Portrait of a Lady, Alesso Baldovinetti, (1426–99), Tempera on panel. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

What survives of love

A splendid exhibition explores the history of romance

Artillery Row On Art

In the long age before photos, selfies and Tinder, portraits were the only means by which the resemblance of a potential loved one could be evaluated by a suitor. Much trust was put into the skill of the artist in capturing the likeness. It did not always work out well: Henry VIII famously slavered over the pre-marriage portrait of his fourth bride, Anne of Cleves (painted by no less an artist than Hans Holbein the Younger) — but when she turned up in the flesh, the king was, to put it mildly, greatly disappointed.

As the splendid “Painted Love: Renaissance Marriage Portraits” at the lovely Holburne Museum in Bath deftly shows, there was much more to a portrait than a pretty or handsome face. Symbolism abounds, from pink carnations and pearls to artichokes and orange blossoms, all representing some aspect of faithfulness, modesty, chastity or purity that the viewer (or suitor) would have instantly recognised. Take the painting wisely chosen to promote the exhibition, Alesso Baldovinetti’s Portrait of a Lady, c. 1465. The lady’s pearls bespeak purity, whilst her pale skin represents ideas of beauty. (Keeping out of the sun in Italy certainly helps to prevent wrinkles.) Her face is in profile, from a time shortly before classically influenced Italian portraiture absorbed the influence of the Netherlands’ renaissance to adopt third-quarter portraits and even face-on. This sets off her striking nose, which fails to conform to a clean, straight line or pert curvature. It does not detract from her beauty but enhances it, as it purposely captures her individuality of character. This is what good portraiture does, then and now: it should convey something of the inner personality of the sitter. I’m sure the lady’s bizarre coiffure was all the rage at the time; it just goes to show how daft hairstyles are not the preserve of the modern age.

The fact that the richly-adorned lady in question remains unknown adds poignancy to the show: we do not know who she is, but we have all shared her same hopes and expectations for a romantic love match, which she hopefully found as the painting depicts her as a young wife. The deep ultramarine blue background sets off the portrait wonderfully. It really is a star exhibit.

The show is dominated by royal matches. We encounter Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, who at eighteen married a suspiciously youthful looking fifty-two-year-old Louis XII of France, seen in his official portrait here. Married in 1514 and widowed the next year, she swiftly married her true love, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. The couple appear together in a painting from c.1533–35. The marriage did not suit Henry’s plans, and he was much put out by his sister’s actions.

Another portrait captures a fairy-tale marriage that ended tragically

The marriage market for land, titles, riches and diplomatic and political ends was a competitive one, including the sphere of patronage. In 1464, Elizabeth Woodville married Edward IV, and her family was duly rewarded, including her nineteen-year-old brother John being hitched up with the wealthy Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, who was about 65 years of age. I don’t expect in this case there was an exchange of flattering portraits. Marriage was usually a better option than war. Indeed, it was said to Europe’s leading imperial dynasty, the Austrian Habsburgs: “Let others wage war; but thou, happy Austria, marry.” Their dynastic marriage policy compounded their power, whilst their inter-familial marriages drastically weakened their gene pool: King Philip II of Spain (r. 1556-98) had four wives, three of whom were cousins or nieces. He is represented at the exhibition on a fine bronze medal celebrating his marriage to Queen Mary of England in 1554.

Another portrait, by Corneille de Lyon, captures an initially fairy-tale marriage that ended tragically. James V of Scotland was infatuated with the sixteen-year-old Madeleine of France; he jilted his intended and married the French princess instead. Just over four months after their marriage, on 1 January 1537, the young bride died in her husband’s arms.

The show’s Italian section is especially impressive. Leonello d’Este’s 1447 unembellished profile emulates classical Roman style and presentation of power. Half a century later, Andrea Solario’s portrait of A Man With a Pink demonstrates how far Italian portraiture has developed, influenced not least by Hans Memling’s work in northern Europe. Here the man faces the viewer full on, all masculine square jawed and domineering maturity (as revealed by a few wisps of grey hair), which befits his high official role. The background shows the also imported innovation of a landscape. A carnation and the ring prominently displayed on his thumb clearly denote this as a marriage portrait.

The following English section is far less serene due to the histories attached to the sitters. Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is seen here in all his arrogant, pompous attitude and attire, his unrestrained ambition. Suitable husband material for Elizabeth? That might depend on what happened to his first wife, Amy Robsart. Dudley’s detractors still accused him of being behind her fatal fall down the staircase. The artist Hans Eworth dominates this part of the exhibition, not least with his impressive brace of paintings from 1562 and 1563, which depict Thomas Howard, Earl of Norfolk, and his second wife Margaret Audley. These were designed to be hung together, so it is significant to see them reunited here. When Margaret died six years later, Norfolk aimed higher in 1572, with a plan to marry Mary Queen of Scots. It cost him his head.

The exhibition is not all about match-making and the first flush of marriage

The late Tudor court saw a fashion for miniatures to be carried in lockets. This is exquisitely exemplified here by Nicholas Hilliard’s end-of-the century portrait of Elizabeth herself, when the perpetual bride-in-waiting was sixty years of age. It took a brave man to depict the queen in the fullness of her years; Hilliard was not that man. (Nor was any other, to be fair.) We might charitably say that this portrait was preoccupied with other, idealised virtues than the realism readily in display elsewhere in the exhibition. This miniature was part of the aptly named “Mask of Youth” series. His famous Gresley Jewel is also exhibited. The one minor criticism I would have of this show is that the English section is all late 16th century; we do not get to see the country’s developments in portraiture that was present in The Holburne’s (and Walker Art Gallery’s) Tudor portrait exhibition last year, which dipped back into the late 15th century.

The exhibition is not all about match-making and the first flush of marriage. Indeed, much attention is given to long-lived marital devotion. A number of paintings celebrate (if in a distinctly sober and even Calvinistic mode) marital longevity. Another Eworth pair, from 1566, brought together for the first time in sixty years, depicts Richard Wakeman and his wife Joan. It comes with the inscription:

And gonne my youth that gave me color fresshe
I am now cum to thos rype yeris at last
That tells me howe my wanton days be past
And therefore frinde so turns the tyme me
I ons was young and nowe am as you see.

William Brooke, 10th Lord Cobham (1527–1597) and his Family, 1567 depicts his wife and six children with him: “See here the noble father, here the most excellent mother. Seated around them spreads a throng worthy of their parents … ”. All is ordered as it should be, with the children enjoying a sweet banquet of goodies: the domestic harmony that is the goal of most suitors.

The portraits are accompanied by a wide range of delightful marriage jewellery, tableware and other artefacts. It all adds up to a tremendous exhibition that is warm and emotionally engaging. A portrait should relate a story. These paintings from half-millennium and even longer ago tell of the enduring search for love, even within the restraints of a coldly pragmatic, pre-arranged marriage. Those enigmatic sitters unknown to us especially and poignantly testify to the immutability of that quest.

Painted Love: Renaissance Marriage Portraits is showing at The Holburne Museum, Bath, until 1 October.

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