Monday, September 15, 2014

Does This Strange Elizabethan Memorial Portrait Reveal Shakespeare's Entire Life (and Death)?


 Note: all test results referred to in this post can be viewed on the National Portrait Gallery's Making Art in Tudor Britain website; however to view the largest jpeg available of the life portrait (in its current state) please visit this page in Wikicommons.)    

Turning a Blind Eye: the Unton Memorial Portrait Reconsidered
"Although retouching and overpainting are very extensive, microscopic examination implies that the original paint layers are in reasonable condition . . ."  NPG file Unton Memorial Portrait
This is perhaps the most curious portrait of them all. 

I first came across the NPG memorial picture four years ago while sitting in the witchproof Elizabethan garden outside the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC.  I was, as they say, minding my own business.  Waiting for the library to open, I had just turned a page on Roy Strong’s book The Cult of Elizabeth when I saw a portrait I immediately assumed depicted Will Shakespeare.  That is to say, the large bust centered in the life portrait seemed to have been modeled upon the iconic statue in Stratford’s Trinity Church.  (Even Roy Strong acknowledged the bust in the memorial portrait is presented in the style of Shakespeare's.)  Posing before a green theatrical curtain, this Shakespeare stand-in--whoever he was--had been immortalized behind a writing table bearing inkwell, pen, and paper.  Stranger yet, the Angel of Fame was blowing her trumpet into the sitter's right ear while offering him the Crown of Triumph.  Fame, triumph, theatrical curtains, ink, paper, etc, like I said, I assumed it was Shakespeare.  Four years later I still can't dismiss that possibility.

The NPG's memorial portrait, painted on a wooden panel five feet wide by two feet tall, presents to us a counterclockwise narrative moving from birth to funeral rites painted behind and to the sides of the portrait's central bust.  And although its possible to categorize the portrait, as Roy Strong does, as a “story picture,” the truth is that this portrait is unique.  As far as we know, nothing resembling it was created during Queen Elizabeth’s reign—or for that matter King James’.  We do not know who painted the portrait nor can we  be certain when it was completed, although its costumes would indicate c. 1600.  It has been suggested that the great miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard might have painted the portrait, and indeed dozens of tiny courtiers are pictured throughout the picture's narrative span.  As Strong notes in his essay, these courtiers appear to be depictions of specific people.  The landscapes likewise appear to have been modeled on specific locales distinguished by anomalies.  So what we are left with here is a staggeringly precise mural designed for the explicit purpose of identifying and immortalizing a seemingly famous writer. And this is where the problems begin. 

Called Sir Henry Unton Memorial Portrait.  London's National Portrait Gallery.
So who is the famous writer portrayed throughout this picture?  In Strong's chapter devoted to the life portrait, he endorsed the traditional identification of the sitter as a minor ambassador named Sir Henry Unton, a man who never penned poem, play, history, or novel.  Why, you might ask, eulogize such an ambassador with theatrical curtains, inkwell, poised pen, Crowns of Triumph, and Angels of Fame?  As I kept reading Strong’s chapter on  the memorial portrait, I learned that Henry Unton had not lived a life of triumph but one of pitfalls, a litany of failures that Unton himself described in whole as “clownish.”  Aside from this portrait, Unton is remembered for nothing except for having been knighted while young and for a vainglorious challenge to a duel never fought.  So why does the Angel of Fame offer Mr. Unton the Crown of Triumph not once but twice in this portrait?  Why, in the depiction of the tomb, is there a statue of a woman seemingly gesturing with reverence to the sitter's books?  And why would such a minor figure as Unton merit this greatest of all Elizabethan painted memorials, a picture so unique that even today it remains one of the two most popular paintings in London's National Portrait Gallery (the other being its near twin, the Shakespeare’s Chandos portrait)?  It all hit me as odd, and I thought I’d look into it when I had a chance.
The Unton Memorial Portrait Sitter surrounded by various portraits of William Shakespeare believed to be authentic.
After leaving DC, I contacted the NPG in London to purchase some historical photographs of the strange life portrait.  Although none of these photographs were dated—odd since the NPG had bought the picture in 1888—the photos did reveal a history of sorts, one of waning and waxing obfuscation.  The black-and-white photograph that appeared to be the oldest in the file showed the portrait thickly overpainted especially along its lower section (this being the lone oak panel of the three horizontal planks on which the picture was painted).  Everywhere I looked I saw tidelines and abrasions, bubbles and wounds, evidence of rubbings and scrapings.  Even the close-up details that illustrated Strong’s chapter revealed a parade of crude brushwork (especially around the crests behind the tomb’s effigies).  The more I studied these details, the more I began to wonder if the entire picture might have been methodically censored to occlude the sitter’s identity. (continued after jump)

Above: detail from the tomb in the Life Portrait.  Note the woman's statue on the tomb is in the dominant position.  She appears to be pointing to the written work of the dead writer.  Two coffins are visible within the grand tomb, which much resembles the tomb of Elizabeth I.  Note the thick overpaint visible along the left side.  Image from NPG.
Before you object, let me give you some examples of the enigmas encountered in one section of this portrait alone, the area labeled “Oxford” and meant to depict the sitter's school days.  Strong claims this section represents Oriel College in Oxford, where Unton received his education.  In early photographs of the portrait, two distinctive turrets connected by a battlement wall run along the right side of this so-called campus.  However in the portrait’s current state, having been cleaned at least three times by the NPG, these towers and their walls have been muddled as if with sandpaper and glue, and this muddling happened at some point after 1970.  Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, it's true, but what happened to this particular wall (and the towers it connected) we still don’t know.  Certainly the NPG doesn’t know—they’ve admitted as much—though of course the invaluable portrait was in their possession when the structures were obliterated.  This is the second most popular picture the NPG owes, and this marring took place sometime after 1970.  It's curious.
Above: towers and battlements obfuscated from portrait at some point after 1970
Above: detail from early photograph of portrait showing area labeled "Oxford."  Note that there appears to be some inscription faintly visible above and to the right of the school master's window.
Above: (left) school master detail from NPG memorial portrait (detail from NPG's Making Art in Tudor Britain) and (right) portrait of Sir Thomas Smith.
After months of inquiry, the NPG’s Dr. Tarnya Cooper finally informed me:
The difference in the two details of the Henry Unton portrait cannot easily be accounted for in the Gallery records . . . There is also no record of any ‘damage’ occurring whilst the painting has been in the collection.  However, it is possible that the raised paint areas and removal of old retouching may have taken place in this area, although our records do not exactly indicate this to be the case.
At this point I had to ask myself if the area portrayed was even Oriel College.  This is no small matter.  If the portrait celebrates Henry Unton then it has to be Oriel College.  The Unton’s family connection with that college went back three generations.  Their house was located on Oriel’s campus.  But, as it turned out, there was no resemblance whatsoever between the medieval village portrayed in the “Oxford” section of the portrait and Oriel College as it stood in the later half of the 16th century.  That campus, like most, had by then adopted a grid design around a central courtyard.  We know this not only through concise written descriptions but also through a drawing done in 1566 by John Bereblock to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Oriel.  The grid of buildings Bereblock drew remained there until the early 17th century, meaning they were still standing when Unton died in 1598, the date Strong and others use to date the memorial portrait.  Instead of a college grid, the “Oxford” section depicts a sprawled village with church and orchard fitted within the peninsular confines of a bending river and is bordered on one side by a battlement wall supporting an elevated platform between two turrets.  There is not one point of similarity between this walled village and what we know of Oriel College. 

And so an interesting phenomenon begins: the identification of Unton as the sitter is now dictating the portrait’s landscape.  This is Oriel College only because it has to be Oriel if the portrait is to memorialize Henry Unton.  But if it’s not Oriel College then it’s can’t be Henry Unton.  We have, it seems, what is known as the tail wagging the dog.

Other examples of this flawed method of identification abound.  For instance, we know that Unton was buried at All Saints Church in Faringdon.  However it’s obvious that the church in the portrait is not All Saints.  Even Strong concedes, “In fact this spire, together with the attempts to depict the clerestory lights and the transitional arcading in the nave, are about the only features which hint that the artist might actually have seen Faringdon church at all (108).”  However at other times Strong claims the painter had a great intimacy with the village that claims this church.  How could this be possible? 

Faringdon’s All Saints Church was reduced to ruins in 1623 by Cromwell (as were most of Unton’s tomb and his home); however the church, which I would visit years later, was rebuilt along its original lines.  Even if that were not the case, earlier paintings of the church prove that we are not dealing with the same structure seen in the portrait.  Remarkably Strong does not mention that the steeple portrayed in the picture belongs to a tower hidden behind the main nave.  Perhaps the reason he doesn’t mention this is because the observation would further distance the church from the town of Faringdon and the obscure ambassador Henry Unton.  Nor does Strong mention the surreal roofing that protects the church in the picture.  Or the thick layers of overpaint that mar the church--especially along its left side.  Strong seems to turn a blind eye to everything odd in the picture.

I pressed the NPG about my theory of overpaint.  After all, Roy Strong had not so much as mentioned any indication of overpaint in his extensive essay.  The NPG replied with some quotes from the Unton file: “Extensive retouching evident in all areas of the painting . . . large areas of retouching and extensive strengthening of many features of the painting clearly visible . . . suspect some areas seriously abraded.”  But what I wouldn’t discover until I traveled to London years to view the conservation packet myself was an additional note in the packet that states: “Although retouching and overpainting are very extensive, microscopic examination implies that the original paint layers are in reasonable condition.”   

Even as an amateur paint sleuth, a dilettante, I could recognized the telltale bubbles and tidelines in a perfunctory glance; yet Strong, the head of the NPG and author of a score of books on English portraiture, had examined the portrait in depth and not once mentioned the word overpaint.  Strong, who describes his own writing on the picture as “exhaustive,” did however state that the memorial portrait should be approached as a propaganda document.  The more I studied the portrait, the more I started to feel the same way about Strong’s observations regarding the portrait.  At times his attempts to support the identification as Sir Henry Unton seemed an exercise in cognitive dissonance with his argument devouring itself in contradictions.  For example, after acknowledging the sitter is presented as a famous writer “in the style of Stowe or Shakespeare,” Strong fails to discuss the obvious contradiction: that Unton was not a writer, much less a famous writer, but a disgraced ambassador who never published any literature but only “compiled” one minor treaty Strong describes disparagingly as “a discourse of ambassages.”  

Yet twice in the picture the Angel of Fame offers Unton the Crown of Triumph?  To judge from Unton’s life, this is not a very discerning angel.  According to Strong, Unton was denounced publicly on three separate occasions by his Queen, was banished from court, and died in massive debt with his estate in ruins.  What reputation still exists concerning Unton—and he is celebrated in Oriel College to this day—exists only because of this wonderful painting.  Greatness has been overpainted onto Mr. Unton.

Here, then, are some examples of Strong’s self-devouring argument published in his The Cult of Elizabeth:
~“Unton speedily followed Essex in being denounced by Elizabeth . . . it was an act which the Queen never quite forgave and one which she harped on when contemplating his [Unton’s] reappointment as ambassador in the autumn of 1595; ‘Princes,’ she dictated, ‘will not be capitulated with by their servants.’”
~“Elizabeth’s wrath descended upon both general and ambassador [Unton] once more when the English troops, contrary to orders, helped Henry to besiege Burnay . . . The operation ended in failure.” (96)
~“While in France Unton challenged to single combat the young Duke of Guise . . . the actual encounter never materialized.”  (96).
~“ . . . among those who spoke on behalf of moderating the subsidy was Unton.  The Queen’s wrath knew no bounds . . . Unton was in disgrace.” (96)
~“For over two years he [Unton] was to languish in involuntary exile from court . . . when Unton was presented to her [Elizabeth I] at Windsor . . . all he received for his pains were ‘very bitter speeches . . .” (97)
~“Unton had good cause to regret what he referred to as his ‘clownish life.’” (97)

Unton's “clownish life” ended when, shortly after being publically shunned by the French king, he fell from a horse and died a few weeks later, leaving, in Strong’s words, “ . . . a broken estate and great debts . . . in the midst of a sea of family quarrels the Unton estates were sold and broken up and the Untons of Wadlye for want of a male heir disappeared from history.”  Unton’s death was remembered by a anthology of verse compiled by the Faringdon town preacher.  Strong describes this collection as “trite encomiums.”

It is therefore with a more cynical eye than Mr. Strong’s that we will continue our exploration of this curious memorial portrait beginning with the sitter's grand tour of Europe running along its top margin.
Above details from the NPG website Making Art in Tudor BritainNote that the NPG describes the mysterious spear-shaking horseman as "painted out" of the portrait. 
We begin the tour with a spoiler alert.  Many years later, after spending countless hours imploring the NPG to x-ray, IR, and otherwise test their portrait, the picture was finally plumbed inside the Making Art in Tudor Britain project.  Among other intriguing findings, the infrared results revealed an overpainted man on horseback riding atop a hill.  This horseman presiding over the portrait raises a jousting lance into the air as if, well, shaking a spear.  Though featured prominently in the original conceit, the horseman was later censored by someone who did not want a spear-shaker reigning over the portrait.  With this in mind, it seems logical to presume that the original subject of the portrait might have been a jousting champion.  Henry Unton, as far as anyone knows, played no part in the tilts at court. 

As Michael Daly at Artwatch UK once pointed out to me, Renaissance books sometimes contained examples of generic locations used to signified a city (Daly's example, I believe, was Schedel’s 1493 Nuremberg Chronical used the same woodcut to depict Damascus, Gerrara, Milan, and Mantua); however the attention to detail (and especially to anomaly) in the NPG memorial painting makes it obvious that its cities are in no way generic.  There is no repetition.  This is a very intimate portrait peopled with real courtiers and structural anomalies.  The portrait's landscapes, like its citizens, are designed to be recognized.

Now back to the Grand Tour.  The section of sky above the four cities visited by the sitter during his tour appears to have been thoroughly rubbed and remixed, although vestiges of a long mountainscape, perhaps a continuation of the Alps above Padua, are still visible.  The four cities are labeled in an inconsistent white lettering: VENIS, PADDUA, NIMINGGAN (further labeled THE LOW COUNTRIES), and CUSHIA (further labeled FRANCE).  The lettering especially degenerates regarding these latter two cities, which Strong confirms as Nymegen in the Netherlands and Coucy La Fere in France.  The NPG claims these labels were part of the original conceit, but in truth that's a very difficult argument to prove. 
Various labels appearing on the NPG Memorial Portrait called Sir Henry Unton.
In the city Strong calls Nymegen “before which a battle is raging,” the sitter stands in armor in front of a war tent.  Now we know Nymegen was held for Philip II until 1591 when it fell to Maurice of Nassau, “an action,” Strong points out, “at which Unton was certainly not present (92).”  Nor is there any evidence of Unton having led troops in Nymegen.  And is this even Nymegen?  Aside from the dubious lettering, no details pinpoint it as such.  Not a single windmill is depicted in a city famous for them.  Labels aside, can we be sure this is even the Low Countries?  If so, what mountain range is it that’s been all but erased from its horizon?  The city more closely resembles Florence than Nymegen.

The neighboring city, according to Strong, is Coucy La Fere, the French commune where Henry Unton died, and indeed the portrait contains a death-bed scene adjacent this giant, walled city.  Strong believes the proximity between the death bed and the city establishes it to be the village of Coucy La Fere, the small commune in northern France where Unton was sent, against his will, by Elizabeth I.  (Upon arrival, and after being publicly shunned by the French king, Unton wrote home, “I do hide my head in shame.”)  Soon thereafter Unton fell from a horse, took a fever, and died.  The painter’s decision, therefore, to portray Unton mounted gaily on horseback capering toward Coucy La Fere might seem morbid.  For reasons unknown, our artist in painting Coucy chose to depict not a commune or village but a greatly detailed walled city filled with magnificent domes and pillars and bisected by a large river.  Lionel Cust, Strong’s predecessor as head of the NPG, described this city as “oriental.”
Detail NPG Memorial Portrait Called Sir Henry Unton (image from Wikicommons). Left side of detail shows sitter's death bed after falling from a horse.  Right-side of same detail shows sitter happily on horseback approaching a walled city bisected by a great river and labeled, oddly, "Cushia," which is a small commune in France that in no way resembles this great city that Lionel Cust, former head of the NPG, described as "oriental."
Enigmatic bearded man who appears twice in the NPG portrait  The figure first appears in the death-bed scene as a mourner and next appears leaning festively against the sitter's tomb holding indecipherable banners in his hands while people congregate along the walls oddly applauding the funeral procession.  This area appears to be the most heavily obfuscated section of the portrait.  Image from Wikicommons.  Mourner image from NPG Making Art in Tudor Britain webpage.
If Cust is correct, and the city is "oriental," then it's very likely Constantinople.  Elizabeth first opened trade with the Sultan in the 1570’s.  The Golden Horn of the Bosphorus Strait bisects Constantinople inside its city walls.  And the city resides on the edge of a continent, a detail the artist conveys via a continental shelf.  The hills behind Constantinople are topped with pillars, which, again, resemble those in the portrait.  And although the Ottomon Empire did receive ambassadors from Elizabeth I, the most noteworthy being William Harborne, between 1578-1588, not a trace of a rumor connects Henry Unton to Constantinople.

It's also possible, considering the presence of the Alps, which have been rubbed out above this city’s skyline, that Cust was wrong about the city being oriental and the walled city bisected by a river is instead Genoa.  Either way, this walled city portrayed at journey’s end bears no resemblance to Coucy La Fere, which is why no scholar, Strong included, has ever cited one similarity.  And, again, if it’s not Coucy La Fere then it’s not Sir Henry Unton.  And if it’s not Henry Unton then who is it?

Following the narrative, we eventually arrive at the sitter's tomb.  As stated previously, the church that contains the tomb has been crudely scamped.  (The plankings of its disjointed roof are illogical.  Overpaint is especially noticeable along the left side of the nave, though is gray archways are equally abused.)  The tomb itself is fascination of overpaint with thick brushstrokes visible around the heraldry backing its two effigies.  As to the effigies, it’s hard to know where to begin.  Some relics from the Unton tomb have survived, including a bust of Unton’s wife (which in no way resembles the one in the portrait).  And not to put questions in Strong’s mouth, but given his scenario why would Henry Unton’s wife, who survived him, have been portrayed as presiding over her husband’s effigy in a tomb clearly containing two coffins.  It's odd. 

An important issue in understanding this portrait becomes social status.  Unton married beneath him.  Yet Strong acknowledges that Mrs. Unton’s effigy does “preside” over her husband’s.  And why, I wonder, is she gesturing like a game-show hostesses to a pedestal on which rest . . . books.  Well, it's hard to conjure an answer unless Unton was a famous writer whose works and reputation have been lost.

The base of the tomb is drastically manipulated, the demarcation and discoloration on the left side obliterating an entire section of the red fence.  This fencing proves this is not a modest wall memorial, such as the one that has survived in Faringdon of Unton’s parents, but instead a grand tomb styled in the Westminster fashion of Queen Elizabeth I’s (a tomb it greatly resembles).  Beneath this tomb we have yet another enigma: the presence of what appears to be two coffins: one horizontal, one vertical.  Yet Strong claims that the widow Unton commissioned the portrait while alive.

It was not Sir Roy Strong, however, who originally identified the sitter as Henry Unton, and therein lies another curious tale.  The portrait was identified as Unton in 1775 via a bannered inscription above the panel depicting its sitter as a newborn baby held in his mother’s arms.  This inscription supposedly stated that the sitter was Sir Henry Unton and then went on to detail his lineage etc.  Yet as Strong noted, “In spite of the numerous inscriptions which covered the pictures, it was catalogued as ‘an old original historical picture of the late Sir John Unton, who married Anne Seymour of the Somerset family.”  In fact, the portrait remained misidentified for over three decades until this bannered inscription became miraculously visible, but only for a brief window, in 1775.  The inscription is not legible today, nor was it legible when the portrait first surfaced in a 1744 sale at St. Paul’s Coffee House, nor was it legible when the picture was examined by the antiquarian George Vertue in 1748, nor was it legible in 1888 when the picture was first cataloged by the NPG.  Since then the portrait has been cleaned a number of times, but at no point has this inscription suddenly become legible again.   (Spoiler alert: the x-ray and IR testing recently c0mpleted on the portrait could not decipher the text on the banner.)
Could this be Queen Elizabeth I holding her child?  
Above: detail from the birth section of the Life Portrait showing the sitter's royal and red-haired mother.  Note the scepter leaning against the chair.  Also note the wet maid or attendant gesturing for the child inside an atmosphere which seems more sad than celebrated.  Above the queenly mother holding the baby is the Seymour family coat of arms.  Image from NPG website Making Art in Tudor Britain.

In 1775, when the inscription magically surfaced, the portrait was owned by a Mr. John Thane.  When Thane died, the portrait vanished again, this time for over thirty years, and was rediscovered in 1847 inside a Chelsea attic.  This was an interesting era for English attics.  Only three years earlier another portrait had been discovered inside the Stratford attic of the Clopton House, the now famous Hunt portrait of Shakespeare.  When discovered, the Hunt portrait had been disguised with overpainted from head to foot including a giant caricatured beard imposed over Shakespeare’s face.  In a town brimming with faked bard relics, here was an authentic portrait of the poet discovered inside a house renowned for Shakespeare relics that had been manipulated so as not to resemble the famous bust in Trinity church.  And if this surprises you then you have a lot to learn about the history of Shakespeare portraits.  Because almost every portrait historically tied to Shakespeare has been attached to curatorial scandals that stagger the mind. 

In attempting to re-identify the sitter of the memorial portrait, any new identification would have to supply some motive to explain the elaborate obfuscation of the portrait.  Let’s begin this task with an important observation made by Strong regarding caste.  “In a picture whose sense of scale is almost wholly dominated by social precedence, Sir Henry Unton’s mother assumes gargantuan proportions which are modified only by her seated position.  If she were standing, the two ladies and the nurse would be dwarfed by her.  Of her noble rank we are left in no doubt (Strong 85).” 

Caste dictates scale.  Mother Unton is painted as gargantuan, Strong states, because she was the daughter of Edward Seymour, the fallen Lord Protector.  The Seymour coat-of-arms is displayed above the birth panel, and it would seem this coat-of-arms has been visible long before the inscription’s brief quickening.  Other details in the birth panel are perhaps less trustworthy.  However there is one object clearly visible that we might use to help identify this redheaded woman of gargantuan social status.  A scepter is leaning against her chair.  Separate from the chair and extending far in front of it at an angle, this scepter cannot be explained as part of the chair. 

Should we assume that the Seymour coat of arms is valid and that the woman portrayed is royal, then we are forced to consider that the redhaired mother of “gargantuan” social status who is sitting on a chair with a scepter leaning against it might be Queen Elizabeth I.  There have been, for decades, books and movies fashioned around the premise that Elizabeth’s illegitimate son was Edward de Vere, the man long considered the preeminent candidate in the Shakespeare authorship debate.  And the father of this bastard genius is invariably cited to Thomas Seymour.  If correct, this tentative identification would certainly explain the systematic obfuscation of this portrait as well as the history of curatorial scandals associated with Shakespeare portraits in general.  

As Strong had confirmed, the coat of arm above the birth panel hails from the Seymour family.  Two historical letters exist from 1948 in which the then Princess Elizabeth wrote to the Lord Protector defending herself in no uncertain terms against the quite specific accusation that she had been made pregnant by Thomas Seymour, the handsome gadabout brother of the Lord Protector.  The Seymour pregnancy scandal was of such proportion that Elizabeth’s servants, including her beloved Kat Ashley, were arrested and jailed in the Tower for questioning.  Lord Robert Tyrwhit was placed in charge of the investigation and in regards to Elizabeth’s pregnancy he noted, “I do verily believe that there hath been some secret promise between my Lady [Elizabeth], Mistress Ashley, and the cofferer, never to confess till death . . . I do see it in her [Elizabeth’s] face that she is guilty . . . ”

With this in mind, let’s return to the birth panel showing us this socially gargantuan red-haired mother who quite resembles Elizabeth sitting in what might or might not be a sceptered throne beneath the Seymour coat-of-arms.  Her child, it turns out, is wearing the red ermine robes.  Three ladies are attending the mother.  One appears to a servant or midwife; the other two are better dressed and resemble somewhat the two women painted into the background of Gheeraerts the Elder’s Peace Portrait of Elizabeth.  Is it merely another coincidence that the midwife is gesturing to take the baby away from the mother?  The mother appears sad, and her grief seems shared by the other women present.  The father is conspicuously absent.  And directly below this section is a gallows-type scene which also shows what appears to be a couple standing before a dark chapel.  It's all very curious.

Is the woman gesturing for the baby Kat Ashley?  Obviously we don't know.  However we do know, thanks to the magic of x-rays, that there is some buried lettering in this panel right next to this woman.  Somebody long ago overpainted this sparse lettering, which happens to have been painted directly next to the woman gesturing for the child.  I first saw the x-rays in London in the NPG Library, where I was given an allotted five hours to examine the plates.  The letters surviving in the x-ray read, "A--lie."  Let us recall that the spelling of names was variable in those days.  (Shakespeare himself signed his name in strange combinations of letters.)  It certainly seems feasible that the A--lie, might have once spelled out Ashlie.

Moving upward and to our left from the birth scene we arrive inside the portrait’s masque.  The house, or banquet hall, in which this masque takes place appears to be modeled upon an Elizabethan playhouse, at least to judge  by the only surviving likeness of such a theater copied by Arendt van Buchell from a sketch made my Johannes de Witt.  That drawing portrays the Swan, build in 1596 in Southwark, and depicts a projecting stage beneath a “lords house” (called so by Ben Jonson) in which affluent patrons would watch the play from above and behind the stage.  Two Greek columns with large pedestal bases support the structure at the top of which looms a the two-roomed “heavens.”  Since the main sitter is pictured as residing in these heaven (as well as at the feast below) obviously we are dealing with another Elizabethan conceit: the home as playhouse incorporating the idea of the theater’s “heavens.”

The masque itself has never been identified, though this might be due to obfuscation.  Strong describes the: “. . . glittering procession is headed by Diana . . . she is ushered into the presence of the feasters by Mercury . . . behind her walks a train of six maidens in pairs carrying bows and garlands . . . the theme of the show is not apparent . . . could we suggest an allusion to the Queen, Elizabeth, as the moon goddess?"  It’s hardly necessary to suggest this allusion, as Diana was indisputably Elizabeth’s adopted symbol.  Likewise Harvard’s Leslie Hotson wrote an entire book expounding on the premise that the god Mercury was the adopted symbol of Shakespeare. 

Strong describes the musical arrangement accompanying the masque as a  “broken consort . . . an orchestra in embryo which had developed out of the consorts used in the playhouses.”  Again, this would seem to enforce the playhouse conceit.  Strong then ties this arrangement directly to Edward de Vere, explaining that The First Book of Consort Lessons published by Thomas Morely in 1599 uses this playhouse “designed for just such a consort as that in the Unton masque . . . includes pieces specially written specifically for masques for Lord Zouche and the Earl of Oxford [de Vere].”  The piece in Morely’s book that Strong refers to is a part of a masque, now lost to us, known as “The Earl of Oxenford’s Mask.” 

Morley, perhaps the most famous musicians of his day, was one of only two Elizabethan composers to set Shakespeare’s verse to music.  As Sally Mosher wrote in her article on the musician William Byrd, “When Shakespeare speaks of “broken music,” he means a broken consort.  ‘My Lord of Oxenford’s Maske’ is an arrangement of the Oxford march of a broken consort of lutes, viols, and flute (Morlye 134).  Oxford was patron to both Morley and his famous teacher William Byrd, whom de Vere saved from bankruptcy.  Byrd composed “the Earl of Oxford’s March,” which was the “tucket” or musical social signature used to announce Oxford's presence.  Earls were of such a social status that such tuckets preceded them, and indeed a tucket player is visible three different times in the memorial portrait.  De Vere was also patron to John Farmer, who in publishing his  The First Set of English Madrigals, in 1599 noted that de Vere “using the science as a recreation your Lordship have overgone most of them that make it a profession.”  Indeed de Vere was well known as a musician.

The Seymour heraldry employed throughout the portrait perhaps also ties the portrait to de Vere, who later in life, as recorded by Barbara Burris and Ruth Miller, combined the heraldry of the Seymour clan with that of the Earl of Oxford.  It’s also interesting that an earl’s coronet appears on the portrait a number of times, not least of which is atop the tomb, though the heraldic boar or phoenix, both of which are associated with de Vere, does not appear but instead the portrait reveals a white griffin that is not associated with either de Vere or Unton.  Unton’s heraldic symbol was the greyhound; however the griffin, which shares the lower body synonymous with the boar, appears three times on this portrait.  Charles Wisner Barrell, to whom this blog is dedicated, once while investigating the equally curious Ashbourne Portrait of Shakespeare identified the griffin as the heraldic beast associated with the Trentham family.  Scholars of de Vere might recall that in 1591 a very broke Edward de Vere married a very rich Elizabeth Trentham.

In ending this post, I will add that throughout Shakespeare's sonnets and plays he punned on the word "sun" and "son" rather mercilessly.  He was, for some reason, obsessed with this simple pun--all of which adds another layer of mystery to the supposedly autobiographical sonnets.  In the upper right hand corner of the life portrait we have a very real sun shining upon the life of courtier being memorialized.  Individual rays, threadlike at times, extend from this sun and attach themselves to certain people of importance connected to the fallen courtier.  For instance, one such ray extends to the school teacher in the tower.  It's almost as if the painter is playing with the same pun Shakespeare was so obsessed with.  It's all very curious.
End Part One   
                                                                                            copyright2014 by Lee Durkee

3 comments:

  1. Absolutely fascinating research of an iconic painting Lee. Based on your presentation it throws serious doubt on the identity as Unton, I hope it sparks further investigation at the NPG. However, Shakespeare? hmmm...

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  2. Well it seems clear the sitter was a very famous writer. So that limits the candidates quite a bit. And we can limit them more by admitting it was a famous writers worthy of an elaborate job of censorship. It might not be Shakespeare--though he certainly meets that criteria (witness the various authorship debate theories, etc) but it is somebody quite fascinating whose story has been buried beneath the paint for centuries.
    As to the legwork of the anti-Unton theory, Sir Roy Strong did most of that, though he didn't seem to realized he was doing it. Thanks for reading.

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  3. Fascinating. Enjoyed reading this immensely. The last part interested me because as I was reading your commentary, I kept noticing the sun's rays.

    To my eye, it appeared that the sun's rays always landed upon the de Vere image, excepting the one in the schooltower. Even the overpainted jouster on the hill seems to have a faint ray of sun. Others I see from top to bottom, include the mounted horseman in France, the man in front of the tents, the man in the "heavens", the cellist, the man feasting, a man behind the feasters, the lute player, the man in the school tower, and the baby. All of these appear to be the same person, de Vere, except the man in the school tower and of course, the baby.

    There are also two rays that I can't quite make out where they go. One goes thru the ship, and presumably falls upon the man at the center of the image. The other is a ray above the cellist and below the man sitting in the "heavens". As these rays seem to bend up a little as they traverse thru the playhouse, perhaps it reaches the foot of the reclining man holding the scrolls.

    Then there are a couple other de Vere-like images that don't seem to have rays falling upon them. There's the man sitting under the table in the bedroom scene, but the ray passing thru the horseman in "France" could also fall upon the sitting man.

    Of course the most obvious absent ray would be the one that should fall upon the figure on the tomb. However, if you take the ray that seems to fall upon the central figure, and instead follow its direction, it might actually be falling upon the tomb figure. More often than not, these rays fall upon a figure's head, so that makes more sense than the ray falling upon the central figure.

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