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Monday, 25 March 2013

The Mysterious Sleeves of George Gower's Paintings...

I have really been enjoying researching Tudor fashions, dress patterns, and the endless items of clothing that women wore as formal dress, to help me create the costume for the Much Hadham Forge Museum.

I have always had a passion for history, in particular the history of everyday life. When I studied history at school for GCSE, I could never remember the dates of wars, or when laws were passed or new rulers came into power - for example I wouldn't be able to remember that the Napoleonic Wars ran from 1803 to 1815 (I had to Google that....) but I would be able to tell you that in women's dress of the time the colours blue and red were popular, as were velvet fabrics, with gold trims and motifed buttons, inspired by a heavy military presence. Memorizing lists of meaningless dates never worked for me, all I really wanted to know about was the way people actually lived their lives - the food they ate, what they did to pass the time, how they decorated their homes and what clothes they chose to wear.

So this project has been really exciting for me, and every time I learn something new and find another little coincidence I just want to dig deeper into the world of the characters in the amazing paintings at The Forge.

It is thought that the female courtier I am focusing on is Lady Kytson, Elizabeth Cornwallis of Hengrave Hall, c.1547-1623. She married Thomas Kytson, standing next to her in the painting, in 1560. They couple entertained Queen Elizabeth at Hengrave twice, and Lord Kytson was knighted during one of her visits. Since the start of this project, I have wanted to know as much as possible about my subject and as a costume designer, I am constantly thinking about the personality behind an image - what was the person like, how did they move, talk, or interact, and what does an outfit say about the wearer? I keep reminding myself that Lady Kytson is like my friend in this project, a partner in making this costume as true as it can be - and every day I feel I'm being drawn into her world more and more!

A quick Google search later, and I've found this painting of Elizabeth. It is by George Gower (a painter from Yorkshire appointed Serjeant Painter to the Queen in 1581) and was painted in 1573. Of course, I was drawn to what Elizabeth is wearing in the portrait - her gown seemed completely different from that in the wall painting at first glance, but actually...the sleeves are surprisingly similar! How exciting!

Lady Kytson by George Gower c.1573 (Tate Britain) and detail of The Judgement of Solomon wall painting

My notes from a research trip to National Art Library
In family accounts it is stated that Lord Kytson commissioned Gower to paint several family members. The Kytson's daughter Mary was painted c.1585 - and there is a study of it in Janet Arnold's "Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd" (1988). So, never being able resist looking through a Janet Arnold costume book, I borrowed the book from my university library, and after waiting 6 weeks to get a copy, I impatiently had a look through it on the tube journey home - and I think I let out an audible squeal when I opened page 16. The almost identical sleeves again! Twice!!!

left: Frances Croker by George Gower c.1585-87 (V&A Museum)
right: Mary Cornwallis by George Gower c.1585-87 (Manchester City Art Galleries)
Here's an extract from Janet Arnold's description:
"the paintings of Frances Croker and Mary Cornwallis offer an example of duplicate item of dress worn by two different women in about 1585-87. Both of them are wearing sleeves with the same embroidery...Did the two women use the same draughtsman to draw out the embroidery design? Did one of them admire the other's sleeves and ask if she might copy them?"

Coincidentally, Janet Arnold also studied the wall paintings at the Forge Museum that I am working from, on the 12th April 1995. Arnold was a leading authority on Elizabethan costume, and dated 'The Judgement of Solomon' as c.1576. She hoped to visit the museum a second time, sadly her illness prevented this. I feel very excited and privileged to follow in the footsteps of such a respected costume historian. Although I'm nowhere near her level of expertise just yet, knowing there's a connection with her work is definitely giving me a lot of motivation!

Janet Arnold's postcards sent to Jane Rutherford following her visit to the Forge in 1995
Ok so maybe I'm over-reacting just a little - I mean they're only sleeves right? But isn't it so exciting to uncover so many real human connections and relationships from just one painting in a dining room in Much Hadham? There are so many aspects to the lives of people who lived almost 500 years ago that I wish I knew, that paintings cannot tell us. The story is yet to be completed, but for now I have four reference images, and a whole load of motivation, to help me on my way to recreating a wonderful Tudor costume!

To learn more about the incredible wall paintings that are inspiring this Tudor costume, you can visit the Much Hadham Forge Museum in Hertfordshire:www.hadhammuseum.org.uk

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