Convener Lucy Razzall summarises:
Our speakers this week offered two rich visions of the material culture of the early modern court, in continental Europe and England respectively, and between them spanning a period of several centuries. You can see the storify of tweets from the session here, and the podcast here.
In her paper entitled ‘The Fabric of Female Rule in Leone Leoni’s statue of Mary of Hungary, c. 1555’, Cordula van Wyhe from the University of York introduced us to a remarkable sixteenth-century bronze statue of the sometime Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, and sister of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This striking piece, standing at just over life size, is the only known full-length portrait sculpture commissioned by a woman in her life time from this period. Van Wyhe began by comparing it with a similar statue of the patron’s brother dressed as a soldier, and illuminating the contrast between the traditionally masculine, martial associations of bronze with the soft folds of Mary’s clothing. Other features of the statue are perhaps surprising, too – the long stole-like garment she wears is visibly adorned with a cross at each tip, evoking priestly garb. Leoni’s statue is an unusual artifact, a three-dimensional manifestation of some of Mary’s personal and political concerns about her own identity. This object, as van Wyhe demonstrated, urges us to see the construction of the female royal body in the early modern period as more nuanced and more powerful than is often assumed.
Turning from the furnishing of the royal body to the furnishing of royal rooms, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, took us on a whistle-stop tour of the art in some of the London royal residences, courtesy of the beautiful watercolour images from William Henry Pyne’s The History of Royal Residences, of 1819. Juxtaposing these with some details from the inventories of the collection made during the Regency period, Shawe-Taylor explained that the Royal Collection Trust is currently using these two major sources to piece together a more comprehensive account of the collection’s history, at least since the Restoration. His wonderfully detailed discussion led us into many different rooms, and revealed the ways in which changing tastes and fashions have affected how paintings were displayed in these royal spaces. For some time, as Pyne’s images show, it was conventional to hang paintings directly on top of wall tapestries. Pyne’s images also illustrate the varying importance of certain architectural features, such as the space over the door, often reserved for a portrait, even in a room in which there are no other portraits. By the nineteenth century, St James’s Palace was considered terribly old-fashioned, and not used as a place of residence – and so the works displayed there (and the ways in which they were arranged on the walls) correspondingly represent the kinds of things that were not so much in vogue at the time. At play in all of these images, Shawe-Taylor emphasised, is an evident tension between antiquarian and aesthetic concerns, and how they each inform choices about which paintings are on display, as well as where and how they are displayed. He suggested we might see the inventories as a kind of map, marking out the locations of each work of art within the royal residences. (It was amusing to hear that the frequent mentions of ‘Janet’ in the inventory in fact refer to Jean Clouet, the influential portrait artist of the Northern Renaissance).
However, he also issued a warning about the dangerous temptations these inventories (and others, presumably) offer. Such is the appeal of tracing ‘things’, and especially royal ‘things’, is all too easy to believe one has found exactly what one was looking for amongst the tantalizing array of entries, and to misidentify something.