Thursday, June 30, 2022

My memoir Stalking Shakespeare Is Now Due Out April 2023

Well there's been yet another Covid delay on publishing my memoir Stalking Shakespeare with Scribner. The repeated delays are due to the book having so many dope color plates and in-text illustrations. The new pub date is April 2023 and I've been assured it won't be delayed again. Despite the delays, Scribner is going a great job on the memoir and I'm very grateful to everyone in New York who has labored away on the book for four years now during the dark days of plague (a very Elizabethan delay, I might add). Lee


Sunday, May 22, 2022

A Curious Portrait of a Man Stabbed 57 Times That Might Actually Be A Famous Lost Painting Of William Shakespeare

Left: portrait known as David Rizzio (Royal Collection, artist unknown, image from Wikicommons). Right: the Droeshout engraving from Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio (artist unknown, image from Folger Shakespeare Library). The Droeshout engraving is our only authenticated portrait of the poet. For centuries now scholars have been searching for the presumed ad vivum (from life) painted portrait used to create this world famous engraving.

Note 1: there is a very intriguing update at the bottom of this post.

Note 2: all images in this post are being used under fair-use laws. This is an argument regarding the possible mis-identification of a historical portrait that might be connected to William Shakespeare.

If I were allowed to choose one portrait from the Royal Collection to be probed and prodded with spectral technologies this would be the one. Unfortunately I had to cut the chapter about this portrait from my forthcoming book STALKING SHAKESPEARE (Scribner, April 2023) because any worthwhile discussion of the picture would require a great many side-by-side comparisons. That said, I do suspect this portrait might depict Shakespeare painted from life. I'm also curious about its relationship, if any, to the famous Droeshout engraving from Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio and also to Laurence Hilliard's c. 1620 portrait of Shakespeare.  

Over a decade ago I became interested in a portrait kept in London's Royal Collection said to depict the murdered musician David Rizzio. Four things about the portrait caught my eye: (1) the sitter's resemblance to the famous Droeshout engraving, (2) the way the portrait's background contained telltales of having been scrubbed and scamped, (3) the sitter's familiar looking signet ring, (4) the Shakespearean pate clearly visible inside the full head of hair that hinted the sitter might originally have been painted as bald.

Above: portrait of a man known as David Rizzio (Royal Collection, image via wikicommons) Inscribed " 'Dad Rizzo MDLXV.' (1565)". Note the opened pocket on the doublet sleeve exposing bombast, an Elizabethan detail that disappeared from the portrait during its 1974  restoration.

The Royal Collection does not believe this is a portrait of the infamous fiddler David Rizzio. In fact, they believe the portrait to be Jacobean, not Elizabethan, largely due to its costume, and especially the fountain-fall collar. I agree it's probably not Rizzio but suspect the painting might be Elizabethan. I also suspect the picture might be an overpainted portrait of Will Shakespeare.

There's plenty of intrigue here. For instance, the 1974 restoration of this portrait eliminated one distinct, and likely Elizabethan, feature of the costume: the sleeve pocket (worn open with laces or perhaps point-tied fastenings). The sleeve pocket that disappeared was not consistent with the Royal Collection's current c. 1620 dating of the portrait, and now its gone. I find that curious, and I've written the Royal Collection about this disappeared pocket and will update this post when I hear back. (See update below.) I'm curious as to why this sleeve pocket was eliminated and find it unlikely that some later artist would in-paint an extremely rare Elizabethan-style pocket onto a portrait, especially since the blue ground of the painting appears to be exposed, perhaps even scraped, all around the sleeve pocket. Was the portrait x-rayed or IR-ed as part of this 1974 restoration? I'll try to find out. Stayed tuned for the next episode of "The Case of the Disappearing Pocket."  

Above: pocket sleeve with fasteners that are either lacing, or points, or maybe even hook-and-eye. The entire sleeve pocket vanished during the 1974 restoration of the Called Rizzio portrait (Royal Collection; image via wikicommons). Note the bluish ground of the portrait, meaning we are very close to the panel itself. Was this portrait scraped at some point, and, if so, why? There certainly appears to be bombast padding exposed by the open pocket. Bombast might also indicate the portrait to be Elizabethan as such padding when out of style by the turn of the century.

Antonia Graser's 1994 book Mary, Queen of Scots described David Rizzio as ugly, short, and hunchbacked, so it's fair to wonder if this handsome jack is Mr. Rizzio. Misleading inscriptions are fairly common, after all. 

It's worth remembering that Rizzio was hideously murdered--stabbed 57 times--when his rumored lover, Mary, Queen of Scots, was six-month's pregnant. Mary's husband Lord Darnley believed, or claimed to believe, that his wife had been impregnated by Rizzio. Mary's subsequent son, possibly the bastard love-child of a rank fiddler, would grow up to become Great Britain's King James I, so the stakes are high on this portrait, and Rizzio's possible intersections with the Stewart clan have been largely repressed. Having fiddler blood instead of royal blood makes for an impressive dynastic scandal.

Above: Called David Rizzio (Royal Collection; image via wikicommons) & stipple engraving of Rizzio (NPG; image via wikicommons). The original print of the engraving states it was copied from a portrait of Rizzio painted in 1562 by an unknown artist "in the possession of H. C. Jennings, Esq." Click here to view the recently restored version of the Called Rizzio portrait currently on the Royal Collection website.
Above: the Called Rizzio sitter's eyes before the restoration (left) and after (right).

The Royal Collection website makes no mention of the sitter's signet ring when discussing the costume, but it's odd for a musician to wear such a ring (hardly part of the job description). If this is actually a portrait of Rizzio, perhaps the ring can be explained by Rizzio's quick rise from being a bass singer in Mary's court to being installed as her Secretary to France. The matrix or face of the ring appears a bit off-center to me. I'll return to the signet ring later.

Another enigma about this portrait is that its sitter appears to have originally been painted as bald. Obviously no artist would paint a sitter bald and then add hair later; yet we can see evidence of the sitter's pate lurking behind the hair. I find that curious. 

Above: detail reveals what appears to be a bald pate that was later overpainted with hair (Royal Collection, image via wikicommons). The black hair resembling a dyed comb-over is especially odd since the darker hair is depicted on the lighter side of the portrait in regard to the change of color along the background.
Above: the Marshall portrait of Shakespeare (left, Folger Shakespeare Library), Called David Rizzio (center, Royal Collection, image from Wikicommons) and the Droeshout engraving (right, Folger Shakespeare Library).

Above: side by side comparison between the Droeshout engraving (reversed) from First Folio show shows eerily similarly lined-up bald pates. The eyes also match up well. Note that engraving were often reversed images of painted portraits; therefore we don't know if the Droeshout engraving is reversed or not.

As to this fountain-style fall collar, said to be Jacobean, it also shows up in the history of bard portraits in the miniature of Shakespeare attributed to Laurence Hilliard. Once again we see a strong physical resemblance between the two sitters. Whoever this jack is, he greatly resembles Laurence Hilliard's William Shakespeare.

Left: copy of the Laurence Hilliard (c. 1620) miniature of Shakespeare by TW Harland  (left, National Portrait Gallery, London). Right: portrait called David Rizzio (Royal Collection). See any resemblance?  

Finally, for the benefit of our Oxfordian readers, here is a comparison of the Rizzio portrait with Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who was considered an excellent musician and played multiple instruments. Many authorship skeptics believe de Vere to be the true author of Shakespeare's plays. To this I will only add that the violin originated in the early to mid 16th century in Italy and migrated from Italy to England.

Above left: the Welbeck portrait of Edward de Vere (Welbeck Abbey, image from wikicommons). Above center: Called David Rizzio (Royal Collection, image from wikicommons). Above right: c. 1987 post-cleaning photo of the controversial Ashbourne portrait (Folger Shakespeare Library, right).
Above: hand with signet ring from the Ashbourne portrait (left, Folger Shakespeare Library) & hand with signet ring from Called Rizzio (Royal Collection).

Oxfordians have been convinced for decades, and with good reason, that the Ashbourne portrait had its Elizabethan collar overpainted in order to misidentify the sitter Edward de Vere as a haberdasher named Hamersley. Could this inscribed Rizzio portrait actually depict the young Edward de Vere with his violin? Or is this instead a Jacobean portrait, which would mean its sitter is neither de Vere or Rizzio?

A big clue to the identity of sitter might lie in the signet ring, and it would be interesting to probe this ring with spectral technologies. After all, the whole purpose of signet rings is to identify . . .

So, lots of red flags here. And lots of reason to x-ray, or infra-red, or use whatever occult technologies have cooked up of late to get under paint. Expect some updates to this posts.

I have now received a number of emails from the Royal Collection about their called-Rizzio portrait. Perhaps the most important reveal is that all the conservation notes from the portrait's 1974 restoration (its only restoration of note) have been, well, um, lost. (This is almost invariably the case with Shakespeare candidate portraits btw.) The sleeve pocket was presumably removed, I learned, because it had been added to the portrait, but there's no mention in the email of how that was determined or if x-rays or IRs were even employed. One email implied the sleeve might have been added to make the portrait appear Elizabethan, though it's unclear why anyone would want to forge a portrait to depict David Rizzio. 

Also the emails from the Royal Collection makes it clear that I was correct about the background of the portrait being overpainted. The Rizzio inscription was also added to the portrait at a later date. Apparently the doublet is not leather, though it certainly looks like leather to me. A letter in the portrait's file once described the portrait as a "problem picture." I would agree.  

Below are the emails I received from the Royal Collection. I've highlighted certain passages in bold print. For example, I highlighted the passage in one email in which, within the same paragraph, I was informed that sleeve pockets never existed, and then I was told that maybe the sleeve pocket was added to make the portrait appear Elizabethan. If sleeve pockets didn't exist, then how could one have been added to make a portrait appear Elizabethan?

Also note I immediately responded to that email by sending them a photograph of an Elizabethan portrait with a sleeve pocket (see below portrait of Horace Vere). 

As you read these emails, ask yourself why the Royal Collection has not explored this "problem portrait" with x-rays or infrared light etc. After all, they admit it's extensively overpainted. Obviously somebody went a lot of trouble to misidentify the sitter. Why not learn the portrait's true history? I just don't understand the lack of curiosity in certain collections. 

Dear Mr Durkee,

Thank you for your e-mail regarding the Portrait of a Man known as David Rizzio in the Royal Collection (RCIN 401172). The image that you saw on our website (now no longer visible) dates from 1971. It was taken prior to conservation, which I understand took place in 1974 and appears to have been overseen by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (SNPG). According to a letter of 1988, in our files, correspondence with the conservator who worked on the painting and the SNPG are missing. I suspect that it was during the conservation that the pocket sleeve and lacing were removed presumably because they were identified as later overpainting. 

The painting is due to be published in a revision of Oliver Millar’s Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures, 1963 (although it was not included in the first edition). It is thought that the background of the painting has been extensively overpainted. The inscription (which gives the date of the portrait as 1565) is not original and was presumably added a number of years after the portrait was painted. The costume of the sitter can be dated to c. 1620 on the basis of the falling ruff which is far too large for a portrait of the mid-16th century as well as the shape of the doublet, particularly in terms of the manner in which the shoulder wings project beyond the arms. The style of beard and hair are also much more like the fashions of the 1620s.

Perhaps the overpainted ‘pocket’ in the doublet was an attempt to make it appear more Elizabethan. It may also have been a misinterpretation of the fashion for paned (slit) sleeves on doublets, which were common around 1620. Pockets were never found in this sleeve location. The way in which the fabric of the garment has been painted seems more indicative of wool or silk rather than leather and it would have been known as a doublet not a jerkin as jerkins were sleeveless. 

In a letter from Dr Duncan Thomson, then Assistant Keeper of Art, SNPG, to Robert Snowden, the conservator, he describes it as a ‘problem picture’ and felt it was wrong to call it a picture of Rizzio.

You may be interested to know that there is a mark impressed on the stretcher of the painting from the firm of liners, John Peel (c.1785-1858).

I hope this information is of interest.

My reply to the Royal Collection (below):

Thank you for the helpful reply. I still have a few questions and am sorry to hear the notes on the conservation have been lost. Were any spectral tests done on the portrait prior to its restoration? I'm curious as to how it was decided the pocket was added, especially since it was so unique. And thanks also for confirming the sleeve pocket used lacing--I wasn't positive--and yes that would certainly make it Elizabethan.

I disagree that sleeve pockets were never located in that general area and am attaching a portrait to support my case. I have to say it's awfully strange for somebody to in-paint such a specific and uniquely laced open pocket onto a portrait--I've never once seen a laced pocket depicted as open, so it's hard to believe they copied it there from another portrait. And that appears to be bombast that's exposed by the opened pocket, too, and of course bombast disappeared by the end of the century as the human figure returned to men's fashion following Elizabeth's death. To my mind, the argument that somebody wanted the portrait to depict Rizzio so badly they painted an Elizabethan pocket onto the portrait is as strange as an argument stating a fall collar was overpainted onto the portrait to make it look Jacobean. Neither argument has much logic behind it and with the conservation notes lost--you'd be surprised how often this is the case--I guess we will never know now, which is a shame.

Please do let me know if any x-rays or IRs were taken. Or if there are any alternative routes to learning more about this portrait's conservation--might records exist elsewhere?
Thank you again for the reply and this information,
Above: portrait of Horace Vere, 1594 (image from Wikicommons). Note the pocket sleeve, stuff with bombast, clearly visible in the exact location of the portrait known as David Rizzio. The pocket sleeve was therefore an Elizabethan detail and might well date the portrait known as David Rizzio to c. 1594.

Email reply (below) from the Royal Collection in which my evidence the side pocket was an Elizabethan style goes oddly un-noted as does my argument no painter would have forged this obscure costume detail onto a portrait:

Dear Mr Durkee 

Thank you for your e-mail and apologies for the delay in replying. I have now traced the correspondence and reports on the painting from its time at Stenhouse

Conservation Centre during the 1970s and I am afraid that there are no references to any X rays or technical analysis of the painting. There is also no discussion of the removal of the laced pocket sleeve. There is, however, reference to removal of areas of ‘inpainting’ (later overpainting) in ‘oil colours’ which I presume relates to the pocket.

I can only re-iterate that Dr Duncan Thomson, Assistant Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, (who oversaw the conservation) believed that it was wrong to go on calling it a portrait of Rizzio.  He felt the costume of the sitter can be dated to c. 1620 and the style of the portrait are of about the same date.  I am sure you are aware of the almost-half-length engraving by Charles Wilkin (c. 1759-1814), of Rizzio, in a ruff and cap, and playing the lute. The engraving is presumably after a portrait of Rizzio which is now not known, and was published by Robert Triphook in 1814 (British Museum). We believe the violin in our portrait could possibly date from the early eighteenth century, however it appears to be an inauthentic rendering of an instrument of the period.  

Finally, I attach a detail of the pocket sleeve from a photograph taken in 1971, prior to the conservation, and we would welcome any further thoughts that you have.

With kind regards [. . .]

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

My Novel THE LAST TAXI DRIVER Splashed Across Front Page of Le Monde's Weekly Book Review

In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined this happening. Very grateful to my French translator Nicolas Richard for landing me on the front page of Le Monde's weekly book review.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

A Yorkshire Tragedy, Thomas Middleton, and Edward de Vere

1608 Quarto of A YORKSHIRE TRAGEDY attributed to "Shakspeare" (Wikicommons). Note the epigram of what appears to be a falcon or hawk capturing another bird in hunt above a mountainous vista. The falcon was the Stratford actor Shakspeare's symbol in his coat of arms. The name of the writer is spelled "Shakspeare," making this two direct references to the Stratford businessman and actor in the frontispiece. It is also advertised on its 1608 cover and "Not so new as Lamentable and True."

In 1608 A YORKSHIRE TRAGEDY was attributed in quarto form to "William Shakspeare" (not "Will. Shake-speare," as the name was typically spelled in print). In the years and decades that followed the play was attributed to Shakespeare (using various spellings of the name) four different times, including when it was registered for publication on May 2, 1608. It was attributed to Shakespeare a second time on the title page of the quarto that soon followed when the play was performed in the Globe. It was attributed to Shakespeare a third time when the quarto was reprinted by Thomas Pavier. And, although it was excluded from the 1623 First Folio, the play did appear in Shakespeare's Third Folio of 1664. In 1685 the play was included in the Fourth Folio. It's also of note that in its original title page the play was advertised as, "Not so new as lamentable and true."

The reason it's described as "lamentable," is that the play was apparently based on an actual murder performed by a squire of the name Walter Calverly who had been forced to marry his guardian's granddaughter.  

Stanley Wells, in his Shakespeare and Co., calls the play "among the finest one-act plays in English." Wells also notes that " . . . nothing in Middleton's output to the date would have prepared one for the possibility that he could have written so powerful a tragedy in this stage of his career."

Yet today scholars assume the play was written by Thomas Middleton even though it seems to have little or nothing in common with the style in which he typically wrote at that time. And the tragedy has a lot in common with how Shakespeare wrote--or at least it does in spells and starts, which might lead a more objective mind to wonder if this play was partially written by Shakespeare and perhaps cobbled together by Middleton in a way that perhaps can teach us something about Middleton and his influence on Macbeth.

I absolutely do think Shakespeare wrote some of "A Yorkshire Tragedy" mostly because  the play contains one of my favorite Shakespearean soliloquies. The following passage is spoken by a suddenly repentant fallen earl who gambled away his fortune.

The play itself would seem to have been written by at least two different hands. The one in charge of structure was subpar. But the flights of language, at their best, are genius. 

In spite of his stated belief that Middleton did not write in this style, Stanley Wells seems to believe Middleton did somehow pen the tragedy yet Wells remains baffled by a number of problems, including the abrupt changes of tone between the first and second scene. Wells states, "The tone is relaxed, but after this the drama makes a fresh start. . . " Regarding the out-of-place opening scene, Wells speculates, "It could easily have been written after the body of the play had been composed. . . There are many signs that it represented the author very much in the process of hasty composition, writing with the source pamphlet before him, not stopping to polish his verse, and leaving decisions crucial to the play's staging to be sorted out later. I have hunch that Middleton, working with frenzied inspiration, sketched the play from the opening of what is now the second scene, found that it came out far too short for independent performance, embarked upon a process of expansion by writing an introductory scene in a more relaxed manner, decided it didn't work, and as a way of cutting his losses turned the whole play over to a printer who agreed to publish it provide he could say it was by Shakespeare." 

Whew. To this spiel of wild speculation, Wells then adds this gem: "I cannot prove this; but equally, so far as I know, no one can disprove it."

What? Well, just for the record, I can speculate that Shakespeare always wrote naked while standing on his head and nobody can disprove that either.

So let's touch upon those Macbeth parallels. Wells notes the writing contains "speeches of rare psychological complexity" that bring to mind Macbeth and specifically "the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her children." Macbeth is at times partially attributed to Middleton due to the lifted passages from Middleton's earlier works. And there's obviously a connection between the hideous murder of the nobleman's children here and the murder to Macduff's children in Macbeth. And, once again, it's worth stating that Middleton was not a violent writer in general.

So this play, hideously violent in nature, yet at times stunningly beautiful in language, remains a mystery, one that may never be attributed correctly until we get a better idea of who or what Shakespeare really was.  

I think we can all at least agree that A Yorkshire Tragedy would seem to be a cobbled-together play, the work where occasional genius meets lackey carpenter, but had the play become as well known as Macbeth it certainly would have lifted eyebrows earlier. Did Shakespeare write passages of it? I would argue yes. Did he structure it? I would say no. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

My New Novel THE LAST TAXI DRIVER Featured in Harper's Magazine April 2020 Issue

Very happy to report that Harper's magazine just (re)published the first chapter of my brand new novel THE LAST TAXI DRIVER (Tin House Books) in their April issue. Which is kinda funny because a lifetime ago I got a story published from their slush pile and made the front cover. I think that was around 1995. Or maybe it was 1895. Either way, worlds ago.

For anyone interested here is link to the chapter Harper's was kind enough to republish. Many thanks to Tin House Books and ICM for pulling off this coup.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020


Clockwise from upper right: French, American, UK, American (paper), and Italian editions.


“A wild, funny, poetic fever-dream that will change the way you think about America. Durkee is a true original—a wise and wildly talented writer who knows something profound about that special strain of American darkness that comes out of blended paucity, materialism, and addiction—but also, in the joy and honesty and wit of the prose, he offers a way out. I loved this
book and felt jangled and inspired and changed by it.” — George Saunders

Disarmingly honest and darkly comic . . . beguiling, energetic, razor sharp prose. –New York Times Book Review

One of the best novels in recent memory . . . wildly compelling . . . . a comic masterpiece.–James McElroy The Washington Examiner

Popping pills and fulminating about the dregs of society, yet incapable of not feeling compassion for the plight of his fellow bottom-feeders, Lou Bishoff represents a masterclass in characterization, a man who recalls elements of Jim Thompson, Flannery O’Connor, Barry Gifford and John Kennedy Toole.–Declan Burke The Irish Times

A remarkable one-day picaresque as we follow Lou on a marathon shift through a blasted landscape that’s part Denis Johnson–ish carnival of the wrecked, part Nietzschean Twilight of the Gods (or Twilight of the Taxicabs) . . . a comic sweetness and energy underneath that reminds one of Charles Portis . . . A dark pleasure.  Kirkus (starred review)

Wickly funny . . . There is depression, dirt, grit, and grist aplenty, but the novel shyly displays a bruised beauty. –Jesse Davis, Memphis Flyer

The funniest writer you’ve never heard of, but that may change. His 2001 debut, Rides of the Midway, is a 1970s coming of age masterpiece . . . Now, nearly 20 years later, at last we have Durkee’s second book, his own reboot, and wow is it worth the wait . . . a future Tom Waits vehicle if there ever was one. John Freeman, Lit Hub Executive Editor

Blotted with jet-black humor, The Last Taxi Driver (Tin House) is the lauded authors first novel in twenty years. This ride is worth the wait. CJ Lotz, Garden & Gun Executive Editor

Delightful and surprising . . . [a] cathartic achievement. . . . Told from Lou’s perspective, it’s a casual, voice-driven read with smart intimate humor. Sarah Webster, Chicago Review of Books

Lou Bishoff is a hero for the gig economy . . . dark but funny as hell. —Southwest Review

The potential for violence lurks on every page and erupts in assaults sadly mundane and shockingly horrific . . . In Lou, Durkee has created a fascinatingly complex character . . . Durkee tackles race and poverty, violence of many varieties, loss and longing, and the power of the imagination. Lou’s excruciating day will make readers cringe, and the recounting of his traumas is more than unsettling. This is a dark, feverish and weird tale that remains compelling throughout. –Sarah Rachel Egelman, Bookreporter

THE LAST TAXI DRIVER is a Canterbury Tales for our time . . . Decentralized, atomized, and alternately tranquilized and jacked up on cheap beer and meth, this is the world of Beckett, Godard, Robbe-Grillet . . . The Last Taxi Driver the novel is about exhaustion. Towards the end of the book, Lou wonders vaguely “if aging boxers ever reach a point in the late rounds of lost bouts in which they enjoy being hit.” When Lou says things like that, which he does increasingly, you realize he speaks for all of us the same way the singer of a blues song does.” –David Kirby, Full Stop

A step above a must-read.  –The Week

For devotees of the offbeat and grit lit writers like Larry Brown and Mary Miller. Follow the air freshener rocking back and forth, taking you under its spell, as Durkee takes you for a ride. –AV  Club

A pleasure to read . . . unadorned and direct. It’s first person Lou, explaining the North Mississippi taxi business and narrating as we ride shotgun on a long, strange shift. The novel is dark, but quite funny. Lou . . . has stories to tell, stories about albino possums, UFOs, and adolescent trauma. As the day shift turns into a night run home from Memphis, with a yellow-eyed transplant surgery escapee on board and a gun under the seat, things get … well, they get darker.  –Jim Warren, The Clarion Ledger

Lee Durkee’s Gentry is rooted firmly in our America. The novel almost makes other fiction in that Southern tradition seem frivolous by comparison . . .” –Jim Woster, Razorcake

Raunchy and sweet and, at times, psychedelic. John T. Edge writing in Garden & Gun

Lou might sometimes lack a sense of accomplishment, but Durkee’s prose never lacks purpose. Readers therefore will find plenty to appreciate in The Last Taxi Driver. Split Rock Review

Lee Durkee’s novels draw upon his own hip but hardscrabble life, combining the working-class realism of Charles Bukowski with the counter-cultural flamboyance of Hunter S. Thompson . . . Yet somehow, the author creates such a vivid likeness of life that readers can’t help but feel uplifted. There’s beauty in the beastliness. Don’t miss this one. –Luckbox Magazine


Friday, November 8, 2019

My Final Argument that the Portrait of an Unknown Fashion Fantastico in North Carolina Depicts the Privateer Sir Thomas Cavendish

Above: Unknown Gent (NCMA 67.13.4) & Sir Thomas Cavendish (image via
This distinguished-looking gent, decked out in a fabulous gold-leaf fleur-de-lis doublet, lives anonymously inside the North Carolina Museum of Art, where his keepers refer to him affectionately as "Mr. Fancy Pants." To my eye, the sitter bears an uncanny resemblance to a number of confirmed portraits of Sir Thomas Cavendish, the English privateer who claimed to have burned over a hundred Spanish ships. Cavendish, an aristocrat known as "the Navigator," was the third man to ever circumnavigate the globe. I'm convinced the portrait does depict Cavendish, and this post will attempt to present the evidence via an examination of the portrait's provenance, costume, pigments, and also the impresa (or visual riddle) posed by the enigmatic thunderstorms painted in the upper-left-hand corner.
Above: Unknown Man (North Carolina Museum of Art, left) & Sir Thomas Cavendish
 in 1591 by Gheeraerts the Younger (image taken for educational purposes from Ashelford's
 book DRESS IN THE TIME OF ELIZABETH). The painting of Cavendish is owned by the
 Trustees of the Will of the 8th Duke of Berkeley. Note that both men are wearing peascod
 doublets above the bum-rolls trunk hose that came into fashion during the 1580's. 
Above: close-up comparison between unknown gent (MCMA) and Sir Thomas Cavendish 
by Gheeraerts. Click on the image for a higher-resolution comparison.
Let's begin with a blog post provided by the North Carolina Museum of Art stating their theory that this unknown man was likely an Elizabethan privateer. Dr. Perry Hurt, one of the museum's associate conservators, noted that the portrait had been painted using actual gold and silver leaf as well as an expensive red dye called cochineal (derived from the insect of that name found in the Americas). Hunt believed these three materials were used in the portrait to reflect the Spanish booty brought home to England by the unknown privateer in the portrait. So let's begin this argument by stating that Sir Thomas Cavendish was indeed a famous privateer who specialized in plundering the Spanish of gold, silver, and cochineal prior to being lost at sea during his attempt to be the first man to circle the globe twice.

Now let's have a look in the upper-left corner at the portrait's impresa. Elizabethans loved these visual riddles, but this one seems easy to solve.
Above: detail from portrait of an unknown gent kept in the North Carolina Museum of Art.

 The device depicts a series of sinister storm clouds raining onto what appears to be a blue iris with the French motto SANS ORAGE ("without storm") sheltering the flower. I would take the meaning to be something akin to: without hardship you get no Spanish booty. But what's more important is that Cavendish had at least one other portrait of himself painted standing beneath similar storm clouds while garbed garishly in gold.
Above: Unknown Man (North Carolina Museum of Art  NCMA.67.13.4) & "Portrait of
 Sir Thomas Cavendish" by John Bettes (image from Flickr).
Below: detail of thunder storms perched over Cavendish's left shoulder.
More evidence the sitter is Cavendish can be found inside the museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the portrait now resides. The museum's collection of British portraits contains 25 pictures total. Yet four of the sitters are confirmed members of the Cavendish family. Interestingly I had no idea this was the case when I first suggested to the museum their sitter was Cavendish. It's quite the coincidence but perhaps nothing more than that, because the family that donated the known Cavendish portraits is not the same family who donated Mr. Fancy Pants. But then again perhaps there is some connection between the two families; it would be nice to know if that were the case.

A portrait of Sir Thomas Cavendish in North Carolina makes perfect sense in that he played a key role in the history of that area. The Fort Raleigh websites recalls Cavendish in this way:
Thomas Cavendish also played an important role in the expeditions know as the Roanoke Voyages. In 1585 he participated with Sir Richard Grenville in planting the Ralph Lane colony by bringing his ship Elizabeth to the area now known as North Carolina.
It seems likely the picture was painted c. 1588 when Cavendish returned to England after circumnavigating the globe. His ship Desire contained incredible wealth in its hold. He was knighted by Elizabeth I, who was so impressed with his booty she accepted his invitation to sup with him on his ship. 

An examination of the costume supports the date of c. 1588. The bombast stuffing of the mid-to-late 1580s can be seen in the sitter's bishop (or farthingale) style sleeves, in his pronounced peascod doublet, and in his upper trunk hose (the style was called a mini bum roll). There are no wings at the shoulder of the doublet, which is also consistent with c. 1588. The sitter is wearing a gorget around his neck, which was a fashionable way to let everyone know you've fought in battles, which Cavendish certainly had. The sitter is also adorned by a sash that was perhaps a favor from Queen Elizabeth (the beautiful sash is painted with real gold and silver). His hair style is consistent with c. 1588 as he is sporting the hyper popular Armada Perm just as it is giving way to the longer rock-star hair styles of the 1590's. However the fall collar of Italian cutwork seems more consistent with the 1590's. Cavendish was lost sea in 1592. His portrait by Gheeraerts the Younger was painted in 1591.

We don't know who painted the North Carolina portrait, although its hard not to suspect Gheeraerts the Younger. However the use of real gold and silver as pigments might indicate a portrait painted by Nicholas Hilliard, who was known to employ those precious metals in that way. Although Hilliard is famous for his portrait miniatures, he also painted some in-large portraits. Take all that with a grain of salt, as it is pure speculation.

The portrait of the unknown man was donated to the museum in 1967 by Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc, who also donated at least two other excellent portraits to the museum. One of these portraits appears, to my eye, to depict the privateer Sir Frances Drake. It's hard not to suspect a nautical theme inside the MacLamroc collection. These portraits had unfortunately been misidentified centuries earlier. The museum acknowledges the current inscription on them are incorrect. 

It's also worth mentioning that the Cavendish clan came to England from Normandy, or at least believed they did, so the French motto and embroidered fleur-de-lis might well reflect that heritage.
Below: comparison of left hands from the same two portraits. The hand on the right is the
 unknown man's. The confirm Cavendish portrait (right) is owned by the Trustees of the Will
 of the 8th Duke of Berkeley
Above: NCMA.67.13.3 Unknown Man (center) surrounded by various portraits of Sir Frances Drake
 taken from Wikimedia.
Below: NCMA.67.13.5 Unknown Man (center) with two portraits of Sir Walter Raleigh from the
National Portrait Gallery in London.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Work of a Moment: the Mysterious Ghost Girl Portrait in the North Carolina Museum of Art

Above:detail from NCMA.67.13.6
The most curious portrait I've come across in a long time, and maybe ever, is this portrait of a long-necked Elizabethan or Jacobean ghost girl who bears a spooky resemblance to the famously long-necked and ultimately beheaded Anne Boleyn. The sitter also resembles Boleyn's daughter Queen Elizabeth I.
I have no idea what to make of this portrait, which resides inside a small but impressive collection of mysteriously unidentified English portraits in the North Carolina Museum of Art.
The portrait, and costume, seem intent on emphasizing her long neck offset with a jagged choker and a blood-red heart pendant. Combined with the thick white make-up this creates an altogether spooky effect Tim Burton would approve. Who is this ghost-girl courtier? 
Above: beautiful detail from NCMA.67.13.6 
Detail: Unknown Woman NCMA left hand with cord-tied ring

This small collection in the North Carolina Museum of Art has some beautiful Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits. I need to visit there soon.

From the North Carolina Museum of Art website:

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A Curious Portrait In Which the New Countess of Southampton Poses With a Dog That Is Wearing an Elizabethan Ruff (Ruff) Doggie Collar

Above: Portrait of Elizabeth Vernon Countess of Southampton in Her Boudoir by Unknown Artist c. 1600 (Private collection Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, Scanned from Aileen Ribeiro, image via Wikicommons)
The excellent portrait above, artist unknown, is one of my Elizabethan favorites. Elizabeth Vernon was married to the 3rd Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, who was equally fond of his own hair (see below). Although it seems likely Henry was bisexual, he and Elizabeth--to judge by their affectionate letters--enjoyed a happy marriage. Elizabeth's portrait appears to have been painted a few years before the failed Essex rebellion which landed her husband Henry in the Tower of London for years (along with his pet cat Trixie). It's likely that the portrait was made to commemorate her marriage to the earl in 1598 (in which case she is already pregnant). They were married behind Elizabeth's back. Henry then fled England and left his new wife to face the queen's wrath over their secret marriage.
In the portrait, Elizabeth is wearing a waistcoat decorated with flowers over a rose-colored corset and showing quite a bit of skin for an Elizabethan women. It looks to me like a detached partlet, which will cover some of that skin, is hanging from her neck ruff on the purple curtain. Her petticoat is embroidered with all sorts of plants and cool insects (insects were in fashion and were even a popular shape for brooches). But the scene is stolen in some ways by the jewelry-box still life and its pin cushion. The details shown there makes me wonder if an established miniaturist such as Hilliard or Oliver might have painted the portrait. 

A video recently popped up on my youtube that made me recall this portrait of Elizabeth Vernon in her boudoir. The video, by a contributor called Priorattire, demonstrated the step-by-step agony of dressing an Elizabethan woman endured every day (see bottom of post).
Above: bling-box detail from unknown artist's portrait of the Countess of Southampton (Private collection Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, image via Wikicommons)
Above: The inscription on the comb reads, "menez moi doucement," which means "handle/lead me gently" (Private collection Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, image via Wikicommons)
Above: stylish doggie wearing ruff collar. (Private collection Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry)
Above: 3rd Earl of Southampton c. 1593 (Cobbe Family Collection; image from wikicommons).