‘Portraits and Lace’ by Gil Dye
Over the centuries portraits have been designed to impress; making statements about power, wealth and status. Whenever lace was highly valued it featured strongly in these portraits and this is certainly the case during the period 1540-1640, which is of special interest to me in my study of early bobbin lace.
In later portraits skilled artists have given just an impression of the lace, since it is not possible to depict in detail the incredibly fine threads and complex designs of, for example, an eighteenth century Mechlin lappet. On the other hand the simpler structure and usually thicker threads of the early laces, means that they are often painted in sufficient detail to act almost as a working diagram. It was one of these portraits that rekindled my interest in early lace when I was asked to make the lace for a reconstruction of Lady Drake’s costume in a portrait in Buckland Abbey, Devon. In December 2009 I was able to see and photograph the completed costume alongside the portrait – and very impressive it is.
While at Buckland I saw a portrait of an unknown Elizabethan lady with a much wider lace on her collar and cuffs (Sotheby’s London 9 December 2012 lot 241). Again the structure of the cuff lace is easier to see than that on the collar, and it seems to be very similar in style to some of the designs in Richard Shorleyker’s Schole House for the Needle, published in 1632.
I have used one of these Schole House patterns to test my theory that printed fabric could be used instead of a pricked parchment for these wide laces. Woodblocks such as those used for the early pattern books would also have been used for printing on fabric – I didn’t have such a printing block, but a computer and a T-shirt transfer print was a more than adequate alternative! Using this pattern on a reasonably firm pillow worked extremely well – pins could be placed where required (even quite close together), they stayed in place and could be removed and replaced without problems.
Once I started looking for portraits I discovered that hundreds have survived. Many are in the obvious places such as the National Portrait Gallery or Hardwick Hall, but there are numerous collections or individual paintings scattered across the country in galleries, other ‘open to the public’ properties, colleges and even offices. Books, catalogues and other publications (including online) may also show examples from private collections. Often either the artist or the sitter (or both) is ‘unknown’, but this is perhaps not surprising when you consider the time that has lapsed, also that many portraits – particularly those of Queen Elizabeth – were copied and re-copied by artists with varying levels of skill.
The sitter was unlikely to be present when the lace was painted, instead the clothing would have been arranged over a dummy, or possibly worn by a servant – this would have allowed plenty of time for accurate copying. Studying portraits for lace detail can still be a frustrating experience. Since printed or online images can rarely be enlarged to the point where threads can be seen, there is no substitute for looking at the real thing. When the lace is at eye-level it is relatively easy to see and sketch, however many portraits are hung over large fireplaces or even higher on the walls of great halls – I have yet to remember to take binoculars with me (and even then I’m not sure about juggling binoculars, glasses, notebook, pencil…).
In Kenwood House (an English Heritage property on the outskirts of London) is a room that possibly has more lace-covered portraits than any other in the country; these are the more than life-size pictures of the Sackville family painted by William Larkin around 1614. The portraits are so large that the feet are comfortably at eye-level – ideal for studying the structure of the shoe roses worn by both men and women and the lace-edged knee sashes of the gentlemen, but not so good for looking at the heavily laced collars and cuffs.
Sometimes it is necessary to visit a portrait several times before it reveals its secrets. A couple of years ago I was looking at the ‘Darnley’ portrait of Queen Elizabeth in the National Portrait Gallery (see above); first I saw the narrow lace edging around her collar and cuffs, then I realised that the front of her very military-looking bodice was decorated with twenty bobbin-lace panels (detail below). This was a real ‘serendipity’ moment – not only could I sketch a totally ‘new’ lace pattern, but I had the answer to a question that had puzzled me for many years: what was the original purpose of the Le Pompe design that I had long used as a bookmark for ‘Elizabethan Lace’ workshops? Although the actual design of the lace is different, the overall shape and size are very similar. (Revisiting the portrait last year I discovered that there is also a band of gold and silver bobbin lace along the length of each sleeve – another challenge for the future).
Article first published in issue 139 of ‘Lace’, the magazine of The Lace Guild, July 2010.