Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
DignityA History$

Remy Debes

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780199385997

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199385997.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 27 July 2021

Portraiture, Social Positioning, and Displays of Dignity in Early Modern London

Portraiture, Social Positioning, and Displays of Dignity in Early Modern London

(p.175) Reflection Portraiture, Social Positioning, and Displays of Dignity in Early Modern London

Edward Town

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This reflection discusses portraiture and self-fashioning in early modern London, and focuses on two unusual pictures painted by the émigré artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger in the 1570s. The society that Gheeraerts entered into when he fled from the Netherlands was one that was undergoing unprecedented change, as long-established structures of society and status eroded in the face of a rising and self-confident mercantile elite. Increasingly, these wealthy citizens turned to portraiture to assert their (often newfound) position within society, and the portraits that were made in this period reflect a number of the complexities inherent in a society in a state of flux. The challenge for Gheeraerts and his fellow exiles was how to negotiate this challenging environment, and this reflection explores the ways in which Gheeraerts used notions of dignity in these two paintings to that end.

Keywords:   portrait painting, dignity, social life and customs, society in art, social classes, England, history, sixteenth century, Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

Whether rich, poor, native-born, or foreign, the inhabitants of London of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century conceived of dignity in terms of their social status. In this period, “dignity” was what was deemed appropriate to an individual’s station as ordained by God. For the most part, these were privileges enjoyed by those in “a place of honor,” which afforded them office and authority. As a result, Elizabethan and Jacobean society was strictly hierarchical; codified through the right to participate in politics or trade, the right to bear arms (both heraldic insignia and weapons), and the right to wear certain garments and fabrics.

On paper this was an ordered society, but within the context of an urban environment in post-Reformation England, things were not always as they seemed. The age of the “new man” saw unprecedented opportunities for individuals to accumulate wealth through trade and investment, which enabled them to buy their way into civic and government office. London’s population swelled as people flooded into the city from the provinces and from abroad seeking advancement or safe harbor. Moreover, the growth of this capitalist economy created new wants and fashions that (p.176) further upset the status quo, for within a densely populated and increasingly multicultural metropolis such as London it was hard enough to regulate people’s movement within the city, let alone their position up and down the social ladder. In short, status was a commodity that could be bought.

At the same time, however, preachers railed in their sermons against the vices associated with aspiration, ambition, and social mobility. In his 1616 Diseases of the soule a discourse diuine, morall and physicall, Thomas Adams identified the full panoply of those who suffered from the “immoderate Thirst of Ambition” where “The poore labourer would be a farmer: the farmer after two or three deare years aspires to a yeoman: the yeomans sonne must be a Gentleman. The Gentlemans ambition flies Iustice-height. He is out of square with being a Squire, and shoots at knighthood. Once knighted, his dignitie is nothing, except worth a noble title.”1

These conflicting positions are found manifest in the art of the period. In particular, the second half of the sixteenth century saw a dramatic rise in the number of portraits commissioned by urban elites in England and Wales.2 We know from the diary of the London musician and composer Thomas Whythorne that the decision to commission a portrait was often occasioned by a significant milestone, be it a moment of professional success or survival from a life-threatening disease, and that it came hand in hand with serious personal and spiritual introspection.3 And yet in the puritanical climate of the day the very act of commissioning a portrait was deemed by some to be contentious. As one contemporary commentator put it scathingly: “Every Citizen’s wife that wears a taffeta kirtle and a velvet hatt … must have her picture (p.177) in the parlour.”4 Anticipating such aspersions, wealthy citizens had portraits made that stressed their modesty, humility, and dignity by including various memento mori devices, such as skulls upon which they rested their hands, or inscriptions that expressed similar vanitas sentiment.

One of the best visual expressions of the foregoing tangle of social forces of the period can be found in two paintings made in London during the 1570s by the Flemish émigré artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, known by the titles A fête at Bermondsey and A Village Festival (figs. 5R.1 and 5R.2). These pictures are unusual as composites of landscape, genre painting, and portraiture. Indeed, nothing is readily comparable to them in English or Flemish art of this period. The compositions of these pictures are also composite in nature, being derived from a combination of firsthand topographical observation (with the inclusion of the Tower of London in the Fête) and a variety of engraved printed sources.

Portraiture, Social Positioning, and Displays of Dignity in Early Modern London

Figure 5R.1 Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, A Fête at Bermondsey, 1571, oil on panel, 73.5 by 101 cm (the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire)

Portraiture, Social Positioning, and Displays of Dignity in Early Modern London

Figure 5R.2 Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, A Village Festival, ca. 1575, oil on panel, 71.1 by 102.9 cm (the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire)

Both the Fête and the Village Festival are now in the collection of the Marquess of Salisbury and on display at Hatfield House in Herefordshire, England. The circumstances under which the Village Festival was commissioned are not known, but a discretely placed verse inscription on the bottom left of the Fête records that this picture was commissioned by a wealthy Flemish merchant resident in London named Jacques Hoefnagel, who wanted a painting illustrating all the fashions that could be seen in England. As such, the Fête (and indeed the Village Festival) show figures depicted in costume from France, Venice, England, and elsewhere across Europe, derived from the costume book assembled and illustrated by the Flemish poet, painter, and minister of the Dutch church in London, Lucas de Heere.

(p.178) Marriage celebrations serve as the premise for both paintings, and provide the occasion for the coming together of a diverse group of individuals that might not otherwise coalesced. In the Fête the scene is set on the south bank of the river Thames, while in the Village Festival the celebrations are conducted within an imaginary country landscape. An orderly procession moves from right to left across the paintings, led by a cupbearer holding aloft a vase filled with rosemary tied with ribbons. The portraits contained within these pictures—that is, of the various people in the processionals or staged outside the processional—are rendered with remarkable skill, and appear here and there across the foreground; some together in small groups, others set within the wider crowd of generic figures. Also important, as I have argued elsewhere, the artist, Gheeraerts the Elder, placed his own portrait in both compositions and is recognizable as the only figure looking out directly toward the viewer.5 The other figures in the paintings are less easily identified, but there is good reason to believe they were members of the community of exiled Netherlandish humanists in London of which Gheeraerts was a part. After all, in addition to Gheeraerts, Hoefnagel (who commissioned one of these paintings) and de Heere (whose costume book served as a basis for the painting) were also Calvinists who had fled religious persecution by the Spanish in the Netherlands. More to the point, all three were important figures within a burgeoning international community of displaced merchants, humanist scholars, poets, and artists. And now we draw close to the connection with dignity.

On reflection, one of the most striking elements of both paintings is the strong sense of dignity that is conveyed by the individuals portrayed in these pictures: in their contained demeanor, measured gesture, and sober dress they convey the type (p.179) of dignity that was defined by modesty, humility, and piety. This is made all the more apparent by the carnivalesque backdrop of peasants dancing and trysting, and the wretched figure deprived of what little dignity he might otherwise have who is incarcerated in the stocks. In other words, the dignity of the individuals portrayed in the processionals suggests a desire to establish a position for the displaced, Calvinist, cultural elite within the alien and often hostile London social hierarchy. At the same time, and crucially, the paintings convey a desire to assert this social position subtly—namely, in way that would walk the delicate line the more puritanical elements of London were proscribing in reaction to the “upstart” dignity of the socially upward—a line, it will be remembered, was partly being drawn with explicit reference to the new portrait market. By remaining spectators rather than participants in the face of the potentially subversive carnivalesque, Gheeraerts and his fellow exiles reiterated their commitment to their reformed faith, demonstrated their dignity, and in doing so, asserted their “proper” position within the society of their adopted home. (p.180)


(1) Thomas Adams, Diseases of the Soule a Discourse Divine, Morall and Physical (London, 1616), 43.

(2) Tarnya Cooper, Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

(3) Thomas Whythorne, The Autobiography of Thomas Whythorne, ed. James M. Osborn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 305–6.

(4) Robert Tittler, Portraits, Painters and Publics in Provincial England, 1540–1640 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 59.

(5) Edward Town, “‘A Fête at Bermondsey’: An English landscape by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder,” Burlington Magazine 157 (2015): 309–17.