Monday, October 20, 2008

Question from Roland - Opinions on Kathryn Howard/Elizabeth Seymour portrait

Hi, everyone, I don't know if this has been posted before, but David Starkey claims that Holbein's portrait of the unknown lady age 21 (the one now said to be of a lady of the Cromwell family, or even Jane Seymour's sister Elizabeth) WAS actually of Katheryn Howard.

Opinion anyone?

Here are the links:

[ed note - We recently discussed some other aspects of this portrait, but I was curious if there were opinions on this particular issue]

Previous discussion:


Anonymous said...

I am skeptical. Dr Starkey has developed a bit of a reputation for identifying portraits, though the basis for his identifications are sometimes tenuous, at best. In my opinion, his identifications are too publicity driven and not based in sufficiently solid art historical scholarship.

Using jewelry to identify a sitter is all well and good, if and only if it can be proven that the jewelry was unique and worn by only that one person. But that is an exceedingly difficult thing to accomplish. Just as today, individual items of jewelry in the 16th century were seldom entirely unique, and all jewelry was routinely "recycled" to new owners and wearers.

Susan James re-identified as Katherine Parr a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery based soley on a crown-shaped brooch worn by the sitter. She argued that because a similar brooch appears on an inventory of Parr's jewels taken after her death, the portrait must be of Parr. Yet numerous other examples of crown brooches identical to the one in the "Parr" portrait are known. The brooch is far from unique and therefore insufficient, on its own, to "prove" that the painting is of Parr.

Starkey, too, has previously identified sitters in portraits based in part on jewels. In the spring of 2007, he decided that a miniature owned by Yale University is a portrait of Jane Grey. The sitter in the miniature wears a brooch, and Starkey claimed that the brooch was "perhaps" the same as one found in an inventory of jewels delivered to Jane in July 1553. The jewel in the miniature is, as the term "miniature" implies, tiny and not well defined. It is virtually impossible to identify its precise design and to then correlate it with any of the dozens of brooches listed on the 1553 inventory. (Virtually all art historians, including experts at the National Portrait Gallery, have questioned Starkey's identification of the sitter in the miniature.)

And now Dr Starkey has decided that a portrait is of Katherine Howard, based in large part on the jewelry. The large brooch is a common design, however, featuring two angels and depicting a Biblical story (it looks like the story of Job). Stories from the Bible were far-and-away the most common inspiration for brooches in the period. None of news articles in the links provided here explain why Starkey believes the jewel is unique to Howard ... perhaps because no uniqueness can be proven.

The Kent TV programme offers an important clue: Hever Castle authorities actually want and need the portrait to be of Howard. One official states in relieved tones that the portrait fills a gap in their portrait collection that visitors frequently inquire about. Hever Castle officials are therefore biased in their viewing of the portrait and have a motive to see what they want to see in the portrait.

While the portrait may indeed be of Howard, I would prefer to see a full write-up of the research, evidence and argument, that led to the identification as well as the written opinions of a few expert art historians on the matter. Until then, I remain highly suspicious that this is little more than another Starkey publicity grab.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your input PhD Historian.

As for the lady's resemblance to Holbein's famous miniature (also said to be of Katheryn), I think the resemblance is only superficial. Taking a closer look,
the Katheryn(?) in the miniature has brown eyes, but the lady in the panel portrait has gray eyes.

By the way, for those who are unaware, just to confuse the issue even more - Susan James (who re-identified the full length portrait of 'Jane Grey' as being of Katharine Parr) said that the miniature of Katheryn(?) was actually of Margaret Douglas, Mary Queen of Scot's mother-in-law.

From what I remember from Susan James' article, her claim was based on a supposed resemblance. But her re-identification hasn't gotten much support at all, and the miniature, is still officially called 'An Unknown Lady, perhaps Katheryn Howard'.

Going back to the Yale miniature David Starkey calls 'Jane Grey'. What goes against this identification is that the 18 year-old-girl depicted has blue-gray eyes and blond hair. According to the Genoese merchant Spinola who saw Jane close-up, she had reddish-brown eyes and reddish hair. Also, he said she had a gracious and animated look to her. The grumpty girl in the miniature hardly looks gracious! LOL.

Lastly, the article on Hever Castle mentions the so- called 'Mary Boleyn' portrait (that
Philippa Gregory is so excited about). I don't think there's real proof that was her at all. After Lord Astor bought Hever Castle around the turn of the century, he collected all sorts of so-called Boleyn artifacts. Things like Anne Boleyn's lute, baby clothes made by Elizbeth I for her sister Mary's impending baby (there wasn't one eventually), etc. The 'Mary Boleyn' may be one those questionable purchases.

Foose said...

I think it was Sir Roy Strong who first identified the Kathryn Howard portrait as being actually "a lady of the Cromwell family" and Elizabeth Seymour was the member who best fitted the description in terms of time period/status at court/familial connections (her second husband was the son of Thomas Cromwell).

Sir Roy is obviously very well respected, but some of his portrait identifications have been successfully challenged. I don't know whether Starkey's attribution of the portrait will outlast his celebrity, though.

Foose said...

Oh, I see garethr was admirably comprehensive about Sir Roy in his response to the previous Kathryn Howard portrait question.

Anonymous said...

Roland prompts me to add one or two additional thoughts.

First, in the interest of fairness and "full disclosure," I have been personally quoted in a number of magazines (most notably "The New Yorker," Oct 2007) and newspapers as a leading challenger to Starkey's identification of the Yale miniature as a portrait of Jane Grey. And the gallery that announced the "find," Philip Mould Galleries, sought my opinion before their exhibition opened, as well. So I already have a proverbial "bone to pick" with Dr Starkey. I freely admit that I find it difficult to be objective when it comes to Starkey and portraits.

On the issue of Jane's appearance, you cite, Roland, the Spinola letter. In my own extensive research on Jane Grey, I have failed thus far to find that letter, despite careful and thorough searching in many European archives. Richard Davey claimed in 1909 that it still existed in an archive in Genoa, but he did not state which archive or in what file, etc. Thus far, it cannot be located in Genoa today. Other authors cited the letter before Davey, also without offering a specific footnote to identify the source. Even the precise identity of Spinola himself is questionable (I do not believe he was the merchant Spinola, as Davey claims, but rather another Spinola with greater reason to be present at the Tower that day). Until the questions surrounding the letter can be answered, it is perhaps unwise to give too much value to it as "fact." Far too mnay "facts" about Jane Grey can be shown to be utter invention, so we must treat all evidence with suspicion pending corroboration and confirmation.

On the issue of perceived resemblances in full-sized paintings and (especially!) miniatures, I grow increasingly skeptical. I find it very difficult to say that Person A "resembles" Person B and therefore the two must be related. If England had been populated by only a few hundred people in the 1500s, perhaps it might be a more plausible bit of deductive reasoning. But the population numbered in the millions, and even the titled nobility and their extended families numbered in the thousands. There were simply too many people alive and too great a chance that any number of unrelated people may have nonetheless resembled each other, just as many unrelated people today resemble each other. Maybe I am being too cautious and too cynical, but I think it is bordering on absurd to look at any unidentified portrait from 400 or more years ago and to then attempt to idenify the sitter based on some perceived physical resemblance to someone else. This is even more the case when the quality of the painting is less refined. Holbein painted with almost photographic realism, but the Starkey-Howard portrait is not by Holbein. Other artists, including Eworth, Teerlinc, Hilliard, "Master John," and most others, painted in a style that was insufficiently refined to produce picture-perfect likenesses.
As a result of my growing distrust of physical resemblances, and in relation to my own work on the Fitzwilliam Portrait, I have since changed my mind and decided the portrait is perhaps not Jane Grey, and I have jettisoned my own argument there about physical appearance.

To summarize my rambling argument: Rather than put much stock in subjective perceptions of supposed physical resemblance or in items of jewelry that are always described in inventories using only the very vaguest of terms, I have come to insist on solid, objective, documentary evidence that a portrait is of Person A or Person B. Account books that show payment to the artist and that describe the portrait painted, even vaguely, are better than modern perceptions of physical similarity. And in many cases those documents do still exist, though in most they do not. I am of the opinion that we must therefore say "It is possible" that Painting X is a portrait of Person A, but we should not say that it IS Person A unless we can prove that claim beyond any doubt whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

Firstly David starkey did not comment on the portrait beleived to be of Elizabeth Seymour as being Catherine Howard.The portrait he commented on and said he beleived to be a portrait of catherine was the small round miniture of the lady in the portrait sitting to the side and wearing a large jewel pendant around her neck. At the beggining some people thought that this was a portrait of margaret douglas but it has recently been suggested that this portrait is in fact of catherine Howard.David Starkey made this comment on the fact of the jewel she is wearing around her neck. But I think that this is likely because if you look at the pendant hanging from Jane seymour's necklace in her portrait you will notice the similarity.

Lara said...

TudorRose - If you look at the link above to the Hever Castle site, it shows the portrait, and it isn't the miniature. He might also be supportive of the miniature being Kathryn, but the portrait in question is the one of a lady in dark clothing with a blue-gray background.

JosetteK said...

How you really know for sure anyway?
Firstly, portraits were probably air brushed tudor style. There are clippings of hair from royalty, that contradict their portraits. It seems reddish brown hair was the norm in portraits, when women actually had blonde hair and was described as so.
Maybe they wore wigs. Unless there was a name on the portrait you really can't be sure.

I find it hard to believe that Henry VIII was head over heels inlove with
Catherine Howard based on the portrait we are told is hers. She was frumpy
and looked much older than her 16 years.
I doubt a face like that would even rustle the heart strings of such an old, shallow and arrogant man. Maybe it is not her based on logic. Maybe there is another portrait out there of a young girl who is actually pretty in face.

I don't think you can base identification on jewlery either. Probably the only choice is actually accounts of peoples physical appearance by those that recorded them. Even then they could be biased.