The Mystery Painting at Hampton Court

by Francis Carr

At Hampton Court in the part of the palace built by Cardinal Wolsey, some of the Queen's seven thousand paintings are on display. Some of them are reproduced in the illustrated guide books and on postcards. One large portrait, however, guards its secret history. There is no reproduction of it available, and no-one there can give you any information about the young woman who is portrayed. Not only are the staff at Hampton Court unable to provide any information; the librarians at the Victoria and Albert Museum are equally silent. They did not even know of its existence, when I wrote to them and spoke to them on the telephone.

All we can glean from the label which accompanies this portrait is that the subject is an unknown woman, and that the artist is Gheeraerts. What makes the refusal of the palace to divulge any further details all the more strange is the unique nature of the painting itself. Not only is it crammed with obviously significant symbolic details, but the woman herself is pregnant.

Marcus Gheeraerts came to London from Bruges in 1568, when Queen Elizabeth was 35. He lived here until 1577, but his son, also named Marcus, stayed in this country and continued the family tradition as a brilliant court painter. Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, signed Gheererts, could be painted by father or son, unless a particular portrait was commissioned and painted after 1577, in which case it would have been the work of the son. No-one knows when the mystery portrait at Hampton Court was painted.

Many portraits of unknown men or women can be seen in old houses, but we cannot put the Hampton Court unknown woman in this general, rather uninteresting category. The subject is clearly a woman of importance. Every detail denotes stateliness, riches -- and majesty. The dress the lady is wearing is beautifully painted and beautifully made, of fine muslin which covers a long silk gown, which is covered in Tudor roses and birds. Her left hand is resting on her hip, and her right hand rests on the head of a stag. Round her neck is a thin ribbon, from which hangs a ring, not unlike a wedding ring. Queen Elizabeth is wearing a ring on a ribbon round her neck in a portrait of her which is now in the National Museum of Stockholm. Unmistakably, in the Hampton Court painting, the line and the folds of the dress show that the unknown woman carries a child.

Who is this very important person? How many portraits have you seen of pregnant women? And how many portraits of pregnant women are adorned with a beautifully painted, and beautifully worded sonnet, clearly visible in the right-hand bottom corner? Whoever wrote this sonnet was an accomplished poet.

The restles swallow fits my restles minde,
In still revivinge still renewinge wronges;
her Just complaintes of cruelly unkinde,
are all the Musique, that my life prolonges.

With pensive thoughtes my weeping Stagg I crowne
whose Melancholy teares my cares Expresse
hes Teares in sylence, and my sighes unknowne
are all the physicke that my harmes redresse.

My onely hope was in this goodly tree,
which I did plant in love bringe up in care:
but all in vanie [sic], for now to late I see
the shales be mine, the kernels others are.

My Musique may be plaintes, my physique teares
If this be all the fruite my love tree beares.

The stag is indeed wearing a crown. To the left of the lady stands a tree, possibly a chestnut, which provides the shells and the kernels mentioned in the sonnet.

This poem is not the only possible provider of clues. In the upper left-hand corner of this large, full-size portrait, are ten words in Latin.

Iniusti Justa querla
(a just complaint to the unjust)

Mea sic mihi
(mine thus to me)

Dolor est medicina ad(ju)tori
(grief is the medicine for help)

On the opposite wall in the room in which this painting hangs is a small portrait, also by Gheeraerts, of Queen Elizabeth I, aged around forty-five or fifty. The women in both portraits have similar faces. Are both subjects the same woman? When I asked the guard on duty in this room, if the pregnant lady was Elizabeth, his answer was "We think so."

One's first reaction is naturally reluctance to accept that Queen Elizabeth, of all people, would allow herself to be painted when she was carrying a child, an illegitimate child. As Marcus Gheeraerts, the elder, arrived in this country when the queen was thirty-five, it certainly would have been impossible for him to have carried out his portrait at the time of her pregnancy, if that had occurred in her early thirties. But when Elizabeth was no longer alive, then someone may have commissioned the younger Gheeraerts to make this bold, undeniable statement about the Queen. For several centuries, it seems, this striking portrait has been lying there at Hampton Court, kept out of sight of everyone.When it was put on display after the war, it was labelled "Queen Elizabeth." Two years ago this was changed to "Portrait of a Woman."

In The Elizabethan Renaissance, A.L. Rowse writes about the Earl of Leicester's love of Elizabeth.

Of course, in the country and abroad, people talked about the Queen's relations with Leicester. In 1581 Henry Hawkins said that "my Lord Robert hath had five children by the Queen, and she never goeth in progress but to be delivered." Other such references occur in the State Papers.

We know the names of several men and women who were imprisoned or pilloried for saying that Elizabeth had children by Leicester - Anne Dowe, Thomas Playfair, Robert Gardner, Dionysia Deryck. When Elizabeth came to the throne, in 1563, the Act of Succession stated that the Crown, after her death, would go to the "issue of her body lawfully to be begotten." In 1571 this phrase was changed, to read "the natural issue of her body." The words "lawfully to be begotten" were omitted.

If Queen Elizabeth was pregnant, who was the baby that she is carrying in this portrait? There are many reasons for finding that it was Francis Bacon. He was born in 1561, when Elizabeth was 31. He bore no resemblance to Sir Nicholas and Anne Bacon, as can be seen in their Hilliard miniatures, and as a boy, as a young man, and all his life, he was always at court, although he had no title while Elizabeth was alive.

He did not go to Sir Nicholas Bacon's college at Cambridge, Corpus Christi, Trinity College, which was founded by Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father. When Sir Nicholas died, in 1579, he left Francis no money in his will. But someone must have paid his fees when he studied law at Gray's Inn. In 1593, while still poor, Bacon was given Twickenham Park, a villa with 87 acres of parkland, opposite the Queen's palace at Richmond.

[This article was commissioned but not published by the Daily Press.]

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