Painting Bess

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.

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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.​W

hen 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. ​

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Portrait of Bess of Hardwick, by Rowland Lockey, c. 1592 (detail)

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.

As the mother of the dynasty and all-round fabulous woman who fought for her rights and that of her family, who would not stay quiet in the face of a patriarchal world, I wanted to paint her.

​But how could I? I have found three contemporary portraits of her. One portrait is of her as a young girl, painted in the middle of the 16th century. Two later portraits show her as a middle aged widow, grand and rich. But the stylised imagery of Tudor England would not provide us with a portrait of how she really looked. In the 21st century we are so used to recognizing people by their faces but in Tudor portraits many of the recognizable features would have been found in their clothes, jewellery and family coat of arms. ‘You are what you wear’ rings so true in those early days. So I decided to paint Bess by her clothes.

Black Velvet and Pearls

Four metres of black velvet and strings of pearls should give me all I need.  I spent a day draping the heavy velvet on a mannequin until I found the right look; nothing authentic in cut but vaguely Tudor in feel. I imagined her face, having seen her portraits at Hardwick, as friendly but firm but decided not to develop the face into high realism. I did not use a model as I wanted to avoid the ‘dressing up’ effect and focus on the power of the black velvet being able to tell the story on its own. She is the matriarch. The friendly but firm Mother of all.

Work in Progress in Pictures

Here are some pictures of how she came about and below you will find the finished work.  You can see it for real in my exhibition at Harley Gallery which opens in November.

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On my blog you can find out more about Bess or Hardwick Hall, or the Portland Collection. I hope you enjoyed this blog post. If you are a subscriber to my newsletter you will have already seen this story. I thought it nice to share it on my blog as well.

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Final Painting

Here is the final painting. In the latest stages I decided to give her an extra strand of pearls and I have worked her face and hand a little more. The highlights on the black velvet are worked with silver paint which gives a special shine. You’ll have to go and see the real thing in order to appreciate that bit! The painting is 40×32” / 101.5x81cm and oil on linen. I imagine I will frame it in a classical black moulded frame which I will order soon.

This painting, titled The Matriarch, will be on show and for sale at the Harley Gallery from 5 November 2016 – 8 January 2017.

Harley Gallery
A60 Mansfield Road, Welbeck, Worksop,
Nottinghamshire, S80 3LW
www.harleygallery.co.uk
Entry is free

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