Arts and spycraft: The new discovery that illustrates the fortune and tragedy of an Elizabethan life

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Arts and spycraft: The new discovery that illustrates the fortune and tragedy of an Elizabethan life
In excellent condition and retaining its remarkably vivid colours, the portrait is by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), one of the most sought-after miniature portraitists of the era.

LONDON.- Investigative work by art historians Elizabeth Goldring and Emma Rutherford has led to the discovery of the identity of the sitter of a newly discovered Nicholas Hilliard miniature, shining a spotlight on the incredible, but little-known, story of Lady Arbella Stuart (1575-1615), as well as transforming the picture into a remarkable artefact of Elizabethan spycraft.

The story of Arbella and the painting reveals the danger and intrigue that plagued a life lived in the shadow of the Elizabethan throne.

As the niece of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) and a descendant of Henry VII (1457-1509), some deemed Arbella Stuart a preferable heir to the English throne, leading to life in a gilded cage. And when James I (1566-1625) ascended to the throne in 1603 Stuart found herself in a real prison following a secret marriage to the Duke of Somerset, who himself had a claim on the crown. Briefly escaping across the Channel, she was quickly recaptured and eventually died in the Tower of London after refusing to eat.

Raised by her grandmother, Elizabeth Talbot the Countess of Shrewsbury (1521-1608), often referred to as Bess of Hardwick, the second richest woman in late Elizabethan England, the miniature portrait was, until now, totally unknown and unrecorded.

In excellent condition and retaining its remarkably vivid colours, the portrait is by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), one of the most sought-after miniature portraitists of the era. His cabinet miniatures were executed between 1585-1595 and as the name suggests were designed for display in cases or cabinets, rather than the lockets of the much smaller normal miniatures. Less than ten examples remain, of which the Arbella Stuart picture is the only one of a female sitter. Like other Hilliard’s the work is not signed, but the style, materials and techniques used on the sheet of vellum have left experts in no doubt it is by his hand.

At first the portrait could be easily seen as one of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), especially to modern audiences. But this could ironically reveal why the portrait is actually Arbella Stuart, as almost no one else would have dared been compared to the monarch. She is depicted in a particularly lavish and regal version of a dress, white silk-satin decorated with gold stars, that clearly mimics portraits of the Queen at the time by Flemish artist Marcus Gheeraerts (1561-1636) and Hilliard himself.

The picture includes several intriguing clues that pinpoint Arbella Stuart as the true sitter. A central silver star can be seen on the stomacher, possibly the same as one recorded in Arbella’s possession, while a gold ring set with a pointed diamond on her left thumb conforms to the description she gave of a missing item in 1611. Further details have allowed for specific dating, with the fashion including open ruff and low-cut bodies, as well as echoes of other portraits, suggesting the early 1590s.

A manuscript of Bess’s accounts preserved at Chatsworth House appears to strengthen the claim, showing on 27 July 1592 a ‘Mr Hilliard’ was paid £3 for completing a ‘pictuer’. It also states that Hilliard’s former apprentice Rowland Lockey (1565-1616) was commissioned as well, in which he would paint a ‘lesser’ portrait compared to the ‘greatter’ of Hilliard’s, in this context referring to the size. The accounts also show the payment to Hilliard was made after Bess and Arbella stayed at Greenwich Palace. This strongly suggests the background is of the royal gardens found in the Palace, with the partially visible wall being Greenwich Palace itself, with it’s dark-red brick Tudor design. It also conforms to the theory that the ambitious Bess was deliberately evoking royalty in the depictions of her ward.

In investigating the sitter, it becomes apparent how much Arbella has almost been lost to history, except for her letters. No contemporary descriptions of her appearance survive, except for vague remarks such as the French ambassador’s that she was “sufficiently handsome in the face” in 1587. Amongst a slew of baseless candidates, only two oil paintings are said to be of her, one at 13 months of age and the other at 13 years.

But her life was entwined with the great political upheavals of the age. The timing of the picture conforms with the known demand for her portrait at the time. This was due to a possible marriage with Ranuccio Farnese, the elder son of the Duke of Parma and Piacenza, and possibly why the painting was a larger size, showing the sitter’s full form, rather than a smaller miniature.

In a political climate of suspicion against treasonous Catholics, it may seem odd that someone so close to the English throne could be allowed to marry into the Duchy of Parma, but here again is another interesting view of what the portrait really represents.
Father and son duo William and Robert Cecil had assumed control of the Elizabethan spy services, and were tasked with sewing discord in England’s enemies, such as Spain and their allies. And it just so happened they were patrons of Hilliard. Evidence suggests they sent one of their spies, Michael Moody, to infiltrate the Catholic exiles of the Low Countries including to suggest a match between Stuart and the Duke’s son.

There are several reports, both by English and enemy spies, that indicate Moody was particularly interested in procuring a portrait of Arbella by Hilliard for the Duke and his son, who themselves were notable patrons of artists and collectors of paintings. Cardinal Allen in Antwerp wrote to Philip II in Madrid to tell him that Moody “went to England to procure a portrait of Lady Arabella: and in connection with this match the son of the Duke of Parma came from Italy to Flanders”. If it was the Cecil plan to confuse and worry Spain into thinking an ally may be stolen from them, it appears they were using one of England’s finest portraitists to help sell their lie.

And this could also explain an intriguing sum of money Elizabeth I gave the portraitist. On 11 December 1591 the Queen granted Hilliard the huge tax-free sum of £400, perhaps due to slow payments of already executed works, although the money was noted to be ‘in consideration of [his] good and faythfull service’.

It is perhaps easy to surmise that the portrait was never ultimately sent due to the superb condition it is still in. However, a possible alternative theory is that sent in its place was Lockey’s ‘lesser’ version, which currently remains undiscovered.
Arbella Stuart would go on to exemplify the dangers of living in high society where fortunes could drastically change in a moment. Unbeknownst to her, plotters against James I including Sir Walter Raleigh had once thought of her as a replacement. Suspicions therefore grew when she disobeyed orders in 1610 to marry William Seymour and after trying to flee, her fate was set. The trials that she then endured would ultimately lead to her death four years later, following a refusal to eat while confined in the Tower.

Elizabeth Goldring, author of Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist, said: “'It has been such a thrill to piece together the clues that have enabled this exquisite cabinet miniature to be identified as a depiction of Lady Arbella Stuart at Greenwich Palace in the summer of 1592. This is a discovery which not only enriches our understanding of Hilliard's life and work, but which also sheds new light on the intersection of art, politics, and religion at the late Elizabethan court.”

Emma Rutherford, Portrait Miniatures Expert, said: “This is a once in a lifetime discovery - not just in terms of discovering one of Hilliard's most important and impressive miniatures - but also in terms of recording a moment in the teenage Arbella's life when she thought she might one day be queen.”

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