This summer, I had the fabulous opportunity to work with the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in researching a group of late Tudor and early Jacobean portraits owned by the museum. Prior to the fall of 2012, these portraits had received little scholarly attention due to their fifty-year stint in storage. My part in researching these paintings began when I participated in a graduate seminar on Tudor and Jacobean portraiture taught by Tania String at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, during which students focused research on the NCMA portraits. The result was a fascinating assemblage of research on Tudor and Jacobean costume, identity, and style. When the NCMA asked me to continue this research in London under Tania’s direction, I was more than happy to oblige!
To begin, I spent two weeks working at the NCMA to reconstruct the provenance of the portrait group using documents in the curatorial files and online resources such as the History of Parliament Online. (For more on this part of the research see my blog for the NCMA: http://ncartmuseum.org/untitled/2013/06/a-study-in-paint/) When I left for my three and a half week research trip to London, I had two guiding questions in mind: “Who are the subjects of these portraits?” and “Can an artist(s) be confidently associated with the paintings?” In order to explore these issues, I spent the majority of the trip exhausting the resources of the sitter and artist boxes at the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Archive and the Courtauld Institute’s Witt Library. I was also able to meet with several members of Making Art in Tudor Britain [http://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain.php], a long-term research project sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery. Additionally, I visited the two country home collections of Knole House and Lullingstone Castle in Kent and utilized the National Archives to obtain scans of several 17th-19th century wills.
My two guiding questions regarding sitter and artist identity took on a new depth during the course of my research in London. In speaking with the Making Art in Tudor Britain team, it became clear that Tudor portraiture as a genre has reached a critical point—attributions made during the mid-twentieth century are being problematized, oeuvres are being deconstructed, and scientific research such as dendrochronology and paint sample analysis is leading the way to new levels of understanding. The NCMA portraits could not have come to light at a more exciting time in terms of Tudor scholarship. In the coming months and years, this portrait group will play an important role in helping scholars and American museum audiences think critically about Tudor portraiture, as well as challenge the exclusive association of value with named paintings. So, while assigning names to Tudor portraits may not be a realistic expectation for the near future, it is very exciting to participate in this significant, cutting-edge dialogue!