Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art

Reviewed by David Howarth

Elizabeth Goldring, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art: Painting and Patronage at the Court of Elizabeth I (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014). ISBN: 978-0-300-19224-7, 380 pp., £40.00.

DH[1] The personal papers of Robert Dudley, first Earl of Leicester, lie scattered across Britain and America. Those of William Cecil and Frances Walsingham form the heart of what survives as Elizabethan State Papers at the Public Record Office. But if the diaspora creates frustrations, what we do have is the Leicester inventories; in more detail and density that with any other great Tudor magnate. This is owing to the unexpected death of Leicester in 1588: before he had had time to clear massive loans to the Crown, and before too, his servants had been able to make inroads into the debts he had amassed during his largely disastrous regency in which he had lorded it over the Netherlands as the Queen’s deputy. Elizabeth Goldring is a most impressive analyst of what the Leicester inventories reveal. She draws her conclusions as to what was in the Leicester collection with admirable clarity: never taking the evidence further than can be justified, and using a welcome degree of restatement. This allows a grasp of such patterns as can be extrapolated from the tastes and temperament of the boldest and most audacious of the courtiers who attended Elizabeth I. There are welcome appendices running to fifty pages: transcriptions of all the relevant documents.

[2] Having survived the real possibility that he would become a chip off the old block, when, little more than a boy, he was implicated in the treason of his father, he lost no time in becoming an important art patron. He rapidly established himself as foremost among the distinguished group of courtier intellectuals who from the 1560s, either promoted or protected the visual arts, the universities, authors, poets and non-conformist divines. But it was not just Leicester’s superbia which allowed this: his father had been the chief instigator of that Edwardian interlude in classical building; the most distinguished protagonist of which was John Shute whose First and Chief Groundes of Architecture (1563), promised what would only come to be fulfilled with Inigo Jones in the next century.

[3] The story of Leicester’s patronage is one of abundance but for the historian of today, also of abiding frustration. As so often with inventories of this period, not enough is committed to paper to allow us to know what was what; what was conventional and what new. We simply cannot tell just how varied Leicester’s collection was; how many pictures, if any, might now be wanted by the National Gallery. The author acknowledges all of this: but without abandoning a calm, measured and authoritative account or by reacting with vain and unsupported speculation. Patience and sobriety are duly rewarded for this is the finest case study of an Elizabethan patron of the visual arts which we have.

[4] Leicester had an audacious disregard for convention when it came to portraiture. We are told that at Kenilworth he did things differently; so differently, indeed, that no one could fail to have noticed it when arriving for what turned out to be the best party of the reign. This was the reception of the Queen on progress at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire in the summer of 1575; matched only as costume drama by the Eglinton Tournament of 1839. As for mine host, he had the cheek to have not just one, but two pairs of full length portraits of himself with his sovereign hung in the public rooms. These pairings were probably displayed in the Dancing Chamber in Leicester’s Buildings; the designation unfortunate, since it makes the principal Tudor addition to the pre-existing structure, sound like an office block on a dual carriageway, whereas in truth, it was the high tower overlooking the meads in which the eleven year old Shakespeare was then learning to poach, and the setting for the denouement in the high romance of the most famous affair between a sovereign and a favourite in English history. However, there were limits to Leicester’s presumption. The critical thing was that in the case of both pairs, the two look in the same direction; rather than en face, as with Van Dycks of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. Nonetheless, Burghley must have had a fit when he puffed up the stairs right to the top of the building only to be confronted by this platonic entanglement; the more so since, as he never missed anything, he would have noticed that instead of having the statutory series of Kings and Queens, Leicester had just Elizabeth herself. This was a song without words which began ‘I only have eyes for you’.

[5] Thinking of eyes, Leicester knew that most alluring of Holbein portrait in oils, the Christina of Denmark. Goldring suggests that the design of Zuccaro’s Elizabeth I (now lost), may have been based on his fulsome admiration for the Holbein, which he saw in the collection of the first Earl of Pembroke, in the company of Leicester, when they were all at Baynard’s Castle in the City of London in 1575. Could that encounter have been still more multi-layered than is supposed? Zuccaro had been summoned to lend his talents for the fireworks of Kenilworth in what turned out to be an unforgettable year. The Kenilworth reception was enacted in high summer; representing the fruit of a famous dalliance. Never again would Elizabeth and Leicester play the game of ‘Let’s get Married!’. Perhaps Leicester had known that the Christina portrait by Holbein had come to London because the sitter was being wooed by Henry VIII; just as Elizabeth was coming to Kenilworth. In the self-same year in which the Holbein was the matrix for what must have been one of the greatest of her great many portraits, she came to play a virgin bride who was to be wooed by her knight, cavorting under the shadows of his crenellated make-believe castle. Elizabeth left Kenilworth when the fun was over; widely believed to have released Leicester who, it is suggested, now abandoned ideas of marrying the Queen. In 1578, he married instead, Lettice Devereux, the dowager Countess of Essex. And that, at last, was that.

[6] As is to be expected with a man who had more charisma than the rest of them put together, Leicester did a great deal for painting in England and also beyond. Antwerp features prominently; a city thought by Guiccardini in his Descrittione di Tutti i Paesi Bassi (1567), as the place with the greatest concentration of artists in Europe. People who could deal and appeal with pictures, did themselves no harm at all: Ciappino Vitelli and Tommaso Baroncelli among them. Vitelli arrived carrying Vasaris and Bronzinos for the Duke of Alva, whilst such was the intimacy between Baroncelli and Leicester, that the former was able to muster an illustrious roll-call as godparents for his children. Leicester was among those who condescended to honor a Baroncelli daughter named after Elizabeth I no less. Goldring makes the exciting suggestion that the two men worked to get Bronzino to the English court; new, bold and welcome speculation, inferring that there was a great deal more than we know about Baroncelli who returned to Florence to become Cosimo I’s nuovo maggirodomo. Assuredly he is worth pursuing; if only the archives will surrender his details. It would be an exaggeration to say that Nicholas Hilliard owed everything to Leicester, but certainly he was more beholden to him than to anyone else. It is known that Leicester was Hilliard’s first patron; but here it is argued that he was his most ardent. Leicester persuaded Hilliard to spend two years in France which was critical to everything that followed. Client-protégé relationships were always a diptych, and Hilliard was determined such largesse should outlive the hand which dispensed it – baby Hilliards had Dudley names to a boy. Leicester was a chancer, a man of action, but also someone who had an abiding respect for the contemplative life; hence his serious commitment to mathematics, exploration and the life of the mind. It was under his aegis that Sir Philip Sydney became the first native writer to argue that poetry and painting were worthy of each other; something he did in his Defence of Poetry written in the late 1570s, and whilst the poet was roosting at Leicester House. Leicester would have approved of this book; condescending to allow it to have become the ninety-ninth dedicated to himself. Uncommonly pleasing is how, in Goldring’s hands, he emerges as culturally a European: of no one else could this have been said between the lives of Cardinal Wolsey and the Earl of Arundel.

University of Edinburgh, September 2015

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