The Portland Series is a set of nine paintings which were inspired by the seventeenth century history of the Portland Collection: the collection of art and objects brought together over the centuries by the Cavendish family in their home at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. I focussed on the early decades at Welbeck in the late 16th and early 17th century and the art created and collected then. My paintings highlight the dynamic between the present and the past, using fabrics and clothing as the thread that binds the two together.
The Portland Collection
The Portland Collection is a huge private art collection held at Welbeck Abbey and since March 2016 partly on display next door to the Harley Gallery in its own little museum. The collection consists of thousands of paintings, silver and gold objects, furniture, manuscripts and much more. It was collected over the centuries since the early 17th century and contains gems such as Van Dyck, Stubbs, De Lazlo, Holbein, Hilliard and Michelangelo.
Before and after my visit I have researched Welbeck Abbey a little bit. I have tried to understand who is who and who built, inherited or collected what. I have found very little indeed. Photos of Welbeck Abbey date mostly from the 19th century, indicating that no photographer has been able to gain access or publish his/her material for over a century.
Since the second world war the buildings were used as a military school, which only ended as recent as 2005. Images of the art collection were almost non-existent; I could not illustrate this article with Joshua Reynolds’ altar piece from the chapel, for example, as no image is to be found online. The famous Portland Art Collection has been kept very private indeed and few knew exactly what it contains.
This mystery came to an end with the opening of the Portland Collection Gallery in March 2016 which now displays pieces from the collection on a rotating basis. The wonderful collection of miniatures is partly on display, as is the Michelangelo and the rare surviving painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (father of his more famous son). There are van Dyck’s, Van der Velde’s, de Lazlo’s and a stunning collection of silver and gold plate.
The most illustrious owner of Welbeck Abbey and active art collector was William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, royalist, poet, patron and much more. He was (and still is) famous for his horse riding skills and wrote one of the leading books on manège (an early form of dressage, or horse dancing ). He added a huge indoor riding house to Welbeck Abbey (an architectural marvel in itself) as well as to Bolsover Castle, just down the road from Welbeck. He was a courtier under King Charles I and was appointed tutor to his son, the later Charles II. As a royalist he was forced to flee to the continent during the civil war, where he met his second wife, Margaret Lucas, who made a name for herself as one of the first female published authors in the 17th century. Her book The Blazing World is considered a forerunner of science fiction and the first fictional work published by a woman in the 17th century. In Antwerp they rented the old house of Rubens (who died a few decades earlier) where, it was said, he used the art studio as a riding house to entertain his guests (including the exiled Charles II). In Flanders as well as back home at Welbeck they enjoyed a cultured life filled with science, philosophy and art. Cavendish was friends with Ben Jonson, Hobbes and Descartes and commissioned numerous portraits from Anthony van Dyck.
William’s heirs would continue, some more so than others, to expand the house and the art collection. The family line is dotted full of interesting and unusual figures. Many of the men in the family led public political lives, while many of the women were women who did not shy away from science, art collecting, architecture and debate.
During my research I focussed on the numerous portraits in the collection. In many of the portraits the focus of the paintings lies with the magnificent clothing worn by the sitters. These fabrics were more valuable and more costly than the paintings themselves and would have denoted the high status and wealth of their wearer. By borrowing pictorial language from the seventeenth century I have imbued my present day portraits with a sense of historicism, bridging the space between the present and the past.
Some of my paintings have direct links with works in the Portland Collection. The fantastic collection of miniatures at the Portland Collection, for example, is simply astounding. Contemporary artist Sir Peter Blake recently chose some of them and displayed them in his own manner. They were a joy to see. Those little paintings are just little wonders; they are so intricate, so tiny, so colourful and the portraits so full of character. For my two companion portraits Elizabeth Kate and Kate I have taken the motif of a miniature and enlarged it to a modern square format. Directly inspired by one specific Elizabeth miniature I have portrayed my friend and fellow artist Kate in two different guises: as herself and as an Elizabethan woman (or Elizabeth), hoping to create a dynamic between the past and the present, identity and dress.
Other works are less directly inspired by a particular works of art. The Girl in the Mirror and Waiting in Blue both feature a modern dress that I felt had clear Tudor and Jacobean echoes. For The Girl in the Mirror I used an early 17th century piece of lace (the lace I had used before for The Pearl Necklace in the the BP Travel Award series) as a collar. The piece of lace is actually a large cuff but I loosely draped it around the shoulders of my model to create a more contemporary look.
In many early 17th century portraits we find a silk or velvet curtain in the background. The draped curtain was one of the most popular portrait props of the time. You see them in various colours and some more dramatically draped than others. I love the theatrical drama of a well -draped piece of fabric and believe it deserves to be the subject of a painting. Hence I tackled The Curtain Falls. At the same time I challenged myself to paint that hardest of all textures to paint: velvet.
Large amounts of velvet also made up the portrait of The Matriarch, aka Bess of Hardwick. For this portrait (here is a blog post about how I painted her) I used black velvet and draped it loosely into a shape that reminisced Tudor dress. Bess was widowed four times in her life and in the three known portraits of her she wears black. As the mother of all who lived at Welbeck I wanted to paint her portrait. According to Tudor art history, she was known visually for her magnificent string of pearls and her black outfits. She was a lady to be reckoned with and it showed.
The Lying-in Room is a painting that takes the topic of pregnancy back to Tudor times. Contrary to The Long Wait (part of the BP Travel Award paintings) where the bump is decorated with thousands of pearls to celebrate its fertility, The Lying-in Room is dark, sober and intimate. The title of the painting refers to the the custom in Tudor (and later) times to cocoon a woman in the later stages of pregnancy and the first weeks after the birth. She would retreat into a warm and dark room with her lady attendants, to wait for the birth and recover afterwards. Windows were closed and light kept out, in an attempt to keep the new mother and baby safe from illness. Although the practice has of course long died out, the sensation of cocooning into a womb-like state is not alien to new mothers today. The huge red netting that I draped over my model was of course wonderful to paint, with all of its characteristic pleats and folds. My pregnant friend and model had a gorgeous baby girl not long after I painted this.
For the Portland series I wanted to use lots of colour, as a reminder of the colourful world of Tudor and Jacobean portraiture. At the same time I wanted these paintings to be as much about the past as they are about the contemporary world we live in today. My models are beautiful, special yet ordinary people who live their life like all of us. None of them are professional models. They are you and me.
The exhibition Identity & Dress opened at the Harley Gallery on 29 October 2016 and ran until 8 January 2017. All the paintings are available for sale.
Read more about the Portland Collection on my blog:
A short film on the exhibition at the Harley Gallery