Birds & Bees & Embroidery

written by Sophie | Art History



A Portrait by William Larkin?
I recently came across this portrait at Bristol Museum (above left) and found it immediately interesting. Of course ever since my BP Travel Award project I have a slight soft spot for portrait artist William Larkin (1580-1619) and this was labelled as ‘School of William Larkin’.


School of William Larkin, Portrait of an Unknown Lady, 1615. Bristol Museum.


Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Portrait of Frances Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, 1621. Compton Verney Art Gallery.

I have also always loved the so typical Jacobean embroidery which we can see on her jacket. Considering the slightly clumsy painting technique displayed it is obvious that this portrait was not by Larkin himself. But I remembered seeing a portrait very much like it recently (during my online ‘travels’) and looked it up. I found it at Compton Verney Art Gallery which owns a portrait of Frances Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox (not to be confused with the notorious Frances Howard, countess of Somerset). Although a lot of portraits in the Jacobean period (1603-1625) are alike in style and composition none are so alike as these two. The composition, the long loose blond hair, the crop, the embroidered jacket; it is all too alike to be coincidental. Of course one of the most obvious differences is the quality of the painting. The Compton Verney portrait, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, is much better painted, more subtle, beautiful and lifelike.

But could the Bristol portrait be a copy of the Howard painting? In the Bristol portrait the head somehow sits awkwardly on top of the body. Perhaps the head was painted later as an addition? Perhaps one artist painted the head and another the body? Perhaps the whole thing was painted much later than the early 17th century? I doubt the Bristol picture was painted by either artist but one reason, perhaps, why Bristol Museum labels it as ‘School of Larkin’ (the label does not explain this attribution) is her jacket. On closer inspection it seems that the embroidered jacket in the Bristol portrait is very similar to the jacket worn in another Larkin painting. In the portrait of Lady Thornhagh which was painted by Larkin in 1617 ( now in a private collection) there is an embroidered jacket with many similar motifs as in the Bristol portrait.

William Larkin, Portrait of a Lady, probably Lady Thornhagh, circa 1617. Private Collection.

Embroidered Jacket
There are very similar motifs such as the pansies, the red fruit (is it a 17th century strawberry?) and the blue borage (strawberries and borage were often combined in embroidery as well as in gardening at the time). There are grapes and a clear dominant motif of a red rose in both jackets. In Lady Thornhagh’s jacket, however, there is a very clear motif of a bird which we cannot find in the Bristol portrait as well as a caterpillar.


Detail of William Larkin, Portrait of possibly Lady Thornhagh, circa 1617. The Jacket is showing blue borage, birds and starflowers.

Stuck-on Lace
In the Thornhagh as well as the Bristol portrait we notice that the artist did not continue the jacket motifs underneath the painted lace edging, which is painted upon a plain grey ground (see the detail images above). No effort has been made to connect it visually to the jacket. But this is something we can find in quite a few of Larkin’s paintings (although not in some such as the glorious Suffolk Collection and so perhaps due to the use of studio assistants).  The grey background to the lace gives a rather ‘stuck on’ effect unfortunately. Although Lady Thornhagh’s portrait displays the same stuck-on lace, as is Isabella Rich’s portrait from 1614-18, we can see the opposite  in Larkin’s Lady Anne Clifford (1618) and many other examples. Gheeraerts’ paintings do not show this stuck-on lace at all, so the Bristol picture seems to be following a work from Larkin’s studio.  The clear similarities to the Compton Verney portrait by Gheeraerts, however, are undeniable. But so are the stylistic (although clumsy) links to William Larkin.

Detail of a Portrait of an unknown Woman, attributed to the School of Larkin, Bristol Museum. circa 1615. The jacket shows pansies, strawberries and blue borage.

So what about the Bristol Portrait?
I think I need to abandon trying to figure out who painted the Bristol portrait. All that I really wanted to raise is its similarities to the Compton Verney portrait and the intriguing questions the portrait raises about Jacobean embroidered jackets. Artists such as Larkin and Gheeraerts and their colleagues usually painted dress with a staggering eye for detail and so it seems unlikely that they would have taken some artistis licence in depicting designs. The motifs chosen could have had a special meaning to the sitter so not painting the motifs correctly would surely have raised an eyebrow and resulted in less commissions. The Bristol portrait, I venture a wild guess, was probably painted much later by an unknown artist who will have seen both Gheeraerts’ portrait of Frances Howard, as well as works by William Larkin and perhaps created a mash-up of elements to come up with something that looks remotely authentic. Who the lady portrayed is, or whether she ever really existed remains a mystery. Of course the curators of Bristol Museum might well have more information on the provenance of the picture, which I would love to hear. But for now I have based my thoughts on a little home research and a wandering mind.

Further reading: Rebecca Quinton, Seventeenth-century Costume, Glasgow Museums, 2013. Avril Hart and Susan North, Historical Fashion in Detail; The 17th and 18th Centuries, V&A Publications, 2006. Aileen Ribeiro, Fahsion and Fiction. Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England, 2005. Laura Houliston, The Suffolk Collection, 2012.


Published November 8, 2015

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