To sit for, or create a painted portrait in the 17th century required careful planning, staging and execution. In early 17th-century portraits, clothing often plays an important role in this. Through clothing and textiles the sitter and the artist were able to convey a message to the viewer. The viewer could either ‘read’ the hidden meanings, or visually experience the (often rich) textures depicted within the painting. Topics that were conveyed in these portraits often evoked thoughts on wealth and status, gender, identity, heritage or intellect. Many of these topics are still current today and in my paintings I have tried to let two periods in time coincide. In my paintings modern women wear early 17th century textiles, 17th century inspired designs, or I have played with themes and schemes from then and now.
In the 8 months I had for this project, I have spent many months reading literature on art history and the history of lace. I have done extensive research into late 16th and early 17th century art and portraiture in The Netherlands and England. Visits to art collections such as at the National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery, the Tate Gallery in England, and the Rijksmuseum and the Frans Hals Museum in The Netherlands provided me with plenty to work with. The early 17th century is such a rich period in the history of art, both in England and in The Netherlands. The combination of art history and lace history provided me with an interesting take on 17th century portraiture.
Reading and learning about the history of early lace, visiting lace collections and museums in for example Bruges, Honiton, Bath and Gloucestershire made me re-examine the portraits and carefully look at the textiles depicted in it.
Because the Victoria & Albert Museum had closed its doors on possibly the biggest lace collection in the country due to a large move, I was forced to find sources in unexpected and various places. Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire had a surprise in its extensive lace collection, collected by Emma Dent in the 19th century. The Fashion Museum in Bath offered wonderful study facilities and holds an great collection of early lace. The people at the Allhallows Museum of Lace in Honiton, Devon, offered me a warm welcome and showed me around their beautiful collection. Betty an Joachim Mendes, dealers in antique lace, kindly offered to lend me some pieces to study and paint from. I cannot thank them enough. In Bruges I struggled to find early lace but then came across the lovely lace shop ’t Apostelientje, which is packed to the rafters with handmade antique lace. All of these were unexpected and wonderful places of information and inspiration.
My trip to The Netherlands of course included a visit to the newly refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. A stunning museum with an equally stunning collection of Dutch masterpieces (and great apple-pie in the restaurant). The Medieval collections in particular are displayed very dramatically, but the main galleries upstairs are very impressive as well. It was as if you were walking into a theatrical event. There was a beautiful dark atmosphere with bright dramatic spot lights on the objects and paintings. The museum is fantastically restored in its 19th century glory, and my favourite paintings by Verspronck are right by the entrance in the Gallery of Honour. Elsewhere a large black painted room is hung full of Rembrandts. It is a visual feast.
The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem takes you back to the 17th century. The building provides a beautiful Dutch atmosphere. There are plenty of Versproncks to admire inside and of course lots of grand pieces by Frans Hals.
The excellent Dutch public transport took me to most places in Holland but I decided to drive to Bruges in Belgium; the city of lace. Despite a car break-down and a general lack of authentic lace, the stunning paintings by Jan van Eyck in the Groeninge Museum would heal any troubles. Its amazing detail in the painted fabrics and jewels would perhaps influence later English Tudor art through the many Flemish artists working in England in the 16th century.
Tudors & Jacobeans
I found great inspiration admiring the Tudor and Jacobean portraits at Montacute House in Somerset, which houses a large collection of portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. At the gallery’s home in London there is wealth of information and paintings to study, and of course museums such as the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery provided me with plenty of ideas. The glittering exhibitions Painted Pomp at the Holburne Museum in Bath and In Fine Style at the Queens Gallery in London were major instigators and inspirations for this project. The paintings by William Larkin, Robert Peake, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, and Frans Pourbus the Younger, amongst many others, so brilliantly on display in Bath and London would spur anyone on to seek out beauty in textiles.
After my travels and my books my mind was full of ideas for paintings. More ideas than I could ever paint. I had to choose and started planning. For most paintings I needed props: lace, collars or other pieces of clothing, and fabrics. I hunted to collect the four pieces of authentic early 17th century lace for my portrait series The Four Ages of Woman. I spent many hours creating a pearl skirt, the pattern taken from a painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, a black-work inspired costume after paintings by Robert Peake the Elder, a ruff (I just had to try and make one, but it ended up taking a number of efforts), collecting lace handkerchiefs, and an outfit for my handkerchief girl. After I found my models I could put brush to canvas…..
I am hugely grateful to have been given this opportunity by the National Portrait Gallery and BP. It has no doubt helped me to develop my work further and I hope people will find the results interesting and beautiful.
The exhibition ’The Lace Trail’ was on at the National Portrait Gallery during the summer of 2014 and went on tour to Edinburgh, Sunderland and Wales thereafter.
For the Travel Award project I have
- Visited 8 cities in 3 countries
- Visited 15 museums
- Read countless books
- Glued nearly 6000 pearls onto a silk skirt
- Used nearly 13 meters of antique lace
- And around 40 meters of modern fabrics
- Studied many, many more meters of lace in archives, collections and literature and learned how to identify and date some of them.
- Created 10 paintings and wrote 1 book