This past week we were examining some social trends in my Elizabethan course, and I used several watercolor illustrations by the Flemish refugee artist Lucas de Heere to “color” some of my presentations and our discussions. De Heere (1534-1584) was a Ghent-born painter and poet, the son of well-established artists, who converted to Protestantism upon his marriage and therefore was inclined to flee the war-torn Low Countries with the onset of the Dutch Revolt. He came to England in the later 1560s, worked steadily, and apparently became very rich. One of de Heere’s English works, The Family of Henry VIII: an Allegory of the Tudor Succession, is justly famous, but his first important commission (and connection) came from Edward Lord Clinton, the High Admiral of England, who desired a series of murals of “national costumes” to adorn the walls of his London house. The murals do not survive, but a couple of illustrated manuscripts in which de Heere engages in an anthropological/materialistic narrative of Europe in general and Britain in particular fortunately do: Théâtre de tous les peuples et nations de la terre avec leurs habits et ornemens divers, tant anciens que modernes, diligemment depeints au naturel par Luc Dheere peintre et sculpteur Gantois (available here) and Corte Beschryvinghe van Engheland, Schotland, ende Irland (British Library MS Additional 28330). This examination of national character through costume is nothing new in the sixteenth century, but de Heere includes some interesting comparative commentary in his manuscripts, and while the Description’s opening illustration is a rather conventional image of Queen Elizabeth, the Théâtre‘s most distinctive image is of a naked (almost–and also very hairy and/or dirty) Englishman, holding a shred of cloth and scissors, apparently wondering what to wear!
Quite a contrast of de Heere images: Queen Elizabeth from the Beschryvinghe, and the “naked Englishman” from the Théâtre.
Karel van Mander, a former student of de Heere’s apparently asked his mentor about this latter image a few years later, as he included the following passage in his collective biography of the most eminent Netherlandish and German artists, Het Schilderboeck (1604):
It once happened that when de Heere was in England he obtained a commission to paint in a gallery for the Admiral in London in which he had to paint all the costumes or clothing of the nations. When all but the Englishman were done, he painted him naked and set beside him all manner of cloth and silk materials, and next to them tailor’s scissors and chalk. When the Admiral saw this figure he asked Lucas what he meant by it. He answered that he had done that with the Englishman because he did not know what appearance or kind of clothing he should give him because they varied so much from day to day; for if he had done it one way today the next day it would have to be another–be it French or Italian, Spanish or Dutch– and I have therefore painted the material and tools to hand so that one can always make of it what one wishes.
This is so interesting, but to what can we ascribe the Englishman’s sartorial flexibility? In class, I went with the relative “openess” of the English elite and social mobility in the merchant and gentry orders of Tudor society. The peerage are depicted in their ceremonial robes by de Heere in the Beschryvinghe, but gentlemen, gentle ladies, and “bourgeois” ladies testify to shifting fashions: he also distinguishes between “a London merchant’s wife” and a “rich London merchant’s wife” and between city and country dwellers. As is so often the case, it often takes an outsider view to see things clearly, or at least comparatively.
Lucas de Heere’s Englishmen and Women: peers, gentlemen and ladies, London aldermen, bourgeois and merchant’s wives, city women and country woman, Ghent University MS BHSL. HS. 2466 and British Library MS Additional 28330. See also de Heere’s interesting triple portrait here.