Tag Archives: Portraits

Elizabethan Exemplar

It’s been a long time since I featured one of my Renaissance crushes, but today is Sir Philip Sidney’s birthday so time to indulge. Sidney of course was a wonderful poet, but for me he is much more than that: he is the perfect Elizabethan Renaissance Man, multi-faceted, adept at both words and action, on the spot in all the key settings. He is one of those people whose lives can represent an age, albeit a rarefied experience. And he died young, on the battlefield, so that just makes him more: more elusive, more martyr-like, more crush-worthy. His notable contemporaries who lived longer had more layered lives in which both their attributes and their flaws were manifested, but Sidney seems flawless. His biographers note his proficiency in all the subjects in the studia humanitatis, but he himself asserted that one should aim for “well-doing, and not of well-knowing only” in The Defence of Poesy (published posthumously in 1595).

Sidney 2012-03-09-images-sidney_ma409_4_engraving The Sensational Sidney brothers as boys: Sir Philip and Sir Robert, from a painting by Mark Garrard at the Sidney’s ancestral home Penshurst Palace, Kent.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was always connected: He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, the nephew of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley, and the godson of King Philip of Spain. I’m not sure he would have been happy about this latter affiliation given that he became a relatively strident Protestant later on, which was perhaps a flaw in Queen Elizabeth’s estimation as she preferred a more moderate public religious stance and must have been very annoyed when Sidney opposed her marriage to Francis, the Duke of Alençon and Anjou, in 1579 on religious grounds. His principled Protestantism is not a problem for me, however: it makes him look like less of a dilettante courtier. Sidney was educated at Oxford but left for a “Grand Tour” on the Continent before taking his degree: clearly he was ahead of his time as this custom did not become popular among the English aristocracy until a century later. He returned to England to the life of a courtier (when he pleased Elizabeth), patron and poet, but clearly longed for some kind of serious placement, which he eventually received in the form of various official diplomatic missions on the Continent. In between, he commenced writing his corpus of poetry, invested in overseas expeditions, and spent time at the estate of his beloved sister, Mary, the Countess of Pembroke, to whom he dedicated his most ambitious work, The Arcadia, and who established a reputation as both a literary patron and poet(ess) herself.

Sidney 1577 (3)_edited

pixlr_20191130100316782-1 Sir Philip Sidney, 1577-78, courtesy the Marquess of Bath, Longleat House; A trio of Sidney copied portraits from the sixteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries: National Portrait Gallery, London; an 18th century copy, NPG, London, and a 20th century version attributed to Frederick Hawkesworth Sinclair, Pembroke College, Oxford University.

All of the Sidneys are so interwoven with Elizabeth, most conspicuously Philip and Mary’s mother Mary Dudley Sidney (also a writer!) who served and nursed the Queen during her smallpox seclusion, contracting the disease herself and marring her beauty permanently. There is a theme of sacrifice that connects mother to son: Philip accompanied his uncle the Earl of Leicester’s expedition to the Netherlands in 1586 to fight England’s now arch-enemy Spain, and reportedly urged Leicester to push harder, eventually falling on the battlefield himself at the Battle of Zutphen. He was shot in the thigh, but took 21 days to die—likely of gangrene. He then becomes larger than life, memorialized by an ostentatious public funeral (paid for by his father-in-law Francis Walsingham), elegies, biographies and posthumous portraits. He is forever young and bold in imagery, and ever eloquent in text.

Sidney 17th Knole_edited

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screenshot_20191130-080224_chrome Sir Philip Sidney, early 17th century, National Trust @Knole; by John de Critz the Elder, c. 1620; by John de Critz the Elder, 17th century; by George Knapton, 1739.


A Breech-less Brute

The students in my Elizabethan class had quite a lot to say about Marcus Gheerhaerts’ 1594 portrait of Captain Thomas Lee yesterday: it is indeed a provocative portrait and he was indeed a provocative man. A poor relation of Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s Champion and Master of the Armouries, Thomas’s career is characterized by his long “service” in Ireland, from the mid 1570s until the late 1590s, after which he was implicated in the Essex Rebellion of 1601 and executed for treason. In his pursuit of the conquest of Ireland and his own personal gain, Captain Lee murdered, blinded, stole, and conspired. When he was not “serving”, he engaged in highway robbery and was imprisoned for debt. He was not a happy outlaw, however, and the Gheerhaerts portrait, along with his two essays, A brief declaration of the government of Ireland  (1594) and The discovery and recovery of Ireland with the author’s apology (1599), are attempts to repair his reputation. Too little too late–though his arrest and execution at Tyburn in February of 1601 were consequences of his involvement in the Essex plot rather than any of his actions in Ireland, which were supposedly on behalf of the Queen.

Captain_Thomas_Lee_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee by Marcus Gheeraerts II, 1594, Tate Britain.

Well of course this personal history does not explain why Captain Lee is not wearing pants (or breeches, or hose). Clearly that is the defining feature of this portrait, commonly known as “the man with the bare legs”. There’s something vaguely classical about the painting, with its pastoral background and Latin inscription on the right: Facere et pati Fortia, “To act and suffer bravely”, a quotation from Livy’s history of the Roman commander Caius Mucius Scaevola, who defeated Etruscan rebels by penetrating their camp and living among them, so he could know the enemy. He was recognized for his bravery and rewarded handsomely by the Roman government for his efforts and thus represented a useful example for Lee, who perhaps saw himself as performing a similar service for the Queen among the “wild” Irish. Despite its fanciful fabric, Lee’s outfit is actually a bit more pragmatic: he is fully-armed and wears some semblance of the “uniform” of an Irish foot-soldier, or “wood-kerne”, bare-legged to better accommodate the boggy terrain of the Emerald Isle. So Lee is presenting himself as Irish: he has “gone native” in the (sacrificial) service of the Queen. The true measure of his claimed “sacrifice” can only be grasped through a realization of just how “wilde”, barbaric, and brutal the English perceived and presented the Irish to be: John Derrick’s Image of Irelande (1581) is a good source for this, as is a book by another man who was constantly currying favor with the Queen, Edmund Spenser’s thoroughly racist View of the Present State of Ireland (c. 1596).

Lee Discovery Folger

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Lee’s discoverye and recoverye of Ireland with the authors apologie, ca. 1600. Folger Shakespeare Library: John Derrick, The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne, 1581, Edinburgh University Library.

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