Academic journal article
By Arshad, Yasmin
British Art Journal , Vol. 11, No. 3
Recent scholarship has shown that the female theatrical culture of the early Stuart court was both a reflection of and an influence on women's subjectivity. In Women on Stage in Stuart Drama (2005), Sophie Tomlinson has pointed out that in its elite sphere this culture was 'profoundly inspiring for literary and theatrically minded women') A rich and fascinating portrait, by an unknown artist of a 17th-century English woman depicted as Cleopatra, may be interpreted as a product of the sense of selfhood that this performative culture engendered in women. A puzzle with a significant story to tell, this portrait (PI 2) may also add something to our knowledge of aristocratic women's playing spaces, their agency, and the ways in which they played roles. (2)
This carefully staged painting is of a young woman, wearing a high, curved, pointed headdress over her long, loose, curly hair. Standing by a basket of figs, wearing a heavily jewelled dress with the bodice shaped to expose her breasts, she is draped in an ermine-lined robe. In her raised right arm she holds the asp, and in the left, down by her side, a sceptre. Adding to the interest of this remarkable portrait are a miniature worn by the woman as a locket and an inscription in the right-hand corner of the painting. The miniature is of a young man in Roman dress, suggesting that he is her Antony. The inscription (Pl 1), painted as a hand-written note on a torn and folded piece of paper, may be intended to resemble either an early modern letter or a player's lines. The distinctive 'clubbing' of the ascenders and descenders in the script suggests that the portrait was painted in the early 17th century. (3) Specialists from Christie's, the National Portrait Gallery and UCL have also confirmed that the painting is from that period and that it appears to be English. (4)
With all the previous associations with Cleopatra of lustfulness, from the classical and medieval periods, it is remarkable that an early modern aristocratic woman, as suggested by the portrait's identification, chose to be depicted in this guise. Although there are many examples in 18th- and 19th-century portraiture of sitters choosing to be depicted in ways alluding to Cleopatra, this early Stuart painting is an unusually bold and rare example. My purpose in this article is to examine the portrait's misidentification and resulting misinterpretations, and to argue instead for a new identification and to explain the different and significant implications of that re-identification.
The painting has been reproduced and discussed in three works over recent years: Kim F Hall's Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (1995); Anna Beer's Bess: The Life of Lady Ralegh, Wife of Sir Walter (2003); and Pamela Allen Brown's chapter A New Fable of the Belly: Vulgar Curiosity and the Persian Lady's Loose Bodies' in The Impact of Feminism in English Renaissance Studies (2007). (5) All discuss the portrait as depicting Lady Ralegh, wife of Sir Walter Ralegh, even though the sitter here does not resemble her known portraits. Although these scholars shed important light on this portrait, by basing their work on the identification found in the National Portrait Gallery archive, which in turn relied on auction-catalogue entries, they misinterpret it. Hall and Brown seem to have accepted its identification unquestioningly, and, although Beer recognises its identification as doubtful, she still finds that in it 'Bess's wantonness and her wit, her very femaleness, echo through representations of her power'. (6)
Over the last century the portrait has been sold twice at Christie's. It appeared first on 20 November 1931, when Muriel Oxenden, Lady Capel Cure, held a large sale of works from the Broome Park estate in Kent. …