Thursday, 19 September 2013
The Reidentification of a Portrait Identified as Elizabeth Cromwell or Katherine Howard
Above left: portrait of an unknown woman, c.1535-40, housed in the Toledo Museum of Art.
Above right: the National Portrait Gallery version dating from c.1612.
A portrait of an unknown woman variously believed to be either Queen Katherine Howard (c1524-1542) or Elizabeth Seymour, baroness Cromwell and later countess of Winchester (c1513-1563) has caused considerable controversy in artistic circles. Few historians nowadays believe that the portrait represents Henry VIII's fifth queen, who probably died before her eighteenth birthday (the sitter in this portrait is in her twenty-first year). Equally, the re-identification of the sitter as being Elizabeth Cromwell has proved tenuous. This article proposes a new argument for the mysterious sitter of the portrait - namely, that it depicts Margaret Douglas, countess of Lennox, mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots, and niece of Henry VIII.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, most art historians agreed that the portrait depicted Katherine Howard, and must have dated from c.1540 during the short period of her queenship. Lionel Cust in his 1910 article believed that the sitter in the image bore marked similarities with a miniature supposedly depicting the queen now housed in the Royal Collection (although that miniature is also dubious). David Starkey in 2008 recently proposed that the portrait does indeed depict Katherine, supposedly because the jewellery which the sitter wears is exactly that given to the queen on her marriage to Henry VIII. Most historians, however, disagree with these conclusions, not least because many sets of jewellery during this age were identical and replicated for different sitters, but also because, as mentioned, Katherine never lived to the age of twenty/one, and the sitter hardly appears the 'beautiful young gentlewoman' which Katherine was described as being by a court observer in 1540.
Both Roy Strong and Antonia Fraser (in her 1992 biography of Henry VIII's consorts) theorised that the sitter is more plausibly Elizabeth Seymour, sister of Jane and later wife to Gregory Cromwell, son of Thomas. Although this has by and large become the accepted identification, there are nevertheless particular difficulties with this interpretation. As Alison Weir pointed out, regardless of Elizabeth's status as sister to a queen of England, as the daughter of a mere knight it seems unlikely that her image would have been copied in at least three versions of the portrait (the versions exist at Toledo, the National Portrait Gallery, and Montacute House in Somerset). The sisters of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr respectively did not enjoy such a privilege.
Fraser suggested that the portrait was painted c1534, following the death of Elizabeth's first husband. At that time, Elizabeth was serving Queen Anne Boleyn alongside her sister as a maid of honour. Again, she would not have qualified by virtue of her comparatively low status for a portrait in which the sitter wears extremely lavish costume and expensive jewellery, including gold embroidered sleeves and magnificent embroidered cuffs. Elizabeth could have sat for this portrait in 1537, when she became the wife of Thomas Cromwell's son and subsequently a baroness, and was also the sister of Queen Jane; which would fit the Toledo Museum's dating of this portrait to c.1535-40. But most historians propose that Elizabeth was only born in 1513, and possibly as early as 1511. If so, this portrait could simply not have been painted in 1537, when Elizabeth would have been aged between twenty-three and twenty-six. The supposed resemblance in facial features between the sitter and Jane Seymour have proved tenuous, for the sitter, with her reddish-brown hair, dark eyes, full chin and French clothing bears little resemblance to the fair Jane.
The Toledo Museum of Art states that Hans Holbein himself designed the gold medallion which the woman in the painting wears, following his appointment by the king in 1533 as court painter. He probably designed jewellery for the king's second consort Anne Boleyn, and if he did design the jewellery in this portrait, it would surely follow that the woman was of a similarly high ranking status - most likely, a member of the royal family. On this basis, the portrait might depict Katherine Howard in view of her royal status, but the other pressing points encompassing her date of birth, appearance, and short tenure as queen indicate that the sitter is probably not her.
The fact that this image continued to be replicated as late as 1612 (the National Portrait Gallery version, above right) suggests that this woman was still viewed as a particularly important and respectful personage well into the reign of James I of England. The religious nature of James' reign, and the fact that this portrait was housed by the Protestant Cromwells, would suggest that the sitter was believed to be a Protestant. This would completely rule out the Catholic Katherine Howard, disgraced since her execution in 1542, and probably rules out Elizabeth Seymour too, for even if she was a member of the Cromwells, her short marriage to Gregory and her Catholic religion did not suggest that her image would continue to be replicated.
The likeliest candidate for this portrait is in fact Lady Margaret Douglas, countess of Lennox. First and foremost, as the niece of Henry VIII, she would have been entitled to wear extremely lavish costume and the finest of jewellery, perhaps designed by Holbein himself. It seems certain that the woman in this portrait was royal, and in the period c.1535-40 Margaret was one of several women who could have been a candidate for the sitter alongside Mary Tudor (aged twenty/one in 1536-7); Frances Brandon (1537-8); Eleanor Brandon (1539-40), and far less likely, Katherine Howard. Mary Tudor's Catholic religion, her uneasy relations with Thomas Cromwell, the horror of her reign still felt in the Protestant climate of Stuart England, and the lack of similarity in appearance between portraits of her and the sitter in the Toledo image rule her out as a plausible candidate. Although the Brandon sisters were Protestant and royal, they did not have the same impact on English Protestantism that Margaret, by virtue of her status as grandmother to the Protestant James I, had - although her personal religion was Roman Catholic.
Although it is notoriously unwise to make identifications of portraits based on supposed similarities in other portraits, it is nonetheless striking that in later portraits of the Countess, her large nose, pale skin, reddish-brown hair, dark eyes and rather prominent chin can also be discerned in the Toledo image. As Rosalind Marshall notes in her article about Margaret, portraits of her show "heavy-lidded, deep-set eyes, a long nose, broad jaw, and fairly thin lips". The fact that she was "a great favourite at court" - in the words of one envoy of 1534, she was "highly esteemed" - suggests that her uncle Henry VIII could have favoured her sufficiently to allow her to wear the finest of costume and jewellery in order to sit for a half-length portrait. Moreover, James I clearly esteemed her and revered her memory. Twenty-five years after her death - just a handful of years before the 1612 portrait was done - James erected a fine monument in Westminster Abbey in memory of his grandmother. It has, significantly, been recognised that her "diplomacy largely contributed to the future succession of her grandson, James VI of Scotland, to the English throne". Her personal efforts on his behalf may have been popularly celebrated and esteemed in Stuart England.
Above: the known portrait of Margaret Douglas (left) bears some similarities in facial expression and features with the unknown sitter in Holbein's portrait (right), c.1535-40.
Although the sitter of the portrait painted by Holbein in c.1535-40 must remain unknown, the evidence surveyed and put forward in this article indicates that neither Katherine Howard nor Elizabeth Cromwell are likely candidates for the portrait. It is more likely that Lady Margaret Douglas, by virtue of her royal position, closeness to Henry VIII and proximity to James I of England, qualifies as the sitter. An esteemed royal favourite in the mid 1530s, before her imprisonment in 1537 for a clandestine love affair she may have been painted in lavish costume by virtue of her position in the royal family and her popularity at court.