The Wrest Park Portrait

 

     This is an older, outdated version of an essay written in 2007. In the interim, I have conducted considerably more research on the subject of portraiture of Lady Jane Grey, and that research has caused me to revise entirely the opinions here from those early days. The revised essay on another page is based on considerable additional research on this painting in particular, and the evidence led me in a somewhat different direction than expected. I leave this first essay posted in order to demonstrate, when compared to the revised version, how new researech can lead to new ideas and conclusions.
 
 
 
        This is perhaps the most promising of the various potential portraits of Lady Jane Grey to come before the public eye in recent years. The picture has many elements to recommend it as an authentic portrait of Jane, but it is not without issues that need resolution.

        Bendor Grosvenor of Philip Mould, Ltd., notes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Lost Faces: Identity and Discovery in Tudor Royal Portraiture that the boards on which the painting was executed have been dendrochronologically dated to the 1540s, well before Jane’s death in early 1554. How much of the visible paint work itself dates to that same period is unclear: Grosvenor notes that it has been ‘much over-painted’.[1] Until the over-painting has been removed and the underlying image revealed, a costly and time-consuming process, it would be premature to identify the sitter with any certainty as Lady Jane Grey. One of the principal lessons of the Lost Faces exhibition was to demonstrate clearly that old paintings endured frequent alteration over the centuries through attempts to ‘improve’ them and that the clearing of those alterations sometimes reveals a ‘lost face’ and completely changes our assessment of the work.[2]

        The Wrest Park portrait has apparently been labeled by its successive owners as ‘Lady Jane’ since at least the 1690s. It was also copied at least twice, perhaps as early as the 1600s, and both copies were labeled ‘Lady Jane’, suggesting that the identification was well-supported.[3] Further, the owners (since at least 1701) of the original and its copies are all descendants of the Kent-Ruthin line of the Grey family, distant cousins of Lady Jane, giving the painting some familial linkage, though distant, to its putative sitter.

        The Kent-Ruthin Greys reportedly acquired the painting by at least the turn of the eighteenth century from the ‘collection of Lady Dacre’. It was, Mr Grosvenor states, already labeled ‘Lady Jane Grey ’ when listed in the collection of Henry Grey, Duke of Kent, in 1701.[4] It is unclear from the exhibition catalogue (and I have thus far been unable to obtain clarification) from which ‘Lady Dacre’ collection the Greys acquired the picture or from what era the lady and her collection originated. There were many women styled Lady Dacre between the mid sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries. I have been able to identify only one Lady Dacre still living in 1701, the time of the portrait’s apparent transfer to the Greys, however. She was the wife of Sir William Dacre (d. 1704), himself a descendant of a longstandingly papist line of the Dacre family, a line unlikely to have retained for so many years a portrait of a Protestant martyr. The Lady Dacre who amassed the collection from which the Greys acquired the picture must therefore have lived in some earlier period.

        Lady Jane Dacre of Lanercost, a sixteenth-century Scotswoman descended from the wealthy Carlisle family, married into the Dacre family late in her life. Prior to that, she had what has been described as a ‘liaison’ with Sir John Lowther, bearing him a daughter and eventually serving as his executor upon his death in 1553. Their relationship seems to have begun in the 1540s, precisely the time at which the wood for the boards of the painting has been dated. Well after Lowther’s death, in about 1565, Jane became the third wife of Sir Thomas Dacre of Lanercost, the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Dacre, second Baron Dacre of Gilsland (d. 1525).[5]

        Lady Jane Dacre seems to have been wealthy in her own right, having inherited money and property from both her Carlisle relations and Sir John Lowther. She was apparently wealthy enough to live independently during the decade before her eventual marriage, unusual for a gentlewoman of the sixteenth century. She is reputed to have had a richly decorated house and a collection of paintings. Her will dated 7 January 1575 survives.[6] A careful examination of it seems compulsory since there is a close and perhaps critical lineage connection between her and the Grey earls (later dukes) of Kent that allows for direct inheritance by the Greys of any portrait of Lady Jane Dacre.[7]

        The costume worn by the sitter in the Wrest Park portrait is austere, all but devoid of embellishment and jewelry. Mr. Grosvenor argues that this is ‘an unflatteringly honest depiction ... [that] conforms well to the pious image of Jane as a virtuous protestant martyr, not least in the simple costume that we know she preferred’.[8] He notes further that the costume was seen even by early viewers as so plain that copyist-engravers felt obliged to add jewels and fur trimmings in order to depict Jane Grey with sufficient queenly status.[9]

        When compared to virtually all other portraits that have been proposed as depictions of Jane Grey, the Wrest Park picture is remarkable for being the most thoroughly lacking in the critical material-cultural symbols of social and economic status commonly worn by sitters of rank. In my opinion, the utter absence of any display of even modest wealth is disconcerting if the sitter is indeed Jane Grey. It would seem to be unique among portraits of wealthy persons, especially persons of royal blood, in the period, regardless of their presumed religious outlook.[10] Even Princess Elizabeth, whose ‘modest’ dress habits Jane Grey is famously reported to have emulated, is not known ever to have dressed as severely as the woman in the Wrest Park portrait.[11] If the painting is indeed a portrait of Lady Jane Grey, she is presented as a proto-Puritan and one who is starkly at odds with the costume conventions of both her status and era ... so much so that she might be termed ‘radical’ in dress. For a girl generally portrayed as weak, helpless, and easily controlled by others, it seems unlikely that she would have been so transgressive in her dress.

        Mr Grosvenor argues that the austerity of costume may indicate that the portrait is a ‘consciously historical’ posthumous portrait, an attempt by an artist working some years after her death to capitalize on or reproduce visually the narrative depictions of Jane as a pious and virtuous woman of modest habits. This argument seems to me plausible, but only if the portrait was created after the mid 1560s. Prior to that time, Jane had not yet gained a significant reputation as a religious figure. No printed publications describing Jane Grey are known from the period between late 1554 and the publication of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, or Book of Martyrs, in 1563. She seems not to have been identifiable among the general public as a pious person until the early 1590s when Thomas Dekker and others began producing stage plays about her.

        The plain costume might be appropriate, however, for a young woman involved in an illicit affair and a husband-less mother of an illegitimate child living alone in the 1540s and 1550s. Perhaps the portrait represents one woman’s attempt at ‘Renaissance self-fashioning’ and the rehabilitation of a negative personal image by having herself portrayed modestly.[12] Further, Jane Dacre is believed to have been, like her husband, a Protestant, consistent with the prevailing opinion that the painting depicts one of that faith.[13]

        Lastly there is the issue of the flowers worn at the sitter’s décolletage. They have been identified as a variety of gillyflower known as pinks, to which have been added violets symbolizing true love and what may be ears of wheat as symbols of fertility.[14] Pinks have repeatedly been noted in a succession of unidentified portraits as evidence indicating that the sitter is Jane Grey because the Grey family is known to have used them as a badge or heraldic emblem. Most notably, the woman depicted in the National Portrait Gallery painting, now identified as Katherine Parr, was for two decades thought to be Jane Grey in part because she holds a single pink. David Starkey referred to the bouquet of gillyflowers in the miniature in the Lost Faces exhibition to support identifying it as Jane Grey as well. Gillyflowers and pinks are common flowers; they occur in numerous portraits from the sixteenth century, though usually singly. The emblemology derived from the flowers is therefore at best circumstantial, certainly not definitive.

        While it is very tempting to identify the Wrest Park painting as a posthumous portrait of Lady Jane Grey created shortly after her death in an early effort to supplement her emerging literary image as a pious Protestant martyr, the available evidence does not at this point adequately support such a conclusion. I believe further study and research are necessary, especially a complete restoration of the picture with removal of all overpaint. I believe it is also critical to definitively exclude any possibility that the picture might be a portrait of Lady Jane Dacre that was mislabeled, accidentally or intentionally, at some point during the approximately 150 years between its creation and its acquisition by the Greys in 1701.[15] While future research may clarify these issues and demonstrate with greater reliability that the picture is an early posthumous and idealized portrait of Lady Jane Grey, I am confident that it will not prove to be a ‘lost’ life portrait of Jane Grey.

Addendum (2009) : Since writing the above in 2007, additional information has come to my attention that reinforces my opinion that this is not a portrait of Lady Jane Grey, whether from life or posthumous. Through my research on various other portraits, I have ascertained that the costume seen here is almost certainly from a period well before Jane Grey was as old as the woman depicted. A nearly identical outfit can be seen in the miniature portrait of Jane Small (formerly identified as Margaret Throckmorton Pemberton) now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), P.40&A-1935. The miniature is by Hans Holbein (d. 1543) and has been dated to circa 1540. The costume in the Wrest Park Portrait thus probably also dates to sometime before 1545, at the latest ... and Jane Grey was no more than 9 years old in 1545. Further, Jane Small was the wife of a London merchant and not a member of the aristocracy or titled nobility, confirming that the costume is inappropriate for a young woman of royal birth and exceptional social status such as Lady Jane Grey. In the event that dendrochronological dating of the boards of the Wrest Park portrait is performed, I suspect it will confirm a date in the early 1540s, leaving it all but impossible that the woman depicted actually is, or is even intended to be, Lady Jane Grey.

 
 

 

J. Stephan Edwards

         
  NOTES :      
 
[1]
 
Bendor Grosvenor and David Starkey, ‘The Search for Lady Jane Grey’ in Lost Faces: Identity and Discovery in Tudor Royal Portraiture (London: Philip Mould, Ltd., 2007), 85.
 
         
 
[2]
 
See Philip Mould’s chapter ‘Overpaint Uncovered’ in Lost Faces: Identity and Discovery in Tudor Royal Portraiture (London: Philip Mould, Ltd., 2007), 13–15.
 
         
 
[3]
 
Grosvenor and Starkey, Lost Faces, 85–86.
 
         
 
[4]
 
Grosvenor and Starkey, Lost Faces, 85.
 
         
 
[5]
 
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. ‘Dacre, Lady Jane’. Jane Carlisle Dacre may have been reduced to marrying Thomas, a man of illegitimate birth, on account of her own previous apparently illicit affair with Sir John Lowther.
 
         
 
[6]
 
ODNB, s.v. ‘Dacre, Lady Jane."
 
         
 
[7]
 
Lady Jane Dacre was married to Thomas Dacre. Thomas’s half-sister Mary Dacre wed Francis Talbot, 5th Earl of Shrewsbury in 1523. Mary’s and Francis’s grandson Gilbert, the seventh earl, was 23 years old when his great-aunt died, and it is possible that they knew each other. Gilbert had a daughter, Elizabeth Talbot, who in turn married Henry Grey, 8th Earl of Kent, in 1601. Their descendant (by a fairly torturous blood line but very direct titular – and thus estate – line), Henry Grey, 12th Earl and 1st Duke of Kent, is reputed to have acquired the Wrest Park portrait from the ‘collection of Lady Dacre’ by 1701. Might he have actually acquired it by inheritance through the estates of the Earls of Kent, the painting having entered the Kent family through Elizabeth Talbot, great-grand-niece of Lady Jane Dacre? This seems all the more likely since Lady Dacre is known to have excluded from her will any Dacres the male line on account of an outstanding lawsuit brought by her stepson William Dacre. Did she instead favor her more distant relations in the female line, the Talbots of Shrewsbury? Certainly this possibility needs to be completely explored.
 
         
 
[8]
 
Grosvenor and Starkey, Lost Faces, 85.
 
         
 
[9]
 
Grosvenor and Starkey, Lost Faces, 85, caption to Fig. 55.
 
         
 
[10]
 
The traditional historical and especially literary depiction of Jane Grey as exceptionally pious will be challenged elsewhere. It is beyond the scope of this current essay.
 
         
 
[11]
 
Compare, for example, the portraits of Elizabeth as a young woman before her accession included in the Lost Faces catalogue (Figs. 5, 24, and 57).
 
         
 
[12]
 
On the modern concept of Renaissance self-fashioning, see Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
 
         
 
[13]
 
ODNB, s.v. ‘Dacre, Jane’.
 
         
 
[14]
 
Grosvenor and Starkey, Lost Faces, 86.
 
         
 
[15]
 
Though the picture was copied and modified as an engraving in 1681 and labeled Lady Jane Grey at that time, this is not proof that the identification of the sitter as Jane Grey has always been or is now correct. See, for example, the confusion of  the identity of the sitter labeled as Lady Jane Grey in a similar engraving of the same era copied from a portrait now known to be of Katherine Parr. Grosvenor and Starkey, Lost Faces, 80-81.
 
         
 
 

 

Historian "at" somegreymatter "dot" com

Page Created 2007, Updated 1 April 2011

Copyright © 2007 – 2014, J. Stephan Edwards
May not be reproduced in part or in whole without written permission of the author.