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Tarnya Cooper, Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales (Yale University Press, 2012)

Tarnya Cooper, Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012). ISBN: 9780300162790, 240 pp., £45.00.

Reviewed by David Howarth


[1] Men of business staring fixedly out of this book believed in ‘Justification by Faith’. In this survey of the portraiture of burgess and bishop from 1540 to 1620, Tarnya Cooper declares her own belief in ‘Justification by Portrait’. She argues the intelligentsia abandoned unease about the vanities of image-making to use the art of portraiture to find their place in the world.

[2] The range in quality of the portraits of suppliers, rather than survivors of the Court, is astonishing: from things little better than the Jack of Spades to Holbein’s drawings. Although the survey coincides with Holbein in England, he is not really counted in. He was to be found in Whitehall not Lombard Street and though he certainly painted an important group of German merchants at their trading depot, the ‘Steelyard’, it has been argued elsewhere that their portraits were sent home to loved ones as an imago ad vivum. By contrast less accomplished pictures by English artists were distinct in often being momento mori: more pious in aspiration and personal apologia than Holbein’s superb and life-celebrating images of men with blood in their faces and figures in their heads. But if Holbein was an anomaly, there were still some powerful likenesses by those who had nothing to do with him. Sir Thomas Gresham had gigantic attack on life. His building, the Royal Exchange, anticipated the Gherkin. The Exchange was a monument both to himself and to classicism but in no need of banks and real estate tycoons to pay for it. Likewise Gresham’s full-length, commissioned by the sitter through his art contacts in Antwerp, can stand comparison with any Holbein as the last stroke in charisma.

[3] Gresham was not the only powerful man on the square mile and, apparently, it was the patron who left his painter standing. No documentary evidence is supplied, because none exists, for the claim that he who paid out also laid out terms on which iconographic programmes evolved. Merchants and clerics never sought to emulate the tropes of aristocratic portraiture. Thus portraiture in Whitehall and in the City, constituted parallel canals rather than two rivers merging at the mouth of the Stuart age. This was not because as little as the five shillings sometimes paid for a portrait could only buy the services of one unqualified to ape the conceits of a ‘Court’ artist but rather because of a conviction to avoid the vanities of the aristocratic image by these men in black fur. The cautious appearance of so many merchants, whose purses are hidden as their lips are pursed, was fear of hell fire if the accusation of vanity could be suspended from their picture hooks. But then there was too, centuries of Roman Catholic practice; quite as rich a background as the Turkey carpets beloved by these sitters. How people had remembered and succoured the souls of the departed was something which may have influenced portraiture as it cautiously developed. It is ironic that a post-Reformation bequest of a portrait might not only remind a family of their godly departed but also call to mind a life which had merited salvation. In the old days it had been masses for the dead but, in this first post-Edwardian age, it became graven images.

[4] That having been said, a modest approach did not always prevail. The musician Thomas Whythorne had his likeness recorded no less than five times and, if we may judge by the one reproduced here, it is a shame we do not have them all. John Donne was the great poet of love, alongside Shakespeare, and the recent priceless acquisition of the Ancram portrait by the National Portrait Gallery suggests the sonneteer’s capacity to evoke ambiguity and nuance no less creatively than when this impresario of selfhood later famously rehearsed his own obsequies with his shrouded monument in Old St Paul’s.

[5] We may not have funerary sculpture but we do have a medal; its rarity provoking the writer to ask why Richard Martin commissioned it, with that of his wife, Dorcas. The sitter became Warden of the Mint; after having been in a long-running conflict with John Loynson, a master worker whose own painted portrait is one of the most splendid in the book. Eventually, some fifteen years after Richard Martin had commissioned his medal, Loynson was formally accused of tampering with the weight of gold in the coinage. Meanwhile Martin had been making a straight path in that crooked world of clipping and debasement. So what better way to suggest his probity than a medal? Obverse to a coin, the medal paid tribute to his marriage, but being of unadulterated weight – a true metal and a true likeness – also to the integrity of Martin’s professional life. It kept its value and like Martin himself, could be relied upon.

[6] Painters are merely ghostly presences in this book; documents do not survive to allow them to speak. The records of the Painter Stainers’ Company are fully acknowledged; as, indeed, is the contribution of a distinguished circle of scholars to a wholesale reappraisal of civic Tudor portraiture. Cooper, following Susan Foister, suggests the restrictive practises and siege mentality of the Painter Stainers’ who it is claimed, retarded the introduction of illusion, for example, by insistence less on artifice than on sound and lasting ingredients. The Company liked to put the currants in the cake but not to shape the icing.

[7] There is the very occasional confusion: Lincoln College Cambridge is a new one on me and Alderman, Robert Trappes, is described in one sentence as dying aged sixty-three though in the next, as painted at ‘the great age’ of seventy-five. No matter. Sober and pious, written without obscurity but with graphic lineaments, all in the hope that this will provide lasting remembrance and fitting memorial, Cooper’s text is intriguingly like the Tudor civic portrait it so triumphantly explores. Both subject and book are in equal measure revelatory. Both deserve one another.

University of Edinburgh, February 2014