William Larkin: The Curtain Master

The work of William Larkin (early 1580s – 1619) stands out from the crowd. Not only because some of his works are huge, but also because of the fantastic depiction of fabrics.  His paintings also show the changeover from Tudor art into the more continentally inspired art of the 17th century. His bold use of colour and fairly flat depiction of shape echoes the 16th century, while his more realistic faces and collars look forward the the 17th century. Larkin’s heydays were in the first couple of decades of the 17th century when he was patronaged by the aristocracy of the day. He never did paint royalty  but seems to have been very busy painting portraits. The series of works known as the Suffolk Collection is particularly well-known for its brilliance and size. They are on display at Kenwood House in London. 

In my last blog post I wrote about Larkin the man; in this blog post I’d like to have a quick look at the painter at work.

Materials

Larkin used a common set of materials for his work, consisting of a double ground (water soluble chalk ground, bound with glue or size) overlaid with lead white oil primer. He created an underdrawing in a variety of materials, including a graphite like drawing medium, and he used a grey-green under paintings for painting skin tones. He might have experimented a little with a new zinc 'drier' to speed up drying. His palette was quite common at the time and consisted of chalk, lead white, lead tin yellow, red, yellow and brown earths, vermillion, red lead, two organic red lakes, azurite, smalt (blue), possibly natural ultramarine, verdigris (blueish green), green verditer, and lamp, ivory and charcoal black.  He worked on panel as well as canvas. Many of his red lake glazes have faded over time and had to be restored where possible but his reds are now generally a lot more 'vermillion' looking and less rich than originally painted. 

William Larkin, Portrait of Lady Diana Cecil, oil on canvas, 205.9x119.5cm (81 1/4x47 1/16”). Kenwood House. ©English Heritage.

Size

The painting of Diana is huge. Even when it would rest on the floor you would never see her face close up and properly. The figure stands in the centre of the painting, full figure, against a black background. Warm bottle green curtains and a green velvet x-framed chair frame her figure that stands out from the dark in all its silky, shiny lightness. There is very little colour in her pearl grey dress, the golden embroidery and golden silk lining of her skirt peeping through the slashes being the only interruption of this pearly vision. 

The Painting of the Dress

The figure is drawn in a very exact manner, all the details of folds and shapes are there. Some sense of depth is created by the soft edges used all around her figure.

The only sharp edging is on her long open sleeve on (our) right which works as a sharp arrow-head pointing us toward the face.  The slashed dress is what attracts attention first and foremost. It is most unusual to our modern eyes and almost looks like coming from the 20th century punk movement instead of 17th century court. It was a short-lived fashion that showed off the rich fabric of the skirt lining. The slashes are finished off neatly and non-fraying. They are cut at regular intervals in-between the golden embroidery that zig-zags over the skirt. The side panels show the pattern clearly and in the middle skirt panel the same pattern is used, but the whole pattern is turned 90 degrees so that the slashes fall open. The skirt and bodice are made from a heavy silk, beautifully painted by Larkin with white highlights. Larkin wasn't called the 'Curtain Master' for nothing: he was a true master of depicting fabrics, drapery, embroidery and lace. 

The meticulously painted dress contrasts slightly with the much softer and life-like face which is surrounded by soft edges. Diana's hair and ruff fade into the dark background. Her ruff shows a staggeringly detailed depiction of early reticella needle lace, which would have been held up by a wire frame underneath. Her handkerchief is edged off with a beautiful design of reticella lace and finished with scalloped border of needle lace. The detail in the painting is so very fine that the artist probably had access to the dress and the lace in their studio, without the sitter being present and so they could copy the material and design very precisely.

The painting of the gold thread embroidery is one of Larkin's trademarks. His meticulous depiction of the highlights dotted all over the painting could not be copied by his assistants and experts can still tell whose hand applied the dots.  He did not use gilt or metallic leaf but created the effect of metallic shine in mere paint.  He had a method of a triple layered application of brown, orange and yellow for gold, and dark grey, light grey and white for silver. Raised dots of paint added to the realistic effect. The embroidered fabrics in his paintings are built up in 7 or 8 layers of paint. 

Click the images to enlarge

Size  The painting of Diana is huge. Even when it would rest on the floor you would never see her face close up and properly. The figure stands in the centre of the painting, full figure, against a black background. Warm bottle green curtains and a green velvet x-framed chair frame her figure that stands out from the dark in all its silky, shiny lightness. There is very little colour in her pearl grey dress, the golden embroidery and golden silk lining of her skirt peeping through the slashes being the only interruption of this pearly vision.

Detail of a portrait of Isabella Rich, c. 1614-18, oil. Suffolk Collection, Kenwood House.  You can clearly see how the bright yellow highlights are painted stick out from the surface, catching the light and providing a particular sparkling effect.

Further reading:

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