Pollok House, just south of Glasgow and near to the Burrell Collection, is an 18th century mansion built by the Maxwell Family now administered by the National Trust for Scotland. New Perspectives invites artists to produce work suggested by one of the paintings or artefacts in the house and opens to the public on 17th March.

I have chosen a miniature portrait of Lady Arbella Stuart (1575 – 1615) attributed to Peter Oliver (1594 – 1648) and the resulting work is called Hellish Moths Still Gnaw and Fret (quoted from a poem by John Donne), a selection of rusted and burnt tins with nine species of clothes moth painted in ashes and smoke.

“Hellish Moths Still Gnaw and Fret” 2012, smoke and ashes on burnt and rusted tins.

The portrait is of a young red-headed girl in a floral patterned dress and red velvet cloak and is believed to be a copy of a painting by the artist’s father, Issac Oliver, now in the collection of the National Museum in Stockholm (below, left). Arbella Stuart, niece to Mary Queen of Scots and granddaughter of the formidable Bess of Hardwick Hall, was regarded as Elizabeth I’s natural heir and was brought up as queen in waiting. She was highly cultured, a talented writer and musician, but also political dynamite, linked to numerous marriages of alliance and plots to overthrow Elizabeth. Consequently she spent much of her young life under house arrest, a situation which drove her to near insanity.

On Elizabeth’s death in 1603 Arbella’s claim to the throne was passed over in favour of her cousin James VI of Scotland. When she married without the king’s permission in 1610 she was imprisoned in the Tower of London where she eventually starved herself to death. She subsequently became a figure of romance and legend and the inspiration for Spencer’s “Duchess of Malfi”. I believe that the miniatures may date from this period, retrospective icons of an infamous and tragic heroine. Sadly her tale seems to have been largely forgotten and she has become England’s lost and faceless queen.

Interestingly I have come across other versions of the portrait, the one on the right is the Stockholm portrait but those to left and centre are Isaac Oliver’s in the the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and Peter Oliver’s in the Victoria and Albert Museum, a painting I went to view last week.  Here it is labelled as a portrait of Venetia Stanley, a notorious Jacobean beauty who eventually married her childhood sweetheart Sir Francis Digby in whose collection the paintings were believed to have been discovered. The paintings, including that at Pollok House, appear to be of the same girl, but who is she?

Pinning a definitive likeness on anyone from this era is extremely difficult. Miniatures of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, although sometimes monogrammed by the artist, rarely include a title or dedication because they were a private art form, highly personal love tokens, keep sakes and remembrances. They were kept in ivory frames, normally lidded, sometimes worn around the neck as a dedication. They contain micro-clues as to meaning and identity – manner of dress, hairstyle, jewellery and hand gesture. Fragile objects, painted in watercolour on velum, they were sometimes backed and stiffened with a playing card, in the case of the V and A portrait, an Ace of Spades, the highest card in the pack but also the ‘death card’. Sadly much of the code is lost and much is open to interpretation and speculation.

Copies were made were for patrons, secret admirers and potential suiters. Another portrait in the V and A collection hints at how the system worked. It is by John Hoskins, probable pupil of Hilliard or Oliver, an early apprentice work of the 1610’s and clearly closely related to the ‘Arbella’ miniatures. The facial likeness is lost in the lantern jaw and drooping lids, possibly because this represents another woman of course but it could also be that a copy of a copy of a copy results in misunderstanding, exaggeration and distortion. Visual Chinese whispers. The Pollok House painting also appears to contain similar elements of the copyist’s art, a doll-like mannequin of a long dead legend, a martyr, an ancient icon of the doomed Stuart cause.

“Portrait of Arbella Stuart” with “True Lover’s Knot”

Postscript: I often relate pieces I have been making with pieces of music, sometimes because I have been listening to particular type of music in the studio or I may have come across something on the radio which has got me thinking. Arbella was known to have been an accomplished musician who played the lute and the viola da gamba, both of which are featured on a fantastic inlaid table at Hardwick Hall, her grandmother’s residence and her prison in Derbyshire which I visited recently. A consort of viols makes the most mournful of sounds, a haunting groan perfectly in tune with the dark shadows of her age. Viols fell out of fashion on the Restoration of Charles II who preferred the violin but they went out with a moody flourish with Purcell’s beautiful series of Fantasias.

I came across an interesting contemporary take on the consort of viols on Radio 3’s Early Music Show which featured the National Centre for Early Music Composers Awards which required entrants to write a short piece for the group Fretwork. You can listen to this contemporary take an ancient form at www.ncem.co.uk/composersaward2011, music to accompany “Hellish Moths”

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