Portraying the Past: Paintings from the Society of Antiquaries of London

Mary I (1554) by Hans Eworth, oil on panel, Society of Antiquaries, London

Mary I (1554) by Hans Eworth, oil on panel, Society of Antiquaries, London

While sitting in the courtyard outside the Royal Academy of Arts last week I was approached by a nice man with a flyer for an exhibition at the Society of Antiquaries. Founded in 1707 the organisation was established to protect and encourage the study of antiquities of the world. Made up of a fellowship of historians and archaeologists, it is a both an institute and a charity. The building is not usually open to the public and I had no idea of the treasures in their collection. Seizing the chance to go inside I gobbled my lunch and scurried in. The exhibition showed some of the Society’s paintings from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, including some fabulous Medieval and Tudor portraits. They were displayed in the exquisite rooms on the ground floor, with moulded ceilings, thick carpet and opulent décor.

Hanging over a large fireplace was a painting that I have seen so many times in books, a portrait of Mary I by Hans Eworth from 1554. I spent about half an hour inside the Society’s beautiful rooms, probably half of which was spent in front of this large oak panel. I’ve read so many books, both fiction and factual about this woman I almost feel like I know her. She certainly cuts a formidable figure here, totally resembling her father with her flame-red hair and pale skin. The image is not unlike the copies of Holbein’s portrait of Henry, that tough Tudor demeanour in her eyes and stance. Her dress is of golden cloth, a colour for royalty, which sets off her hair and skin. The elaborate pattern is captured with wonderful detail. Her bejewelled neck and hands bare/bear symbols of lineage. Her fur stole hung about her arms, not needed for warmth but purely for show.

One thing that struck me is how long her body is. I tried to fathom why she had such long arms and torso. Anatomy aside, I love her steely look. Her dark eyes bore into the viewer, her mouth set resolutely. I feel like she is almost puffing out her chest, putting dampeners on any challenge we might be about to speak. We know that her reign was short and unstable; despite a marriage to King Philip II of Spain it seems she was never truly happy. He spent most of his time abroad, and Mary was unable to conceive an heir despite announcing two pregnancies. At 38 years of age she recently married and had been Queen for around a year when this was painted. Hans Eworth painted Queen Mary a number of times, but because of the timing of this portrait I think that it is the most open. A new Queen with a new husband ready to take on the world. The later portraits somehow seem more elusive, she looks a changed and weakened woman.

Aside from this beautiful portrait the Society of Antiquaries has so many wonderful paintings worth seeing. There are talks every Tuesday and Thursday at 2pm.

See more at http://www.sal.org.uk/museum-collection/exhibitions

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