Spes kneels to the Queen: a remarkable appeal for Elizabethan royal patronage

David Evett, Professor of English Emeritus, Cleveland State University

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

Since they entered the British Library as part of the Sloane collection, four highly detailed programs for elaborate allegorical paintings have gone largely unregarded. A fifth program, in the Harley collection, and twenty-five other Sloane manuscripts in the same hand that treat alchemical and medical topics, belong in the same group. I published an article on these documents in 1989, and have recently submitted the draft of an edition.

Much about the manuscripts remains mysterious. I can date two of them with some confidence to the mid-1580s; the others probably come later. Despite many tantalizing clues, the identity of the author has eluded me. He was a gentleman, a scholar, a Cambridge man, a moderate Protestant, associated with that group of mainly East Anglian politicians that a modern historian has called “the Cambridge mafia”. He was interested in natural history—alchemy, botany and medicine, meteorology, mineralogy, zoology. The programs include one on Fortuna, one that constitutes a kind of Elizabethan Rake’s Progress, and two on Justice (more properly, Injustice) that seem to arise from a protracted lawsuit in which the author is one of the parties. The fifth, perhaps the first in the order of composition, the Allegory of the Tempest, has Queen Elizabeth at its center, and may have been intended as a present for her that sought courtly preferment for the author and royal patronage for the painter. None of them are known to survive.

The author expresses a high respect for the painter’s skill and knowledge. The painter’s identity, too, is unknown. He must be able to handle many kinds of images besides portraits. He is literate in English and Latin, and able to write Greek characters. He has access to books by Virgil, Alciati, Matthioli and Gesner.

Sketch of the British Library
Author’s sketch of a section of British Library MS Sloane 1082, An Allegory of Fortuna, f. 20
© British Library Board.

The Fortuna allegory includes a sketch, presumably by the author, of one small part of the piece, which gives some sense of the general procedure. It shows Invidia exulting over Fama inside a crystal sphere that rests on the stomach of a prostrate Hercules; it is supported or tethered by Assentatio (Flattery) and (Philautia) Self-Love. At the end, the author writes, “Let all be done in lymned wourcke”; the word can mean to paint in any medium, but around the turn of the sixteenth century was often used specifically to refer to the techniques of miniature painting.

The Allegory of the Tempest was to fall into two zones: Tempest above, Calm below, with portraits of the Queen appearing in both. Above, she is threatened but not damaged by the terrible storm, raging around Mt. Ætna, that gives the work its title. The workings of the storm express the author’s interest in natural history. His political interests appear in the figures: the storm is a metaphor for one or more of the plots against Elizabeth’s life that agitated her countrymen in the late 1570s and early 1580s.

The lower zone, instead of the land-sea-and-skyscape of the top, gives us rows of figures and ensembles. These balance maleficent against beneficent agents. Minerva and Fortuna frame Victoria in complex architectural settings. She stands in her tower next to Gloria. On a banner flying from the top of the tower the Queen herself places her sword on the shoulder of a knight, and gives him a noble purse.

The theme of royal generosity reappears at the bottom of the painting in an ensemble that represents both a conceptual and a physical departure from what precedes  it. ‘A Rownde hollowe place In the Bottomme of the table shall be carvyd owte, planed and made very smoothe . . . wythin this place the qweenes hyghenesse shall sytte Intronizate’. The ‘hollowe place’ is to be covered with glass. In the hollow space, before the Queen, kneels the painter himself. He gives her a tablet: ‘And although it is best that our fortunes always flourish, yet that evenness of life does not give so great a sense of satisfaction as when, after misery and loss, fortune is called  back to a better state.’ The final sentence implies that the painter had had, then lost, a chance to paint the Queen from life.

George Gascoigne, frontispiece of British Library
George Gascoigne, frontispiece of British Library MS Royal 18.A.xlviii
© British Library Board.

The composition of this scene is strikingly reminiscent of a drawing by the poet George Gascoigne. In 1575, Elizabeth had had read to her a short chivalric romance, Hemetes the Hermit. On the following New Year’s Day, Gascoigne gave her a manuscript, containing a copy of Hemetes in English, and his translations of it into Latin, Italian, and French. The manuscript is illustrated with a frontispiece showing the Queen receiving a book from a kneeling knight, clearly designed as an appeal for patronage.

The Tempest program calls for an image more complex than the one Gascoigne gave the Queen. It calls for a furious serpent, labeled Invidia, and on her other side, a ram with fleece like purple velvet and a ewe with fleece of gold. At Spes’s shoulder the painter was to place ‘a very fayre Italian ladye of sage & grave Cowntenaunce’. This is Politike Architektonike, the arch-courtier, perhaps one of the ladies-in-waiting who regulated access to the Queen’s person and must have wielded great if subtle influence. Once upon a time this woman presented herself to the painter as his friend at court, gave him compliments, but never really helped his cause, and stood by, still smiling, while he lost the opportunity to profit from being able to paint her mistress.

Although there is no way to know whether the author had seen or perhaps only heard of Gascoigne’s manuscript, the similarities of image and purpose are hard to ignore, and Gascoigne’s, at least, worked, for he was rewarded with a modest pension in 1576, although he died a year later and did not enjoy it for long.

A similar technically intriguing feature also appears in the last of the programs, which shows a king asleep in his garden while his rapacious courtiers manipulate the legal system to fleece his subjects while pretending to help them. At the centers of two groups of Olympian gods, Jupiter and Apollo hold mirrors. These apparently are to enclose openings in the panel, and by peering through the ‘hoale of speculation’ the viewer can see very different groups—Charon, Cerberus, Pluto and the Furies. These anamorphic devices carry further the author’s indignation at crafty courtiers—on reflection, an appropriate way to end the argument of all five allegories, in a kind of anamorphic after-word, for many of the men who were implicated in the plots against Elizabeth’s life figured in the Tempest were courtiers. The programs raise this question: whether there are surviving northern European pictures that use this kind of structure, and these kinds of pictorial devices, to make their points.