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James Simpson, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2011)

James Simpson, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2011). ISBN: 978-0199591657, vi + 222 pp. £26.

Reviewed by Edward Simon


[1] In his newest book, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, James Simpson continues a project that he began in 2010’s Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents. This is to say that both take as their aim the cross-disciplinary goal of explicating what exactly is ‘modern’ about the early modern period. Seemingly central to these two books, both as critical disposition and methodology, is Simpson’s concept of ‘cultural etymology’, which he describes as ‘looking for recognitions between present and past obscured by the passage of time and the urgency of the present’ (p. 49). In his earlier work Simpson traces the ways in which religious fundamentalism – which in popular discourse is often seen as somehow ‘medieval’ – was actually the result of a modernity that was born from the Protestant Reformation. The traditional triumphalist historiography of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Reformation and Counter-Reformation has often portrayed Protestantism as a progressive, liberal and modern reaction to the superstitious and zealous medieval Roman Catholic Church. Simpson, in a manner similar to revisionists like Eamon Duffy, deftly demonstrates what is erroneous about a perspective which portrays Thomas Cromwell as a Thomas Jefferson of the English Reformation. As he effectively demonstrated in Burning to Read the Reformation was modern, but not in the way traditional scholarly models had argued. Rather a reliance on the Sola scriptura hermeneutic coupled with an intense focus on the textuality of the Bible encouraged a nascent literalism that would have been foreign to the allegory-permeated Middle Ages. In Simpson’s formulation it was not until the anarchic years of the mid seventeenth century that Protestant modernity embraced interpretive strategies that could be thought of as ‘progressive’. In this way Simpson shows how the literalism of contemporary fundamentalism is not a holdover from a more primitive medieval past, but was indeed a consequence of the emergence of modernity in the sixteenth century.

[2] Where he focused on words in that earlier work, Simpson expands his attention towards images in his excellent new book, Under the Hammer. In a brilliant coupling of literary theory, art history and cultural historiography, Simpson surveys the ways in which iconoclastic violence has been mediated through Anglo-American culture and how it, in turn, has altered that culture. Across four chapters his short book addresses the initial image-destruction of both the Henrician and Edwardian reforms, through the violence of the English Revolution into the emergence of Enlightenment notions of ‘art’ and ‘taste’ in the eighteenth century. It is Simpson’s argument that iconoclasm, like the fundamentalism he examined in his earlier book, is not a quality of an archaic, brutal, violent past which we have left behind, but that indeed iconoclastic reasoning permeates and, in fact, defines our modern culture and that in the West the most recent permutations of this find their origin in the Reformation. Simpson writes, ‘I take issue with this projection of iconoclasm as historically and geographically “other” and “backwards”, at least as far as the West goes’ (p. 3). Using this reasoning he opens with two seemingly disparate events that he argues are conceptually connected. The first is the infamous destruction of two gigantic statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan by the Taliban in March of 2001. The other is the author, himself, as a young man in 1967, attending an exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, entitled Two Decades of American Painting and featuring the radical avant-garde of abstract expressionist painters such as de Kooning, Rothko, and Pollock. The two events couldn’t seem more different, the first is a barbaric and reactionary assault on culture and the latter is a celebration of the very idea of culture. And yet as different as they may be, Simpson explains over the course of his book how the obvious iconoclastic fury of the Taliban and the abstraction of mid-century American art are both reactions to the idea of the image. As he explains it: ‘History is the history of the image, and historical freedom means demolition of the religious image’ (p. 69).

[3] Under the Hammer ranges widely across centuries and academic disciplines. In its first chapter, ‘Iconoclasm in Melbourne, Massachusetts, and the Museum of Modern Art’, Simpson employs contemporary art criticism when he considers the abstract expressionist paintings he first encountered as a youth in Australia. In what acts as an extended introduction to his concept of cultural etymology, Simpson provides readings of the paintings he viewed in Melbourne like Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting alongside interpretations of the ecclesiastical plain-style architecture of Puritan churches in New England. In his second chapter, ‘Learn to Die: Late Medieval English Images Before the Law’, Simpson examines pre-Reformation iconoclastic rhetoric in both orthodox as well as Wycliffite writings, especially as regards the Ars moriendi genre. His third chapter, ‘Statues of Liberty: Iconoclasm and Idolatry in the English Revolution’, looks at both the fury of the Civil War years, as well as offering a novel reading of iconoclastic themes in not just the obvious choice of Milton’s Eikonoklastes, but the first book of Paradise Lost as well (examined through the prism of Milton’s early poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity). The most radical and, in many ways, most interesting section of the monograph is its final chapter, ‘Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm and the Enlightenment’. Simpson writes ‘The more ambitious form of the argument, which I shall also pursue in this book, is that the Enlightenment treatment of the image, and in particular the Enlightenment museum, share many of the iconoclast’s aims’ (p. 11), later making the argument that ‘the Enlightenment museum … resembles nothing so much as the Puritan temple’ (p. 48). The point is drawn home as we are asked to compare the stark white walls of New England Puritan churches with the minimalist architecture of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This chapter’s central argument – and, in many ways, it seems as if the first three chapters are leading up to the radical conclusion – is that the Enlightenment aesthetic of ‘taste’ is a form of secularized iconoclasm that paradoxically preserves the image by disenchanting it. In other words Enlightenment taste neutralizes the sacred power of the relic and transforms it into something that is theologically non-objectionable. He examines the contents of Horace Walpole’s catalogue of the extensive art collection of his father, the former prime minister, Robert Walpole, noting the large presence of Catholic devotional art in the otherwise vehemently Protestant household. By divorcing the image from its content, a new, progressive and modern category of art that is different from relic can be constructed; explaining that, ‘Taste is a strategy designed to look at Rome again’ (p. 133).

[4] In any book as provocative and fascinating as this, a number of issues and questions will arise. Simpson has provided a rich and compelling argument that should generate a number of new scholarly investigations. For example, how could a materialist or class-based critique enrich Simpson’s line of inquiry? In addition to theological influences, did cheap print in the seventeenth century affect the transition from an image-based to a word-based culture? And if contemporary art museums are a type of ‘Puritan Temple’ how do modern class-based political questions contribute to the cultural capital afforded these institutions over other means of expression? In addition to class issues there are also questions of gender that remain largely unexplored in Under the Hammer. The physicality of medieval art often focused on Marian devotion, one of the most notable aspects of Elizabeth I’s reign were the ways in which she was able to appropriate and divert attention which was often directed towards those images onto herself. Gendered images were partially secularized during the Elizabethan settlement and instrumental in the building of the English nation-state. In any study of that subject questions of iconoclasm should be central. The complicated (and contradictory) gender politics of the second half of the sixteenth century would be a fascinating and important subject to examine through this lens. Also more attention afforded towards the Baroque Counter-Reformation could have been helpful. How much of the Baroque was not evidence of a Horror vacui as concerns the plain canvas, but indeed a Catholic reaction to Protestant iconoclasm? And how much of our modern understanding of artistic quality is based on an individual work or movement’s adherence to a minimalist iconoclastic standard? Do we read Pop Art as a type of contemporary, Baroque reaction to the iconoclasm of abstract expressionism? What of more nebulous aesthetic terms like ‘kitsch’ and ‘camp’? How do they fit into Simpson’s art history schema? It remains for an art historian or literary critic to place Clement Greenberg and Susan Sontag in conversation with Under the Hammer. Finally, while the book’s bibliography is impressive, in any argument as sprawling as this more space could have been devoted to iconoclastic thinking which is not Protestant. Simpson mentions both the medieval Byzantine war on images, as well as the anti-clerical iconoclasm of the French Revolution, but more of a consideration could have been made of those events.

[5] Though Under the Hammer doesn’t make direct reference to the recent flurry of theorists like Giorgio Agamben, Simon Critchly, Slavoj Žižek and Paul Kahn who have begun to problematize the traditional narrative of historical secularization, it could be read alongside them. As in Burning to Read, Simpson demonstrates the complicated theological origins of much of what we think of as secular modernity (and its discontents). Under the Hammer is important in other ways, in breaking down the arbitrary division between periods (medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment), ranging across disciplines (literary theory, art history), embracing a more encompassing geography of the early modern (examining both English and American writing and art of the period) Simpson has produced a truly revelatory text that should act as a veritable call-to-arms for scholars. His concept of cultural etymology is an immensely useful term, simultaneously a methodology and a perspective that helps to contextualize the trace of influences in ideology, culture, and literature that may otherwise remain invisible. As he explains it ‘iconoclasm is not “somewhere else”’ (p. 11), it is just as current if transformed. Through his deep readings of texts throughout several centuries and using insightful prose he demonstrates how this is possible and, in the process, he provides other critics with a powerful new tool.

Lehigh University, July 2013

Thomas Betteridge and Suzanna Lipscomb (eds.), Henry VIII and the Court: Art, Politics and Performance (Ashgate, 2013)

Thomas Betteridge and Suzanna Lipscomb (eds.), Henry VIII and the Court: Art, Politics and Performance (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2013). ISBN: 97811409411857. 327 pp. Hbk. £63.00.

Reviewed by Tessa Marlou van Gendt


[1] Henry VIII and the Court, a collection of seventeen essays, takes a welcome interdisciplinary approach to the contradictory nature of Henry and his reign. The volume, divided into seven parts, is largely the result of the conference, ‘Henry VIII and the Tudor Court: 1509 to 2009’, celebrating the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession. Ranging from sections on ‘Writing about Henry VIII’, ‘Material Culture’ and ‘Images’ to those on ‘Court Culture’, ‘Reactions’ and ‘Performance’, the intellectual scope and vision of the collection are as refreshing as they are, at times, surprising. Though Henry VIII is hardly a new topic, the essays themselves have a strong focus on new areas of research, making it an engaging read for the seasoned academic, as well as the casual reader. In the Foreword we are reminded that too often, historians have tended to focus solely on the political narrative of Henry’s reign, ignoring ‘analyses of art, architecture, material possessions, literature, performance, gender and international relations at their peril’ (p. 6). This collection ventures boldly into these too commonly dismissed fields in Henrician scholarship, and more than makes good on its intentions. The book really distinguishes itself, however, in its willingness to engage with the interdisciplinary in order to dissect and understand the various cultures at Court.

[2] Opening with G.W. Bernard’s ‘Reflecting on the King’s Reformation’, the reader is rewarded with an almost intimate, behind-the-scenes telling of Bernard’s own ‘path toward seeing Henry as the dominant force in the politics of his reign’ (p. 14). His analysis, in particular, of Henry’s personal charm, equaled only by the jarring examples of his cynical ruthlessness, serves to give a new face to the King. His relation of the executions of Buckingham, Thomas More and the condemnation of Wolsey provide chilling glimpses of the man beneath the crown and serve to remind us that this King, no matter how bluff he would have us think him, did not lack in political astuteness – nor would he have had need of Machiavelli’s guidance. The Chapter sets the tone for the rest of the collection and offers an interesting appraisal of Henry as a strong ruler, refuting many of the claims made by Geoffrey Elton, David Starkey and Eric Ives on the manipulability of the King. Effortlessly weaving personal anecdotes into his scholarly discussion, this essay is a treat indeed and serves to remind us that reading history or historiography need not always be accompanied by the scent of faded tweed and of dust gathered in corners.

[3] No work on the Henrician court can be entirely complete without mention of the tragic downfall of Henry’s most notorious and, arguably, most popular queen, Anne Boleyn. Suzzannah Lipscomb, in ‘The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Crisis in Gender Relations’, presents the reader with a different perspective on the debate over Anne’s fall. Quickly, yet convincingly, sketching the various issues surrounding this controversial event, Lipscomb provides readers with an account that, as she herself mentions in general lines, closely matches that of Greg Walker in his article, ‘Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn’(The Historical Journal, 45-1, pp. 1-29). Lipscomb’s exploration of sixteenth-century gender roles and relations, however, is an interesting angle and serves to entertain, as well as to instruct, in the world of courtly love. Her description of the social tensions between the sixteenth-century ideals of a ‘good and chaste woman’ and the notion of the inherent culpability of the female as the origin of sexual sin, relate persuasively to Anne Boleyn’s case and indictments. Her analysis of the discourses of courtly love within the confines of the rigid social structure of the Henrician court, lends credibility to the interpretation that it was, indeed, Anne’s words rather than her actions that caused her eventual demise. The essay is compelling, well-researched and intriguing. Its discussion of sixteenth-century ideas of manhood and impotence provide cause for amusement and enlightenment. The concept of sexual honour introduces an interesting and oft-forgotten angle to the debate, elaborating on the personal struggle Henry must have faced in charging Anne with adultery. The concern arises from the reasons for her supposed infidelity. Clearly, Henry’s ministrations in the bedchamber could be nothing short of entirely satisfactory, he was, after all, the King. It follows then that Anne herself must, in some way, be deficient to crave sexual fulfillment above and beyond what he could provide her. Although the Chapter does not settle the matter of Anne’s fall (nor is it, perhaps, entirely reasonable to expect it to, given the brevity necessary to include it in such a collection as this), it certainly sheds new light on the tensions between the sexes which arguably caused much of the appearance of guilt during her prosecution. An effective and engaging study of gender relations and underlying social currents that furthers our understanding of why, if not how, Anne was condemned, this is a must-read for anyone interested in Boleyn scholarship.

[4] The same constraints of brevity ensue upon this review, since it is not possible here to engage with the full breadth and depth of analysis which the scholarship of these seventeen essays warrants. ‘Wishful Thinking: Reading the Portraits of Henry VIII’s Queens’ derides the tendency to illustrate biographies with suggestive yet unidentified portraits of the six queens. Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, are a particular focus and Brett Dolman is quick to remind the reader that, in Anne’s case, no contemporary dated portraits survive. ‘Cultures of the Body, Medical Regimen, and Physic at the Tudor Court’ by Elizabeth T. Hurren offers a wonderfully detailed account of the famously rotund King’s diet and his progression from a young, virile prince, to a morbidly obese man who had to be hoisted onto his horse by aid of a specifically designed contraption. Fashionable pastimes and household medicines are also discussed and leave the reader with a strong impression, if not after-taste, of some of the more remarkable characters at court, such as a certain Sir Richard Cholmley, apparently said to have been ‘extraordinarily given to the love of women’ (p. 75).

[5] The collection as a whole gives an extremely entertaining, interdisciplinary overview of the wide-ranging debates and issues surrounding the arts, politics and performances at the Henrician court. It does more than just that though – what it promises from the outset, it certainly delivers. The volume extends the range of sources and paradigms through which the King and his Court should be considered. No less significant, it also appears to have fully mastered the all-important and oft-forgotten notion, to delight and instruct. This book serves as a reminder of why, even after 500 years, fascination with Henry VIII and his household endures. He may have been every inch a King, but never the gentleman.

University of Edinburgh, July 2013

Genelle Gertz, Heresy Trials and English Women Writers, 1400-1670 (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Genelle Gertz, Heresy Trials and English Women Writers, 1400-1670 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). ISBN 978-1-107-01705-4, 258pp. HBK. £55.00.

Reviewed by Naomi McAreavey


[1] Genelle Gertz’s Heresy Trials and English Women Writers charts the emergence of women’s writing from the experience of heresy trial in the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, recovering a tradition of women’s trial narratives spanning the medieval and early modern periods. Analysing the trial texts of women as historically removed and religiously diverse as Margery Kempe, Anne Askew, Alice Driver, Elizabeth Young, Agnes Priest, Margaret Clitherow, Katharine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, Gertz connects them through a culture of heresy prosecution that extends through the religious upheaval of three centuries and which, she argues, ‘played an important role in shaping women’s homiletic voices, both oral and written’ (p. 13). Scrupulous in locating the women within their specific social, political, and religious contexts, and meticulously attentive to the particularities of each text, Gertz nevertheless identifies common strands running through the women’s trial narratives – most importantly, a tradition of preaching and scriptural exegesis.

[2] Chapter One, ‘Belief papers and the literary genres of heresy trial’, introduces the central argument of the book that ‘heresy trial encouraged authorship about belief’ (p. 20). The chapter opens with the illuminating example of Cecily Ormes, who in 1557, following the execution of Protestant friends, commissioned a letter to the diocesan chancellor who had presided over a trial in which she had abjured heresy, withdrawing her earlier recantation. Ormes’ letter is an example of what Gertz calls ‘“belief papers”, documents written by defendants, such as confessions of faith and articles of belief, that convey religious convictions worthy of dying for’ (p. 21). The Chapter describes two inquisitorial genres that influenced the writing of belief papers – articles (a list of heresy charges) and abjurations (the defendant’s court-driven response to these charges) – and Gertz persuasively demonstrates the connections between these official court documents and the self-authored belief papers exemplified by Ormes’ letter. She concludes the Chapter by showing that trial narratives are extensions of ‘belief papers’ because they not only allowed women to document their beliefs but, by assuming the importance of the trial, facilitated women’s representation of their own eloquence and strength in the face of male clerical authority. Trial narratives therefore depict women participating in learned culture and assuming an authority equal to male clerics and this argument is fundamental to Gertz’s analysis of specific trial narratives.

[3] Chapter Two introduces her first case study, the late medieval visionary, Margery Kempe, and the numerous arrests and interrogations depicted in The Book of Margery Kempe. Kempe is never indicted for heresy, yet the Chapter attends to questions about illegal preaching, a practice barred to women and, itself, viewed as evidence of heresy, which seem to form the substance of her interrogations. Drawing attention to diverse definitions of preaching in the Middle Ages, Gertz shows that throughout her interrogations Kempe uses occupatio, or a denial of something in the hopes of drawing attention to its possibility, to both defend herself and simultaneously to  assume for herself a preaching role. In doing so, Gertz argues that The Book of Margery Kempe ‘portrays an illiterate, laywoman’s thorough co-optation of the rhetorical skills of the priestly class’ (p. 62).

[4] Moving to the Henrician martyr, Anne Askew, Chapter Three identifies a similar rhetorical strategy adopted by the later writer in the use of occupatio on the question of whether she preaches. Throughout the Chapter Gertz makes explicit comparisons between two women divided by more than a century, and in common with her analysis of Kempe, Gertz compares Askew’s trial narrative with that of contemporary men – in Askew’s case, William Thorpe, John Frith and Robert Barnes. As it draws connections with her male co-religionists, this approach is useful in showing how Askew’s trial narrative is shaped by her gender, particularly through their different use of scripture, and in doing so, Gertz beautifully illuminates the literary qualities of Askew’s writing. Ultimately Gertz argues that Askew wrote to claim the status of preacher, and fulfilled that role through her writing.

[5] Chapter Four, ‘Sanctifying ploughmen’s daughters and butchers’ wives’, examines the trial narratives of three Protestants, Alice Driver, Elizabeth Young, and Agnes Priest, and compares their texts to that of the Elizabethan Catholic, Margaret Clitherow. The value of this comparison is in showcasing the extent to which theological debate is fundamental to the writings of Protestant non-conformists; the Catholic Clitherow, by contrast, utilizes the rhetoric of silence throughout her trial. Of particular appeal in this Chapter is its attention to relatively unknown women of lower class status, and the way it shows how they claimed an authority not befitting their gender and class through the experience of religious prosecution. But the Chapter raises bigger questions about the kinds of text it examines. These women had little or no control over their trial narratives, which in all cases were featured in biographical accounts of the women written by men. Gertz’s argument, however, maintains that these biographies ‘reveal demeanors, interpretive practices, and performative styles that were surely representative of the women whose lives were being recorded’ (p. 110). This is an interesting and provocative argument and one that I hope other scholars will take up in relation to these particular writers and to texts like these.

[6] Chapter Five, ‘Exporting inquisition’, was the least engaging in the book, perhaps only because its subjects, the Quaker missionaries Katharine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, make no bones about their preaching role, which (as the Chapter demonstrates) was endorsed by the Quaker belief in the Inner Light. Since a key achievement of the book is its demonstration of a long history of women’s preaching and scriptural exegesis that existed before the sectarian women of the mid-seventeenth century, the Chapter on Evans and Cheevers reads more as an afterward than offering new insight on these women writers. Yet the Chapter does pick up some interesting themes that run through the book, such as the role of male editors (there is some interesting, albeit tentative, work on David Baker’s editorial interventions by comparing his printed text with Evans and Cheevers’ original manuscript), and women’s responses to St Paul’s proscription on female teaching, an authority that, as Gertz shows throughout her book, all the women are forced to engage with and do so in different ways. For this reason, the Chapter is useful for reviewing the book’s key arguments and for filling in the gap between the 1580s, when Margaret Clitherow was pressed to death for heretical beliefs, and the 1660s, when Evans and Cheevers languished in a Maltese prison.

[7] Overall, Heresy Trials and English Women Writers is a stimulating and interesting book, which expertly achieves its aim by demonstrating a tradition of female preaching preceding the mid-seventeenth century and illuminating the importance of the genre of trial narrative in the development of women’s writing. This book proves the value of traversing the medieval and early modern periods by identifying similarities between the writings of women divided by centuries. It also reveals the gendered nature of women’s trial writing and, once again, shows that to fully appreciate women’s literary traditions scholars must be willing to challenge  artificial distinctions between historical and literary forms and to examine non-traditional literary genres.

[8] Surprisingly, the book does not treat trial narratives as a sub-genre of women’s life writing, yet much of its arguments make significant contributions to debates in that field. In Chapter Four, in particular, but throughout the book as well, Gertz complicates ideas of self-writing, especially when texts are not penned by the women themselves or are otherwise subject to different degrees of editorial intervention: this issue has application far beyond the genre of trial narrative. Gertz treats the individual texts in her study with sensitivity and care, and is attentive to the mechanics of mediated or collaborative writing, especially examining the complex relationship between female voice and male pen. Yet I was not always convinced that she coped with the challenges that some of her texts pose to the book’s binding category of ‘women writers’ (I am thinking in particular of those in which the women had little or no control over the production of texts). Disappointingly, Gertz stops short of providing a theoretical model for addressing this kind of ‘female-authored’ text. Yet she is to be commended for raising the issue, which is crucial to women’s writing scholars who work on highly mediated texts like depositions and petitions but is also relevant to researchers of collaborative writing generally. I have no doubt that exciting work will be done in response to the provocative questions raised by this important book.

University College, Dublin, July 2013

Exhibition Review: In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. 10th May – 6th October 2013.

Reviewed by David AHB Taylor


[1] The exhibition, In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, presents an impressive display of sixteenth and seventeenth-century portraits, as well as rare items of clothing and accessories from the period. As such, it provides a very welcome opportunity to reconsider some of the most iconic early portraits in the Royal Collection, in terms of costume and appearance, rather than merely as likenesses of individual sitters.

[2] The wide-reaching subject area of the exhibition – fashion in early modern portraiture spanning two centuries – must have been a daunting remit for curator, Anna Reynolds, given the number and quality of the works in the Royal Collection from this period but it is a carefully imagined and well thought-out display. The greater part of the exhibition comprises painted portraits, including many rarely seen pictures. Most, however, are by Old Masters – not just Holbein, Van Dyck and Lely but, for example, Rembrandt, Bronzino and Jan Steen (the latter included to illustrate various sartorial points, rather than fitting neatly into the ‘Tudor and Stuart fashion’ category). There are also some fascinating ‘lesser’ works, such as an unidentified woman painted c.1620, who wears a magnificent, low-cut embroidered waistcoat, as well as portraits of unknown sitters by key artists, such as Paulus Moreelse’s fat toddler in his ‘short coat’, who holds up his teething rattle like a sceptre or commander’s baton.

[3] The portraits in the exhibition are considered not merely as representations of elite figures, produced to record a likeness, but as persuasive images of individuals inhabiting their dress as a means of transmitting key messages to the viewer. Of course, most of us know many of the messages on offer here so for an understanding audience the relationship between portrait and viewer is often transactional. Mark Twain’s oft-repeated opinion that ‘Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society’, identifies the basic rationale of this exhibition, that socially important men and women wanted and needed to be viewed in a certain way and that the display of power was fundamentally connected to actual power. As such, the portraits in the exhibition show people in their richest finery, accessorised with signs and symbols. An unknown Flemish artist’s portrait of a young Henry Frederick of the Palatinate, still in skirts, shows the material of his clothes co-ordinating with his suite of furniture, so that every surface is covered in pacific olive branch motifs. Add to this the little toy cannon he holds, and we can see what sort of ruler he is expected to become. Other sitters seem somehow restricted by their outwardly authoritative appearances. For example, Anne of Denmark, in a portrait attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, wears an old-fashioned wheel farthingale in a deliberate aping of the iconography of Elizabeth I (much of whose wardrobe she inherited), an appropriation which could have subsumed her own persona, had she not decorated her hair and ruff with jewellery which explicitly references her Scandinavian royal lineage.

[4] The appearance of the main rooms in the Queen’s Gallery is, as you would expect, impressively sumptuous. There are many highlights, such as Charles I’s purported Garter sash, placed next to the moving Van Dyck portrait of him in three positions, which was painted to assist Bernini while carving his marble bust of the King. Or, indeed, the fantastic Robert Peake portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales, in his modish hunting costume, portrayed in front of what appears to be a fanciful view of the deer park below Stirling Castle, where the prince was raised before 1603. Another highlight is the recently conserved Portrait of a Man in Red, which gets its own room. This enigmatic picture, possibly executed in Germany, continues to intrigue the viewer and the accompanying interpretation raises questions over authorship and sitter. There is little confusion however over the two portraits of Charles II’s maybe-mistress, Frances Stewart, later Duchess of Richmond, displayed together and providing a fascinating and humorous sartorial juxtaposition. Peter Lely’s other-worldly portrayal of her as the goddess Diana, walking through an evening forest in a ‘night-gown’, is hung next to Jacob Huysman’s depiction of a rather wry-looking Stewart dressed as a soldier, complete with a (feminised) military buff coat and with her long hair curled to appear like a man’s wig.

[5] A fascinating image of Mary Stuart, Princess of Orange, in the parrot-feather masquing cloak that she wore in 1655, ‘very well dressed, like an Amazon’ (but surely not by Hanneman, as described – see that artist’s posthumous portrait of her in the same costume in the Mauritshuis collection instead), shows how exotic, luxury fabrics were utilised – here as fancy dress, articulating a Dutch notion of what an Amazon warrior should look like. A staggering wall of Habsburg portraits, representing the influence of continental fashion on Britain, shows a more formal and formulaic representation of costume than the Dutch dressing-up picture. At the centre of these Spanish and Austrian paintings are Juan Pantoja de la Cruz’s portraits of Philip III and his lantern-jawed consort, Margaret of Austria, whose Spanish court dress, covered in Castilian castles, Leonese lions and Habsburg double-headed eagles, represents the ‘saya’ she wore at her marriage several years before. She also wears the La Peregrina pearl, which no doubt created a sense of nostalgia in court circles, when the portraits arrived as a diplomatic gift in London, following the signing of the Anglo-Spanish Treaty of London in 1604, as it had been given to Mary I as a wedding present from her husband, the future Philip II.

[6] One of the main attractions of the hang, however, is the ability to see the paintings at close hand, which allows us to examine the sitter’s clothes in detail. It offers the opportunity, for example, to view the magnificent pair of portraits attributed to William Scrots of the future Edward VI and his half-sister, Elizabeth, which are displayed next to each other, close enough to examine the fabrics and materials that convey these particular portraits’ messages regarding status. This is especially important in Elizabeth’s portrait, in which she (under her red dress) wears cloth of silver interwoven with gold, reminding the viewer of her royal position. Her status was of vital importance when this portrait was painted, since she was still officially illegitimate and would have been expected (and have needed) to make a good marriage for her own security.

[7] There was a real risk of this exhibition being seen as a ‘filler’ show, but it certainly holds its own within the Royal Collections’ current programme and will undoubtedly be a popular exhibition with the public. Its achievements include introducing considered discussions regarding interpreting colours, shapes and patterns within portraiture, while the unusual step (for the Royal Collection) of loaning in exhibits for display means that we are better enabled to understand the pictures, complemented as they are by material objects, for example, armour, purses, shoes and lace. Also to be recommended are the interpretation panels, which include illustrated glossaries of dress terminology, explanations of different weaves of material and the construction of fabrics, as well as descriptions of the pattern books, costume books and fashion plates that helped disseminate designs.

[8] The greatest achievement of the exhibition, along with the legacy of the large and beautifully illustrated catalogue, is that it enlightens the visitor with the rhetorical power of clothing in these portraits and makes us really examine the actual garments to re-consider why and how the sitters are dressed the way they are. Another sartorial observation from Twain observed:

‘Clothes and title are the most potent thing, the most formidable influence, in the earth. They move the human race to willing and spontaneous respect for the judge, the general, the admiral, the bishop, the ambassador, the frivolous earl, the idiot duke, the sultan, the king, the emperor. No great title is efficient without clothes to support it.’

In Fine Style makes us look at these pictures in a different light, re-consider them with a sharper focus and question to what extent the clothes served the purpose of the portraits – in supporting the great titles of the various wearers.

 National Trust, June 2013