The women beneath the wimples: Why do some early portraits of women look so similar?

By Anna Clark, University of Oxford and National Portrait Gallery Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student

    Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby,    by John Faber Sr, after  Unknown artist,    1714,    NPG D47405,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, by John Faber Sr, after Unknown artist, 1714
    Mary de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke,    by John Faber Sr,    1714,    NPG D24090,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Mary de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke, by John Faber Sr, 1714

Poised in prayer in her wimple (a type of cloth headdress) and veil is Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby (1443-1509) and mother of the first Tudor monarch, King Henry VII. Her image is most often associated with the beginnings of one of Britain's most famous royal dynasties in 1485, and her fears and hopes for its future. Beaufort was also an early female patron of universities and founded two colleges at the University of Cambridge in the early sixteenth century.

While most medieval colleges were established by men, Beaufort was not the first woman to found a college in an English university. Mary (or Marie) de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke (c.1304-77), depicted in the second portrait, founded Pembroke College, Cambridge, two centuries earlier in 1347. Despite this, women's involvement in these spaces of learning remained heavily restricted. However, by financing colleges, they could promote religious study, demonstrate their faith, and through the prayers of the scholars that they funded, they could attempt to influence their own fate in the afterlife.

Both images derive from a series of mezzotint engravings made in 1714 by John Faber Senior for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Faber copied existing paintings of college founders, providing antiquarians with a record of the large numbers of portraits in these spaces. They continue to be a key source of our understanding of early portraiture and Faber's series can be found in the National Portrait Gallery's Collection. Beaufort and St Pol’s portraits are interesting because they show women commemorated for their achievements in their own times, but also allow us to consider how our understanding of them might be shaped by the men who depicted them.

The source for the engraving of Beaufort is a very early English portrait, painted posthumously in 1510-13 by Meynnart Wewyck, who also provided drawings for the sculptor of Beaufort’s funeral effigy (NPG 356); Wewyck likely based both of these on portraits made during Beaufort’s lifetime.[1] Drawing on such source material, the engraving is meant to present a reasonable likeness of Beaufort. In contrast, St Pol lived at a time before the development of portraiture as we understand it today. While St Pol's life predated Beaufort's by almost 150 years, her portrait was first painted several centuries after her death and long after Beaufort's likeness had already appeared in Cambridge. At first glance, it seems that this depiction of St Pol is merely one of the many later versions of Beaufort's portrait.

Why do the portraits of these two women look so similar? One reason might be the biographical similarities between these two sitters. Like Beaufort, St Pol was closely connected to the monarchy through family and was a great landowner. At the moment in which they are depicted, both women were widows with reputations for tremendous piety. Beaufort had taken a vow of chastity, while St Pol had established a community of Franciscan nuns at Denny Abbey, near Cambridge. Viewed in their roles as female founders, Beaufort's image would have been a suitable model in the search for a visual representation of St Pol.

How do we know that St Pol's portrait is influenced by Beaufort's and does not just bear a passing resemblance to similar images of the time? There is one image of St Pol from her lifetime, in her breviary (a Mass or prayer book) made c.1320. In this image, she kneels in prayer before St Cecilia, similar to her posture in her later portraits. Her clothing in the breviary, based on her familial heraldry, also corresponds to later portraits. Yet, this is where the similarities between the early image and her mezzotint portrait end. St Pol is bare-headed in the prayer book, and additions such as the veil and wimple, and the prie-dieu (kneeling desk) all imitate the portraits of Beaufort.

Beaufort's use as a model for St Pol is interesting. Beaufort's portrait demonstrates the power of a new kind of portraiture for communicating individual reputation. It was one of the first panel portraits in the university, and distinguishing features such as royal badges and an elaborate heraldic canopy showed her as a pious and powerful woman. Due to the success of such images, later commissions imitated and repeated certain elements in order to assume the prestige of the original. When portraits were first painted of St Pol in the seventeenth century, the college she founded may have sought to increase the status of their founder by associating her legacy with Beaufort.

But why include the wimple? While there was a long tradition of male portrait imagery in the university that used props to demonstrate office or position, there were fewer visual guidelines for non-royal female founders. The addition of fabricated elements in St Pol's portrait, such as the wimple, demonstrate attempts to develop visual resources specifically for female sitters. Items such as the wimple, veil and kneeling desk were linked to medieval piety, and are often included in brass funeral monuments of that period. By using Beaufort as a model for the much later portrait of St Pol, a visual link was established between the women's religious motivations for their college foundations. However, in her portrait, Beaufort's wimple and veil specifically refer to her decision to become a vowess (a distinct and often secular status of chaste widowhood and prayer), rather than a more general expression of piety. St Pol's depiction in a wimple appears to misinterpret this, although perhaps it attempts to combine her portrait in the breviary with St Pol's request to be buried in the habit of a Franciscan nun.

Invented portraits of female historical figures, such as St Pol, often rely on borrowed imagery, and the portrait of Beaufort, the founder of a dynasty and several university colleges, was a distinctive image to use as a prototype. Faber's engravings of female founders commemorate their distinct achievements, yet they appear similar, reflecting the priorities of those who commissioned and created their portraits.


[1] Documentary evidence confirms Wewyck painted works for Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII. Many of his earliest paintings don't survive, but payments made to Wewyck, and later copies that adopt the style of his work, suggest that he painted portraits of the English royal family in the first years of the sixteenth century. Beaufort may well have sat for Wewyck during this time.

Part of Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture

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