When I was approaching my 27th birthday, I received a bonus from work, and like any young twenty-something I was hell-bent on spending it. Enter Mary Queen of Scots, a beautiful Tudor oil-painting I bought off a man clearing an estate in Burgisch Gladbach, a small town in West Germany.
Follower of Federico Zuccaro, traditionally identified as Mary Queen of Scots.
Mary stands one arm on the throne, in front of mullioned windows behind which stands a church. She is wearing a fine red gown with golden brocade, a double string of pearls ending in a crucifix, and holding two roses.
One of the things I always loved about Tudor portraits is the amount of symbolism crammed in. Nothing is there by accident. For example:
The two roses: Representing the House of Lancaster and the House of York, the two families were at war for many years known as the war of the roses. The Tudor dynasty begins when Henry Tudor unites the two families by marrying Elizabeth of York, bringing peace to England.
The pearls: Symbolising great wealth as pearls were extremely rare at this time. They were also seen as symbols of purity due to their white opalescent colour.
The church and the crucifix: Not particularly cryptic symbolism, it posits the sitter as being religious. But keep in mind that the reigning monarch is supposed to be appointed by God and chosen by him to lead the country, so it was pretty important for them to be shown surrounded by religious attributes. In this case it also sends a strong political message from Mary – I have God on my side.
The windows: Mullioned windows are often found in very grand old English houses, many panes fashioned together in a diamond pattern. There is an account of a later Charles II making his way through Europe to Italy and being astounded that some of the houses did not even have windows, as they were still very expensive at this time.
Red velvet and gold brocade: Red symbolises wealth and grandeur as the dyes for the fabric at this time were expensive. Henry VIII passed four differed ‘sumptuous’ codes on who was allowed to wear red, in order to keep control of its social status; “No Englishman under the rank of knight of the garter was allowed to wear crimson velvet in their gowns, coats or any other part of their clothing. ” You can read more in this BBC article, The power of wearing red. Likewise, the gold brocade and lace would have been painstakingly hand-made and extremely valuable.
Identification as Mary Queen of Scots
On the back of the portrait is a label, written in oldy-worldy script and it was primarily this that attracted me to the picture. “Mary Queen of England” it reads. Mary Queen of England? Well England has only had three Queen Marys. One relatively recently in the early twentieth century and wife of George V, another in the form of Mary II the wife of the Dutch King William of Orange, and one way back in the 16th century daughter of Henry VIII and more commonly known as Bloody Mary. Intrigued, my husband and I boarded a train to go and look at the painting and after examining it closely, we were already enamoured by how many questions we had about the painting: How old was it? Why is there a painting in West Germany of Queen Mary? Why would someone want a portrait of a woman whose reign was so viscous and blood thirsty that she was forever remembered as Bloody Mary? All of these questions needed answers and owning the painting felt like embarking on a quest and an opportunity for me to research both Tudor history and art history.
The most obvious thing about this painting is that as soon as you start researching Mary Tudor or Bloody Mary you see that she looks completely different. Snub-nosed and rather matronly looking, this picture features a woman with a long bony nose, heart-shaped face and darker hair. It also looks as if Mary Tudor might have had blue eyes where’s this image had brown eyes. It is clearly not of Mary Tudor. The portrait is also wearing 16th century dress and again had differing features from Mary the second. Which then left another Mary, Mary Queen of Scots, never a Queen of England but still a Tudor and cousin of Elizabeth 1st. Born a catholic, Mary was archrival to Elizabeth who was a staunch protestant as the daughter of Anne Boleyn. Catholics maintained that divorce was illegitimate and by default so was Elizabeth and therefore she had no right to the crown. Naturally Elizabeth kept Mary at arms length, eventually having her beheaded after a murder plot was uncovered to kill Elizabeth. Mary was executed in 1587 for treason, but her son King James VI later succeeded Elizabeth as King of England, beginning the Stuart dynasty.
Attribution to Federico Zuccaro (i)
Once I had established that the painting was of Mary Queen of Scots it became relatively easy to trace other images back to the original. Known as The Carleton Portrait, the first known image of this woman in these clothes is attributed to Federico Zuccaro and hangs in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
It was popular in both Tudor times and afterwards to have images of royalty in fine houses as a way of boosting their owners’ credentials by association. Loyalty to a monarch was a way of showing religious and political allegiance. It is likely that my painting comes from The Netherlands, a veritable powerhouse of painting and art where there was a similar appetite for images of reigning European monarchs and as The Netherlands was undergoing its own Protestant versus Catholic revolution, having a painting of Mary would be a clear signal as to which side of the debate the owner weighed in on.
How many copies are there of the Carleton Portrait?
Tudor portrait copies have been the subject of much research recently by the National Portrait Gallery and the pages devoted to the topic are highly fascinating. Many reattributions of paintings previously thought to be 18th century copies have been proven to be contemporary to the original painting, and the way that they have uncovered the paint layers, used dendrochronology to date the wood pannelling and discovered hidden portraits beneath those you can see – so where the artist effectively recycled the canvas, is extraordinary.
One particularly interesting piece from the National Portrait Gallery features how a portrait of Henry VIII has been almost produced in a factory setting, this painting is one of those that has now been proved to be much older than originally believed. One piece of information I found particularly relevant is how the paint in some areas is now reduced to more of a copper tone. When I was having my Mary cleaned I almost had a heart attack when the paint around her head and hands started to turn orange. But now I see that this could be a helpful clue into dating the portrait and tracing its origins. Below is an excerpt from the article on Versions and Copies of Tudor Portraits discussing two similar portraits of Henry VIII :
“It is possible that both of these portraits derive from the same English workshop and, although there is limited documentary evidence, they could have been produced for general sale stock rather than at the request of an individual patron. They show the influence of Netherlandish painting techniques, copied from foreign artists who settled in London. A pattern was used to mark out the king’s likeness, which was copied freehand for the smaller version owned by the Society of Antiquaries. Photomicroscopy reveals similarities in technique, which suggest that parts of the paintings may have been by the same person. For example, both feature a ‘dab and twist’ technique in the collar, where thick paint was dabbed on with a brush and then the brush was twisted in order to create the ruff, and the pointed hairs of the fur collar are flicked over the background in a comparable manner. In the Gallery’s painting the orange/brown area around the head, the hat and along the top of the shoulders seems to be the result of discolouration in the paint medium.”Double Take : Versions and copies of Tudor Portraits, National Portrait Gallery Website.
Is it possible that my painting of Mary Queen of Scots is a similar factory-style reproduction? My next question was just how many copies are there of this particular image of Mary Queen of Scots? And the answer is many. She even seems to have been something of an icon. And whilst some are do appear to be later than the 16th and 17th century, others like mine have more of a question mark about their age. I have included for each portrait below their attribution, but I would take some of these with a pinch of salt as they seem to be guesses at best, with little evidence to back up the attribution. On the other hand, some have been super helpful in terms of getting an idea of the market for this type of painting but also exploring new avenues of research.
As you can see, prices vary, attribution is wildly mixed, from Antonis Mor, Jean Clouet to Federico Zuccaro (sometimes spelt Zuccari), from the 19th century all the way back to the 16th century. I can’t find any paintings by Antonis Mar or Jean Clouet that would correspond to the Carleton Portrait, so I think this attribution is just conjecture based on the style and the place the painting was made in – and I am guessing these were made before the days of internet research made finding art so easy.
It’s been a great joy to own this painting and find out as much as I can about the history and the various styles of Tudor portraits. There are still a lot of questions to answer and I hope by publishing this post that anyone else researching the topic will get in touch and help me answer some of those questions. If you have any comments or if you also own a similar painting then please do not hesitate to get in touch!