Painters’ and patrons’ circles in provincial England: the examples of Kent and Chester, c.1580-1640

Robert Tittler, 'Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus', Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstract of a paper presented at Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage
Funded by the British Academy and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

The Making Art In Tudor Britain project encourages a much closer investigation of the practical circumstances in which portraits were produced in Tudor and early Stuart England. It raises questions about the relationship between patrons and painters, and also the informal associations which both patrons and painters formed amongst themselves. I think of these issues in terms not only of the national scene, but of the regional scenes of cultural activity which also flourished throughout England at this time. As a long-time observer of English local and regional society in this era, I look closely at the geographic, social, and economic contexts in which portraits were commissioned and produced, and I find interesting differences in these patterns from one region to another. These regional characteristics are vividly evident in the contrasting regions of east Kent on the one hand and that much wider ‘cultural hinterland’ dominated by the city of Chester on the other. Both contrast in turn with metropolitan London.

Being close to London and the continent, heavily settled by Dutch and Flemish immigrants, blessed with rich farmlands and high agricultural prices throughout the period at hand, Kentish gentry were amongst the most affluent, cosmopolitan, and court-connected landowners in all of England. Their estates were relatively close together, so that they tended to know their neighbours. Their proximity to London frequently afforded them valued connections at court, and thus with the elite painters of the day who were patronized at court. In consequence, leading Kentish gentry families were able and anxious to employ some of those elite painters to paint their families’ portraits. The sojourn of Cornelius Johnson, who came down from London for a month or two in 1636 to paint a group of neighbouring east Kent families, illustrates the kind of small, intimate, and ephemeral, ‘patronal circle’ which such circumstances could produce.

The city of Chester contrasts starkly to the Kentish experience in every way. Further from continental influence or courtly and metropolitan connections, surrounded by poor lands and characterized by a more insular, widely dispersed, and relatively impoverished gentry, potential patrons in Chester and its surrounding area were thrown much more often onto the resources of local painters. As Chester was the only substantial urban area for a very large surrounding area, taking in parts or all of Cheshire, Flintshire, Debnighshire, Shropshire, and Lancashire, it became the centre of a regional portrait production unlike anything in Kent. Here it becomes appropriate to speak not so much of circles within a shire, but of a patronal hinterland of comprising several shires to which Chester painters regularly catered. Further removed from the influence of foreigners, given less access to the higher end pigments and supplies, and few continental contacts, Chester-area portraits tended to be less sophisticated and more regionally-specific both in content and workmanship. They appear to have been produced not collaboratively in the large workshops which proliferated in London, but by painters working alone. They also drew more frequently on traditional, native-English imagery, in which, for example, heraldic and genealogical concerns brooked large.

Finally, these observations remind us that the notion of ‘English School’ painting of this era covers a wide range of expertise and sophistication, and embraces a number of regional varieties. We must keep this provincial and vernacular experience in mind as we reflect on the meaning of that titular construct.