questions about a painting of La Volta at Penshurst Place painted in the style of the French Fountainbleu school but purported to represent Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Elizabeth I dancing. Majestic though the dancer’s powers may be, she is depicted in mid-air, just as much a snapshot of movement as the contorted fingers of the girl in our painting. Whilst we now know it to be anomalous, and probably painted to depict a more generic subject, we cannot dismiss it outright. We don’t know when it came to represent Elizabeth, nor when it arrived in England, so we can’t discount a possibility that it represented a propaganda of Elizabeth even during her reign. However, there are other versions of the same theme that have no claim to being a depiction of an English royal court. At worst, it shows a parallel approach to the issue amongst painters of the French court. At best it may inform the conversation amongst English painters about the depiction of a moving subject within a broader field of art history.
Whilst this temporal, ‘snapshot’ idea gathers strength, La Volta is a particularly helpful image to understand this specific aesthetic in art history, because the painter must have understood the absurdity of showing a noblewoman (or a queen) levitating in a moment of dancing when only one leg of her suitor is on the floor, and must have comprehended the tension that this creates in the work as a whole. I may be overthinking things to a degree by concerning myself about the problems of the paragone. Whilst there are further theoretical issues over the depiction of music within painting, the painter may have only be concerned with an understanding of motion. If that is so, whilst this idea goes a considerable way to habilitating the painting of the four children within a larger thematic body of work, far from serving as counter-arguments to the notion of discord, it is probable that these arguments are synchronistic.
THE MEANING: I’m delighted to leave any final conclusions about the metaphor of the painting to those on a higher pay-grade in these matters. Another absurdity is that of a thirteen year old boy being physiologically mature enough to sing the bassus part that is in his hands. I’m reminded of the so-called Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, “out of discord may their be harmony”, which is better known in English circles as Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election-day speech. I’m probably wrong.
THE SITTERS? We can find nothing that adequately identifies these sitters. Potentially, finding a family with boys of thirteen, twelve and seven and a daughter of ten could be helpful. Neither the posie of flowers around the girl’s neck or the feathers in the hat of the seven-year-old are helpful in establishing status or a specific family connection. I was asked if there was an element of memento mori in the painting concerning the seven-year-old boy, but like the other members of the family the “Æ.SVÆ.7” is a statement that the image is of the sitter in the seventh year of his life. Given that the same form is given to the others of his siblings, there is no reason to imply death (notwithstanding that death itself happens in a year of life, and is reflected so in funerary monuments). It is simply more likely that at the age of seven, his level of musical and literary accomplishment was not high enough to command representation by a motet part-book, just as his sister – for gendered reasons – may have been better represented playing a virginals rather than participating in devotional motet singing. Some elements of the clone-appearance of the younger boy made it into questions, but the simple answer is that they all have freakishly similar appearance, not only the boy that might be dead.
Having said all of this, there may be elements of death in the painting. Modern scholarship on the National Portrait Gallery’s portrait of Sir Henry Uncton, suggest that this formed part of a temporary funerary monument erected whilst a permanent stone monument was prepared, thereafter re-used as a domestic painting. The same may be true of this, if we consider contemporaneous monuments in alabaster that show family groups. However, these groupings are more likely to show the progeny of a deceased parent than reflect the mortality of the children themselves. The 1599 monument to Sir Alexander Culpeper and his wife at Goudhurst in Kent comes to mind (because of my involvement in its conservation back in 2004) in which portraits of the five granddaughters and eleven grandsons alive at the time of his death form part of the Alabaster carvings. The idea of the children, or grandchildren of the deceased participating in private devotional song as part of a memorial, according to their relative abilities at the time of death may be a strong possibility. Finding someone who died in the late 1560s with children of these ages may narrow down the search for an identity. Those questions are above my pay grade.
THE ARTIST? Was the Master of the Countess of Warwick female? When I first looked into this painting it struck me that there was an overwhelming preponderance of juvenile and female subjects in the the work of TMCW, and that this was unusual for Tudor portraiture to the point of asking whether there were special circumstances in which TMCW worked, the most obvious being whether TMCW was in fact female. I should substantiate this by being very clear that amongst the attributed works to TMCW, it is clear that there is more than one painter expressing this rather basic style nonetheless reflective of a position somewhere around Antonis Mor, Hans Eworth and John Betts. For me, the paintings I am interested in are those that look like they have a touch of hay fever, with slightly swollen eyes for reasons I will get into. If the subject doesn’t have allergies, its not TMCW, and when we go down that route, we quickly exclude several male portraits that are otherwise similar, leaving the only mature male portraiture as a part of family groups. In fact, there have been proposals of netherlandish artists who could potentially fit the bill as TMCW. I don’t think that the scholarship backing these proposals should be disregarded, as there may be more than one artist conflated into a single oeuvre.
The pattern we are left with is anomalous for sixteenth century portrature, with the exception of known female painters, Sofonisba Anguisola in particular, and hence the idea emerges that courtly etiquette would have made it difficult for women and men to spend lengthy time together alone, would have projected negative sentiments about a woman painting male subjects unchaperoned. Although I had been forming these ideas from around 2010, and Kerry McCarthy very kindly expressed some of them in her analysis of the painting, my focus on them really emerged in preparing my paper on women in the musical instrument trade, published in 2021 because I wanted to find a broader framework of women involved in arts and crafts within the orbit of the English court. In particular I was looking for supporting examples to corroborate the situation of Jone Rose and her husband John who had equal status and claim on a lease signed in 1558 for rooms in Bridewell Palace: ‘… to have and to hold to the same John and Jone his wife the several rooms before expressed during their natural life and the lyge of the longest time of them if they themselves shall remain and continue in honest name, fame, life and conversation‘. These case studies seem to be mutually supportive, and help to establish a broader framework for female work within the arts and crafts of this period.
Here we find concordances between our artist and the work of the early English miniaturists, Lucas Horenbout (1490/5 – 1544) and Lavinia Teerlinc (c1510-1576), the latter, female and the highest paid artist in the English court receiving a salary even higher than Hans Holbein. A perceived flaw in the painting style of TMCW is a clone-like resemblance between many of the subjects. In fact in this painting we can see a determined effort to make the boys stand out as different through individual haircuts, but they nevertheless still seem remarkably similar. The majority of this visual similarity comes from the expression of the eyes, and in particular an almost caricatured anatomy of upper and lower eyelids and the tear duct, which dominates the face and overpowers our perception. This anomaly in painting technique has similarities in the work of the early miniaturists, in which this over-emphasis of ocular anatomy has particular importance in conveying portraiture on such a small scale. I am writing this not to assert an attribution but to suggest connection within a close circle of artists orbiting the court, but stylistically this likens TMCW to Lavinia Teerlinc whose career coincides with the dating of paintings by this unknown female artist. Moreover, the process of an artistic training for a woman, if not taught within her own family, would similarly imply tuition from another woman artist.
If TMCW was directly influenced by Teerlinc, or by other established painters of the period, this would reasonably extend to a broader education than simply painterly technique, and here there is as another concordance in her wider works, just as unexpected as the appearance of a Josquin motet. Reinforcing the idea that TMCW was a female painter is the way one picture in particular mirrors the work of one of the major female painters of the Renaissance, Sofonisba Anguissola in (of all places, given what I normally work on) Cremona.
Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of Painters was published in 1550 and especially the 1558 second edition, that included her biography, implying that the prototype that Sofonisba presented would have been digested by Vasari’s English readership within the years immediately following, if this was not already common knowledge prior to this point because of the network of Italian artists, particularly Florentine ones who both inhabited Vasari’s circle, and visited or worked England (see Sinza Maria Sicca, “Vasari’s Vite and Italian artists in sixteenth-century England” Journal of Art Historiography, Number 9, Dec 2013). A tantalising connection comes from Vasari’s visit to the Anguissola house where he recalled in his 1558 second edition: “I have seen this year in Cremona, in the house of her father a painting made much with much diligence, the depiction of his three daughters, in the act of playing chess, and with them an old housemaid, done with such diligence and facility, that they appear alive, and the only thing missing is the speech.”
“I have seen this year in Cremona, in the house of her father a painting made much with much diligence, the depiction of his three daughters, in the act of playing chess, and with them an old housemaid, done with such diligence and facility, that they appear alive, and the only thing missing is the speech.”
An English portrait, that of Edward, Third Baron Windsor, his wife, Katherine de Vere and their family, dated 1568 has too much in common with Vasari’s description from Cremona for coincidence and suggests that the painter as well as the subject had a conscious knowledge and interest in promoting a parallel imagery, here of the four sons, playing chess and other games, and an elderly woman. Although it is not identical, the concordances are noteworthy enough to ask if TMCW had caught sight of more detailed descriptions of the work. If these conclusions are correct, they beg a further question, since the emulation of the work of a female painter lauded by Vasari is in a sense biographical.
Is there a direct connection to the Windsor family that would have prompted this kind of emulation? Another portrait of Katherine de Vere aged 24 in 1567 is painted by TMCW indicating that the relationship between artist and sitters lasted for some time. Katherine’s age (25 in the family portrait) rules out any suggestion that TMCW may have been a sister of the boys in the picture, in the way that the absent Sofonisba was painting her own sisters, but the inferred biographical position of the female painter to the subject of the family portrait may stand further enquiry. There is significance that Edward 3rd Baron Windsor was a committed Catholic with Italian connections: In 1557 Edward had fought in an English force commanded by Frances Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, fighting for King Philip II of Spain, at the battle of St Quentin. Whatever travels had followed are unclear, but in 1568-69 following the painting of his family portrait he travelled again to Italy in one of several journeys from home that may have been a way to avoid persecution for his firm Catholic faith. He died in Venice in 1574, buried at the church of Santi Giovanni e Pauli.
The Windsor portrait does not prove, but gives some strength to the original proposition that the Josquin portrait was intended as a Catholic Recusant symbol because of the Windsor’s firm identity as one of the prominent Catholic families in England. If we accept that the intimacy of this portrait is a direct reflection of Vasari’s description Sofonsiba’s family portrait, then we may well be looking at an identify for TMCW as someone directly positioned inside Windsor’s own family or household. It’s a lead worth pursuing.
CREDITS: My huge thanks to Mark Weiss and Florence Evans of the Weiss Gallery for introducing me to the painting in the first place. To Kerry McCarthy for picking up the pieces at a time when I was taking a break from the academic side of my life (I wouldn’t have got to Josquin in a thousand years if I had tried myself), and to Ellie Chan and Katie Bank taking the painting even further forward.