Tuesday, September 23, 2008

'Make the jewel which you paint seem Rich'

I am gearing up to take a party of students off to ‘Renaissance Faces’


The image above is a Hilliard of an unknown lady (in the collection of the Metropolitan museum on their pleasing website here: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/liza/hd_liza.htm); but I thought I’d expound a little on one of his lost works, one that would have been the companion piece to his famous ‘Young Man Amongst Roses’. The lost portrait was commended in a sonnet by Henry Constable:

‘To Mr Hilliard, upon occasion of a picture he made of my Lady Rich’

If Michael the archpainter now did live,
Because that Michael he an angel hight,
As partial for his fellow-angels, might
To Raphael’s skill much praise and honour give.

But if in secret I his judgment shrive,
It would confess that no man knew aright
To give to stones and pearls true dye and light,
Till first your art with orient nature strive.

But think not yet you did that art devise;
Nay, thank my Ladie that such skill you have;
For often sprinckling her black sparckling eyes,
Her lips and breast, taught you the [.....]
To diamonds, rubies, pearls, the worth of which
Doth make the jewel which you paint seem Rich.

In his rather stilted first quatrain, Constable sets off on Michaelangelo having a high opinion of Raphael, product of an angel-Angelo’s bias towards another angelically-named painter. But, says Constable, if I had a living Michaelangelo’s secret opinion disclosed to me under confession, he would drop this bias, and confess to Hilliard’s superiority. The specific superiority is in representing jewels with undiminished lustre. Joan Grundy in her edition of Constable makes a very apposite citation of Hilliard’s own ‘Arte of Limning’: ‘Limning excelleth all other painting whatsoever in sundry points, in giving the true lustre to pearl and precious stone’. This shows that Constable was following Hilliard’s own opinion: the highest art is shown in rendering the most precious things.

But he was also working towards a play on ‘Rich’. He next tells Hilliard that actually he owes these skills to having painted Penelope Rich’s eyes, lips and breast: it was doing this that taught Hilliard how to render jewels. The sonnet ends with a clever commingling of Penelope Rich in the miniature (a true likeness), and the miniature painting as a piece of composite jewelry, because of her brilliant eyes, ruby lips, etc. Only by being very convincing can the precious things depicted contribute to a convincing Penelope Rich.

The gap in the manuscript leaves us three syllables short. Park in 1812, Joan Grundy noted, suggested ‘art you gave’. I thought ‘way most brave’ – the best way to learn how to depict precious stones, with a hint of the authentic 16th century attention to getting riches for yourself from your patroness.

But, so sadly, the miniature doesn’t survive. Joan Grundy suggests that Henry Constable may have taken the miniature up to the Scottish court in 1589, when the Earl of Essex and Penelope his sister were making overtures to James VI of Scotland, indicating their future loyalties lay with him rather than Arabella Stuart. How could the greatest miniaturist’s portrait of Sidney’s Stella ever have been so undervalued as to be lost? It must have been comparable to his famous image of her brother as the young man among roses. I imagine its fate: King James subsequently gave it to Charles Blount, it passed down in that family until someone wanted to re-use the case for another portrait miniature. Lady Penelope, limned on uterine vellum wrapped round card, got placed in a drawer. A 17th century teenage boy thought she was the most wonderful thing he’d ever seen, and stole her away.

So we have to make do with a sonnet about the painting of the lady in the sonnets. Lady Penelope Rich, a dark-eyed blonde, is associated throughout ‘Astrophel and Stella’ with light, as ‘star’ and in many other imaginative ways (‘and Stella spied / Who hard by made a window send forth light’, 53 – ‘and hath she vanished by?’, 105). I imagine, then, Hilliard’s miniature as Lady Rich wearing stunning jewels, and with glittering dark eyes. The care Hilliard took in painting the pupil of an eye! Freshly made paint of the blackest black, the pigment made utterly smooth with a mounted tooth of a squirrel as a diminutive grinder, the finical care lest a mote of dandruff fall down from the artist’s head… If only we had the portrait that complemented those Sidney sonnets!

1 comment:

Malvolio said...

I enjoyed your explication of the sonnet. (The sonnets reminds me a bit of Keats' "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer." Hopefully the miniature in question is not lost forever.

There is a unidentified miniature of a beautiful woman at the V&A that I suspect might be the portrait Constable wrote about in his sonnet. If you're interested, I'm going to be making an argument as such over the next week at my blog.