I have been working on a portrait inspired of Bess of Hardwick, the grand old lady who had Hardwick Hall built in the late 16th century. The painting will feature in my upcoming exhibition at Harley Gallery in November. This is the story of why and how I painted her. I hope you will enjoy reading the story of Bess’s portrait.
Who is Bess?
Bess was one of the most successful and richest women in 16th century England, second only to Queen Elizabeth I herself. She was married and widowed four times. Her clever financial management and steely determination to found a dynasty that would last, helped form a family with estates far and wide and a bloodline that would reach as far as the current royal family.
I have visited some of her homes and read biographies on Bess. In the past she was often described in biographies as a cold-hearted and ‘manly’ lady although with some "wit and beauty” (phew). Thankfully nowadays we do not need to value a woman’s life on her beauty or ‘feminine' characteristics. And so Bess has recently had a re-evaluation.
When reading up on her and her contemporaries she certainly does come across as a woman on a mission with a passionate drive to establish her family and estate. She valued status, hierarchy, queen and country above all else, often at the expense of love and empathy. She rarely comes across as kind-hearted but I am amazed at her determination to succeed in a time when women could hardly own anything or have a say in matters. She somehow played her time in such a way that she or her (male) children could benefit and further themselves.
The Mother of a Colourful Family
She is the root of a family tree that is impressive to say the least. Although not much is known about her own ancestry, her children all went on to found their own lines of power and influence. Besides the more obvious prime ministers and royals, the family tree is dotted with interesting characters not usually highlighted such as Wiliam and Margaret Cavendish (1st Duke of Newcastle and his wife who can claim being the author of the first work of science fiction), Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (the richest woman in Britain of her time and owner of the largest natural history collection in the country), Bess’s granddaughter Alathea Talbot and her husband Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel (and a great collector of art and antiquities), and her granddaughter Arbella Stuart who was a potential heir to Elizabeth I's throne and who had a tragic life living with her grandmother at Hardwick Hall.
Bess’s life and that of her family is full of stories of politics and family feuds, as well as determination and hope against the odds. I first came across her when I researched the family history of the Cavendishes of Welbeck Abbey. Welbeck Abbey is the family seat of the descendants of William Cavendish (grandson of Bess). He inherited Welbeck from his father Charles who had bought it from his brother-in-law Gilbert Talbot (son of Bess’s fourth husband). William built up an art collection at Welbeck which has been continued and added to over the centuries. The Portland Collection (as it is now called) is now a collection of paintings, silver and gold plate, jewellery and miniatures that has its own little museum on site at the Harley Gallery.
How to Paint a Portrait of Bess
For my exhibition at the Harley Gallery in November I am drawing inspiration from the Portland Collection and its 16th and 17th century portraits. There are many, many portraits in the collection, including some wonderful ones of Arbella Stuart and Bess herself.
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