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The Long Wait

I have been intrigued by the portraits of pregnant women, such as the ones painted by Marcus Gheeraerts. Pregnancy is nowadays a much more private affair, but the wonder of new life has hopefully not changed. There is a stunning portrait of an unknown lady by Gheeraerts in which her face is depicted as pale as the hundreds of beautiful pearls sewn onto her gown. She wears a friendly smile and her hands rest on her pregnant belly, a very familiar pose to pregnant women. Her spectacular dress is decorated with hundreds of pearls, sewn on in a swirling pattern of snakes, ladybirds and leaves. Her dress is made from a brocade silver-grey silk. 

Left: Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Portrait of an Unknown Lady, oil on wood, 1595. © Tate Gallery, London. Right: Sophie Ploeg, The Long Wait, oil on linen, 2014.

The making of the skirt.

Inspired by such a dazzling display I decided to bring it into our own time. I portrayed a heavily pregnant friend wearing a modern top of her choice. She is the 21st century woman, but she is as timeless as human kind itself in her pregnant state. Her skirt is a copy of the gown of our unknown 17th century lady. For this I copied the pattern from Gheeraerts' painting, transferred it onto some silver-grey taffeta silk and applied the pearls.  I could then paint my model wearing the skirt.  

The lace pattern in the background is taken from an allegedly 16th century piece of lace held at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. It is said to have been worked on by Anne Boleyn during her pregnancy and used during Elizabeth I’s christening. The piece was purchased by Emma Dent who collected most of the lace at Sudeley Castle in the late 19th century. There is no real provenance for the piece, just the diary entries from Emma Dent, in which she states she bought the piece in 1878 from descendants of Catherine Parr and it had the story attached that it had belonged to Anne Boleyn.  It has since simply always been known as a “canopy” made for Elizabeth I as a baby. That is the reason I have included it in my painting, as the associations with it are and have always been, pregnancy,  new life, and motherhood.

The Anne Boleyn Canopy

A closer inspection of the piece, however, raises  some doubts about the story attached to the canopy. Elizabeth I was born in 1533, a period when lace was still in its infancy. Lace started to develop in the later 16th century from drawn threads, passementerie and cutwork. Portraits from the early 16th century rarely show lace. 

One reason for the assumed Anne Boleyn connection is the multiple appearance of Anne’s crest of a falcon on a tree trunk in the lace pattern. We can indeed find a bird motif many times. But I question whether this is Anne Boleyn’s falcon, or an eagle, or a phoenix? Besides the bird there are clear images of a figure, there are pansies and roses, the latter with a snake coiling around the rose’s stem. There are pomegranates and many other flowers, leaves and scrolling patterns. 

The ‘Anne Boleyn Canopy’ at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire.

Details from the ‘Boleyn Canopy’.

If we study the lace  we can make out at least 4 different  patterns . There is a tape lace piece with the birds and the fire figure (pattern 1),  and a second piece with leaves and plant motifs, divided into squared and rectangular compartments (pattern 2). Then there is a third pattern with flowers and pomegranates, petals and leaves and a scrolling stem through it (pattern 3).  A fourth piece is one with a strict square pattern, typical of reticella lace (pattern 4). 

The lace with the birds motif is a beautiful needlelace, but lace like this did not appear until the early 17th century (pattern 1).  The pattern suggests even a 19th century date perhaps. We can find the birds irregularly throughout the pattern, which also shows cut up half birds  and other broken motifs here and there.

The floral pattern (2) enclosed in rectangular compartments, looks very much like a typical English needle lace from the 17th century. The floral motif, however, seems to have been attached to the square compartments by a seperate hand at a different date? 

The floral scrolling patterns (3) also might date from the 17th century and are reminiscent of the embroidery patterns we can see in the famous Layton jacket and many other embroideries from the period. Pansies, roses and cornflowers feature regularly in the late 16th century blackwork embroidery. The irregular pattern suggests again however that this is a later creation.

The reticella piece is a 19th century creation, in my opinion, as there is a lack of finesse, picots and a general ‘feel’ of early lace.

Most of the patterns are cut and mixed up into this canopy. Flowers from one piece are sewn into another piece and the other way round. Pattersn do not stop at the edges. The whole canopy seems to have been made from multiple pieces of lace and fabricated into a single canopy at a later date. I would not date this canopy as from the 16th century, but that does not mean it is not a beautiful and interesting piece of lace history. 

The Long Wait, Oil on canvas, 101.5x61cm, Available.

About the author

Sophie is an artist, art historian, tutor, author and blogger. She writes on oil and pastel painting, art history and the life of an artist. She paints portraits and still life and specialises in painting drapery and lace.

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