Friday, May 05, 2006

A book that says something about someone else: Margaret Roper reads her Seneca

Rowland Lockey's copy (so attributed) of the lost Holbein, 'Sir Thomas More and his Family', in the Nostell Priory version. The Utopian household, learned and harmonious. From the left, Margaret Giggs, his adoptive daughter, and Elizabeth Dauncey, More's daughter (21). More's father John (76), then Anne Cresacre, a fifteen year old about to marry More's son John. She has wandered into this family of early modern egg-heads, and was the one who unwisely asked for a 'billement of pearls' as a wedding present. Always ready with a jest at the expense of young women and vanity, More gave her a 'billement' of dried peas. More himself, central, but deferring a kind of centrality to his father (in the approved Utopian manner) through the brilliant scarlet of the older man's robes pulling the eye left. More is 50. John More the son (19). Then Cecily Heron (20), and to continue along the front row of women, Margaret Roper (22), and Alice, Lady More (57), seated in this version of the composition, and looking aside, rather than kneeling at prayer. As More's second wife, the More children in this group are her step-children. A back row of male servants: first of them Henry Patenson or Pattison, fool to the household, the one sitter who looks out at us (he seems to grip, left-handed, the scabbard of a sword at his belt). Some would have you believe that the man in the background, more reasonably identified as Dr John Clement (tutor to the children of More, and husband to Margaret Griggs), is one of the lost Princes in the Tower, living incognito in More's Chelsea household. It is almost 11am. The clock in the picture was reputedly at Nostell until the 19th century, when it was sold to an American, and has never been seen again. As there are peonies, carnations and lilies, it is early summer 1527. More has not yet replaced Wolsey as Chancellor; trouble is three years away, he will be executed eight years later.

As Susan Foister points out in her Holbein and England (2004), the picture has a quality of stillness. Holbein assembling the 11 sitters from solo drawings, so interaction was not easily caught. But to the point of this post: Margaret Roper is reading Seneca. My memory failed me in my earlier post: it is a text of Oedipus, which I once deciphered by standing contorted in front of the painting. The passage which she points out is line 882 onwards, the Chorus at the end of Act IV: 'Fata si liceat mihi / fingere arbitrio meo...':

'Had I the chance, to shape my fate / To my desire, then I would trim my sail / To gentle winds, not fight against the gale / Till timbers trembled at its weight. / Not buffeted from side to side, / But borne by the light breeze's gentle force / On a safe middle course / My ship of life would ride.'

The Chorus goes on to repeat the tale of Icarus, and its final sentiment is: 'Wherever man exceeds the mean, / He stands upon the brink of danger.'

Not Holbein being amazingly prescient, but his later copyist's way of epitomising the daughter's view of her father's fate, the inability to compromise that doomed him. More's wife was incredulous at his folly: 'You have at Chelsea a right fair house, your library, your books, your gallery, your garden, your orchard, and all other necessaries so handsome about you, where you might in the company of me your wife, your children, and household be merry. I muse what a God's name you mean here still thus fondly to tarry.' By the quotation singled out for her, some of that incredulity has been transferred to More's more comprehending daughter.

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