The Lace Trail is a series of paintings created after winning the BP Travel Award in 2013. The painting were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery and will now be on show at The Harley Gallery this autumn.
In 2014 my work was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It was one of the highlights of my career so far. These works will soon be exhibited in my new solo show at the Harley Gallery (with a series of brand new paintings) and I’d like to tell you how and why I painted these works. I will explain how I won the award, where I travelled and what gave me inspiration. Ideas turned into costumes, which turned into paintings which ended up on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. Read on to see what happened.
In June 2013 I won the BP Travel Award, which is a travel grant awarded by the National Portrait Gallery. It allows portrait artists to venture out of the studio and expand their horizon. Every artist selected for the BP Portrait Award exhibition is invited to write a proposal. My proposal for the award was not just about travelling but included a lot of art historical research as well.
Since I have been painting lace for a while but never knew much about it, my proposal was to explore how lace was painted in early 17th century portraits. The early 17th century is the time when lace became hugely popular for the first time and featured extensively in portrait painting. I wanted to learn about the history of lace, about the role lace and clothes played in 17th century portraits and how I could, by studying the past, perhaps say or rather paint, something meaningful about today.The Travel Award sends artists on their way, with funding, to explore a project of their choosing and come back with new work which will be exhibited in the following year’s BP Portrait exhibition. So I received the award at the opening of the BP Portrait Award exhibition in late June, and I had to deliver new work for next year’s show by early March the following year. That gave me just over 8 months.
I made a plan to use the summer months to study and travel, September to prepare my paintings, look for models, make costumes etc., and keeping in mind that I am not a fast painter, I would have to start painting in October at the latest, and finish by January – keeping a contingency month for emergencies, framing etc. I did not have a particular plan to paint certain pictures or a certain number of pictures. I was going to let my mind fill with 17th century art, I was going to learn about the development of lace in the same period and familiarize myelf with fashion history, art history and cultural history. I trusted that ideas for paintings would come, which they did in abundance.
Studying 17th Century Art
So I set out to study portraiture in the first few decades of the 17th century in England and Holland. The early 17th century is a hugely interesting period that hinges in between two great art periods; the Tudor area and the Baroque. I wanted to look, in particular, at the seemingly most important bit of the portraits from this era: the clothes. The way silk and in particular lace was painted in the painting from this period is simply beautiful. It has a little Tudor style in it, and still lacks the later sway of the Baroque when lace becomes swallowed up by big brush marks. Jacobean portraits have the grand colourful detail of Tudor portraits, the increasing realism of the baroque and the charm and incredible refinement of lace still in its infancy. In the Netherlands the 17th century is the century of the great old masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt. Artists such as Rembrandt, Hals and Verspronck show beautiful, but each quite different ways of painting lace in their portraits.I was struck by Dutch and English 17th century portraits of women especially. Who were these ladies, besides rich and important? Their small faces were so overshadowed by the large expanses of rich and fabulous clothes; the unimaginable wealth on display in their dress, the lace, the stacks of pearls, rubies, and how dazzlingly detailed did the artists of the time paint it all! The mostly anonymous faces of these ladies intrigued me. The way that the artist described their role and status by the detail of their clothes is beautiful and glamorous.
For my project I wanted to study, hold and feel authentic 17th century lace. Unfortunately the place with arguably the largest collection of lace, The V&A Museum in London, had closed its doors of it study facilities. They were moving all of their collection to new premises and could not help. Since there is very little lace on display there (or anywhere!) I had to find alternatives to finding early lace. Some places that were obvious starting points were the tradtional birth places of lace such as Honiton in Devon and Bruges in Belgium. Honiton still has a lovely small lace museum where the ‘lace keeper’ showed me some beautiful pieces of early lace.In Bruges it was harder going. Although traditionally the Town of Lace, which can still be seen by the hundreds of souvenir shops that sell lace made in China, the town does very little to celebrate its textile history. The Lace Museum was closed at times it shouldn’t have been, and when I finally managed to gain access, it it was very disappointing as it only had a few old rickety display cases with some randomly chosen lace pieces – which were not from Bruges!
Other places in the end helped me more, which were surprisingly close to home: the Bath Fashion Museum has a lovely collection (although a lot unlabeled), Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire has a great lace collection wich was brought together by one of its former occupants, Emma Dent, who purchased most of it in the late 19th century. Some of the lace there, however, was labelled incorrectly.
After all my research and travel my head was bursting with painting ideas. I chose a few to develop further and started sketching, thinking and collecting. For all the paintings I would need costumes, models, lace, and fabrics. Inspired by the faces of early 17th century women to whom I felt a connection as a woman, as a fashion lover, but also a distance as they lived so long ago and I did not know who they were. Like me they were mothers, wives, daughters. They had much less freedom than women have nowadays but no doubt played their part in their world. I wanted to paint women of today. No photoshopping, no size 0, no judging on their looks. Women, as human beings, honest and interesting and full of life.
The Four Ages of Woman
I chose four women, each at a different stage of their life and called it The Four Ages of Woman. I wanted to paint each ‘as they were’ as honestly as I could. They came to my studio in their choice of clothes and I changed nothing. The only thing I wanted to do is to let each wear a piece of history. A piece of authentic, original lace, as so often seen in the portraits of our ancestors. Lace mostly features in collars so I chose the four most typical shapes and styles and went about looking for authentic 17th century lace. Each of my women would wear a collar of authentic lace – as an echo of the past, a wave to the women of those days who either wore or made that lace. But at the same time my women were themselves, and of our own time. Sometimes the contrast is great and the past seems a different country, sometimes not so great and we can feel like not much has changed at all.Finding original, authentic early lace proved quite hard. Not only were there not many museums that had lace on display, of course they would not let me take it home to play with! 400 year old lace is extremely fragile and fine. Any long exposure to light would make it crumble to dust. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen. There is a lot of lace still in archives and collections but only a few truly exquisite pieces. A lot is damaged, reworked into other pieces, amended and fixed. It is spectacularly hard to not only identify where and when lace was made, as many copies were created in later centuries and some are pretty close to the original.
Although auction houses and online sites are full of lace collectors buying and selling their wares, finding some really authentic lace that would fit my idea for my paintings was hard. In the end I begged, borrowed and bought some. As the truly beautiful pieces are worth a fortune I was enormously lucky to find a lace dealer who was willing to lend me some amazing pieces. I also bought a couple of pieces. For my series of paintings of women, I had to have original lace. No reproduction lace would have sufficed as it simply fails to come close to the real thing. So the lace I found I had to work with quickly. Some pieces were stronger than others but I had to be careful and not leave it out in the light too long, handle it carefully as the thin threads would so easily break.
The glorious piece of lace that I used for The Lace Maker, for example, was made around the middle of he 17th century. It is incredibly fine, thin and detailed. My painting was inspired by Verspronck’s Girl in Blue (see above).
For A Fine Thread I used a straight piece of lace, as often seen in Dutch paintings from the middle of the 17th century. The lace dates from around 1640 and we can see an early mesh in it. The floral patterns reminds us of the Dutch flower paintings. The dutch often favoured this floral pattern in their lace and so sometimes this type of lace is called Dutch lace – even though it was made in Belgium.
For Repeating Patterns I used a long piece of lace, probably 17th century, that I found online. Although very damaged it is a sturdy and thick reticella lace and I could work it a bit more than the other pieces. So I loosly made a ruff from it to echo the many reticella ruffs seen in English Jacobean paintings.The last portrait in my series was The Pearl Necklace, named not only after the necklace my model was wearing, which used to belong to a friend who had recently passed away, but also to the extensive love and use of pearls in 17th century portraits. For the collar I used an absolutely stunning piece of bobbin lace from around 1620 with a typical spidery look to it. It is probably Italian and it has a beauitful golden brown colour. Whether this was the original colour, or a faded black, or a tarnished white, I am not sure. Spidery lace like this can be found in many 17th century portraits.
She Becomes Her
For my other paintings I also took inspirations from 17th century paintings as well as 21st century contemporary issues around femininity and women. In She Becomes Her I played with Tudor sources but also modern issues of how women are presented and presenting themselves in media. For this portrait I created a costume, inspired by Tudor art, but made with a variety of sources. There is an original 1920s flapper bead cape, Victorian gold lace, reproduction Tudor buttons sewn on as decoration and a black and white fabric that reminded me of Tudor patterns but with a modern, chinoiserie twist. I had great fun making this costume!
This small painting continues the theme of She Becomes Her. Inside shows a woman wearing face paint, or make up, creating associations to 17th century beauty ideals as well as theatre make up.
The Handkerchief Girl
The Handkerchief Girl is also a play on a theme – in many Jacobean portraits we find silk curtains, lace handkerchiefs, Turkish rugs and a blank looking woman. Again I could incorporate these patterns into an image about today. Again there is a play between outside and inside, dressing up and playing the part. For this painting, which was inspired by William Larkin’s paintings where handkerchiefs, rugs and curtains were so prominent, I enjoyed collecting handkerchiefs. No 17th century handkerchief could be sourced but the 19th century saw a huge production of hankies and so I could incorporate a small selection of victorian lace including a Bedfordshire Lace, a valencienne lace etc. There is a modern reproduction reticella lace for the hankerchief in her hand and the petticoat is edged with authentic 17th century reticella lace.
A study for The Handkerchief Girl, Remotely developed into a proper painting while exploring mood and attitude in a portrait.
The Long Wait
The Long Wait was inspired by the fashion in the late Tudor and Jacobean period of pregnancy portraits. I find them fascinating, not only because we don’t see pregnancy portraits that often nowadays but also because of the sentiment behind it. Pregnancy was a risky business in the 16th and 17th century and so was child birth of course. To eternalize the mother in her pregnant state not only underlined her role (or should I say function) to continue the family line but also her precarious state so at risk of illness or even death.
This painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, hangs in the Tate Gallery in London. It is a rare example where we see a hint of a smile. Her hand rests on her bump, a posture so familiar to anyone who has ever been pregnant. but her dress is less familiar. Can we imagine how many pearls were sewn onto this dress?! Lets not imagine the cost of this all but just enjoy the sheer beauty of it. Thousands of pearls, sewn onto a grey-silk brocade. How unashamedly brilliant. I have brought part of the dress into existence. For the skirt I copied the pattern from the Tate painting, I then transferred it onto a taffeta silk skirt pattern and applied nearly 6000 pearls. I asked a then pregnant friend to wear the skirt. She wore one of her own tops and I did not change anything about her appearance. She is as she is, young, beautiful and pregnant with her second child.
Finally my painting Pleating Time – the title explains it all. For this project, I have tried to pleat time, so to speak, into so many folds that the present meets the past.After all my research and travels I could not resist to try and make a ruff. The principle is so simple: a long strip of fabric, you pleat it into lots of pleats and put it around your neck. But it wasn’t so easy! It took a few attempts before I could come up with something that was good enough to paint from – although no way near good enough for a closer inspection. I hoped the contrast between my modern hair cut and the 17th century ruff would perhaps be interesting and from a painterly point of view I found it very interesting to paint the pleats, the way the light plays amongst it and through it.
After 8 months of reading, travelling, sewing, painting, framing, and varnishing, I had used nearly 13 metres of original 17th century lace and nearly 40 metres of modern fabrics for my paintings. Throughout the year I wrote on my online blog about my adventures and I have worked these blog posts into a book. In my book, called The Lace Trail there are short essays on art history, lace history, the making of my paintings and of course a catalogue section with the paintings. The book was for sale at the London Portrait Gallery book shop and is still available online via my website.
The ten paintings will be on show at the Harley Gallery from 29 October 2016 -8 January 2017. They will be for sale. I will also show a series of brand new works. I will give a exhibition talk on 28 October, 12noon, for which booking is now open (free).
Identity and Dress
Solo Show Sophie Ploeg
29 October 2016 – 8 January 2017
(BP Travel Award & New Works)Talk:
Sophie Ploeg Exhibition talk 28 October, 12noon
Booking via the Harley Gallery
A60 Mansfield Road, Welbeck, Worksop,
Nottinghamshire, S80 3LW