Something for ages hence

In the dazzling face of the English Renaissance, one tends to lose sight of the sombre aspect of the Tower of London. But it's most unlikely that the leading Elizabethans ever lost sight of it. Dressed extravagantly, it might be assumed that they lived in a world of princely magnificence and princely pleasures. Their houses, their jewels, their banquets, were props so conspicuous that they bordered on the vulgar, had the quality not been so irresistibly splendid. Amidst the luxury of their stone and glass houses they could delight in the lyrical madrigals of William Byrd; at the Globe Theatre they could be enthralled by the richness of Shakespeare. But could the players on the very real stage of life ever forget the treachery of the times? They certainly seemed to know their entrances, but did they dare ignore the threat of their exits?

The Elizabethan Age, with all its resplendence and burgeoning strength, was as volatile and insecure as a volcano. Socially, economically, and theologically England was in a state of major upheaval. By the time Elizabeth came to the throne, England had dramatically changed its religion four times in less than 30 years, which meant, in effect, a profound conflict throughout the land. Plots and devious intrigues to seize power and reinstate the ousted religion were continuous, so that great families rose and fell and even the monarch was at risk. Nothing was certain, opinions were dangerous, and positions were clearly precarious.

In a world of such uncertainty the players were perishable. But their silent portraits, posing neither threat nor offence, could be left unharmed. Portraits stood as optimistic emblems of dynastic stability. That a painting such as this - of William Brooke, the 10th Earl of Cobham, and his family - appears formal and rather rigid is all as it should be. Like a caterpillar that takes on a colourfully fierce-looking coat in order to seem formidable to its predators, the Elizabethans adorned themselves lavishly and portrayed themselves awesomely for essentially the same primitive reasons. Fashionable vanity was undoubtedly part of it. But, instinctively, the underlying impulse was one of self-preservation.

In essence, an Elizabethan portrait was a form of personal propaganda, if not for the present then certainly for posterity. As this family stares out at us, mask-like, with an almost deathly pallor, one is reminded of the many Tudor tombs stiffly depicting, in wood or stone, each member of a large, often beleaguered, family.

The Elizabethan portrait has also been described as an icon, and not without reason. For during much of the sixteenth century, iconoclastic campaigns tore the country apart, battering every sacred image that came into view. Heads were lopped off sculpture, paintings were confiscated or destroyed. As all sacred imagery became an artistic impossibility, the ruling Elizabethans then became the subject of iconography themselves, thus taking the place in art vacated by the saints.

We see this family assured, superior and distant because that's precisely how they wanted to be seen. The Netherlandish artist Hans Eworth (who is thought to have painted this picture) has made some attempt at individual portraiture, but their characters might have been more clearly defined and their portrayal more natural, for Holbein had established a means of realistic portraiture during Henry VIII's reign some thirty years before. But the style chosen here was hierarchical and remote.

And, in a sense, who could blame them? There must have been a feeling of safety in such detached, almost abstract, portraits. In fact, their faces, whose flesh tints have been built up by a subtle use of glazes (which give a highly enamelled, decorative finish to the painting), had become mere elements in a sumptuous arrangement of fabrics, jewels and still lifes. Lady Cobham is herself a showcase for display. Wearing a black velvet gown, she was (to use Spenser's words) ''all above besprinkled . . . throughout/With gold aygulets that glistened bright.'' But the ultimate aim of such a picture was to present an impregnable, impressive idea and not a vulnerable mortal.

Nevertheless, they were still people - people very much engaged in worldly rather than saintly pursuits and desperately putting their trust in things which moth and rust did quite frequently corrupt. Shakespeare of course had firsthand knowledge of that world. The arrogance and the fear, the vanity, the ambition and the eventual chastening - it's all woven poignantly into his plays. The portraits of the period, despite their aloofness, are also surprisingly touching. Placing them in the context of their time enables us to gain a glimpse of the tightrope they had to walk. And once placed, they cease to be quite so unapproachable. For such is the disparity between the intended image and the exposed actuality that one can't help feeling moved.

Not that I think they would have wanted it. Awe was what the Elizabethans sought. And awe is what their portraits still command.

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