Elizabethan Globalism: England, China and the Rainbow Portrait
Matthew Dimmock, 2019. London : Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. 336pp., 90 colour & 7 b/w illustrations. ISBN 9781913107031.
– Susan Bracken
This beautifully illustrated book discusses a potential stimulus to the production of the famous Rainbow Portrait (collection of the Marquess of Salisbury), which is proposed by Dimmock to have been the entertainment of Elizabeth I by Sir Robert Cecil at Cecil House, Strand, in 1602, when this new London residence was only partly completed. The author provides transcriptions of the texts associated with that occasion and places particular emphasis on the references to China. These transcriptions are an especially valuable part of the book. Dimmock connects those “Chinese” references with the cloak or robe decorated with eyes, ears and, perhaps, mouths, worn by the queen in this portrait. However, the obvious difficulty with this theory is that the painting is neither dated, nor securely attributed, although Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger is proposed as the artist here. Cecil was sincerely attached to the queen, writing in a private letter after her death in 1603 about how much he missed her. Whilst he certainly owned this picture, when he acquired it is by no means certain.
Following the Introduction, 8 chapters and a Conclusion discuss various different aspects of the painting, trade and attitudes towards the “other”. There is a very useful discussion of Elizabethan overseas trade and the ways in which this was expanded beyond Catholic Europe to other nations perceived by some at the time as suspect because they were “heathenish”. On the other hand, admiration for the Chinese was expressed by Ben Jonson in the text for the opening ceremony in 1609 at ‘Britain’s Burse’, Cecil’s new shopping mall in the Strand. However, this is not ‘the first evidence of China shops in London’ (p.146). Attempts by the English to establish trading relations with the Chinese seem to have been doomed to failure then, but there were numerous Chinese objects (often referred to as “Indian”) in early seventeenth-century London, both in collections such as those of Cecil and his associate Walter Cope, but also for sale in various locations.
Frequent reference is made by Dimmock to Cecil’s collection, which was notable in its day, but the posthumous inventory from which he quotes was made 10 years later than the entertainment of 1602 and, like all inventories, can only represent a moment in time. Inevitably, the reliability of this document is compromised to some extent by the level of knowledge of its author; crucially, it was compiled after the death of the collector. Inventories compiled whilst the collector could supervise their compilation, or where an expert was called in, as was commonly the case in seventeenth-century Italy and Spain (unlike England), may be regarded in a different light. Regrettably, this important document does not provide any room locations, although it does contain one clue that the ‘Cabbonett’ was a room, rather than a piece of furniture. Consequently, there is no definite evidence that any of the dishes, beds, chairs and textiles described in some way as ‘Chyna’ were there when the queen visited, even though Cecil owned some of them; they could easily have then been in one of his other houses, such as Theobalds, described as a “paradise” by one visitor. While it is undoubtedly the case that Cecil acquired some of these through his investments in privateering, more consideration needed to be given to the gifts he received from various donors, such as the Spanish Ambassador, a potential source of such pieces. As is well known, members of the Hapsburg family had already been at the forefront of this type of collecting for more than 50 years by 1602. Another possibility is suggested by events such as the feast given in May 1609 by the East India Company on board the Trades Encrease prior to its departure for the Far East at which the guests, including James I, were served with ‘delicates served in fine China Dishes…freely permitted to be carried away’.
In view of the paucity of comment from Cecil himself, his interest in ‘Chyna’ can be inferred from the posthumous inventory and comments made by those seeking his favour, but Dimmock is too ready to ascribe the emotional responses of a collector to him, without sufficient supporting evidence. As none of Cecil’s ‘Chyna’ objects appears to survive, it is impossible to be certain whether or not any of these supposedly “Chinese” goods were actually fakes; there is good evidence for apparently convincing fake lacquer objects being made in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century and used as diplomatic gifts. These are thus in a different class of object from ‘Japanning’ which became so fashionable in England, but is usually fairly obviously not what it attempts to resemble.
Perhaps the least satisfying section of this elegantly written book is the chapter on the Rainbow Portrait in which comparisons are made with a few other portraits of women of approximately the same period, some of them in masque costume. Much has been written elsewhere about the symbolism in this painting, but most of the examples chosen for discussion are not directly comparable. I have suggested elsewhere (Susan Bracken, ‘Robert Cecil as Art Collector’, Patronage, Culture and Power: The Early Cecils 1558-1612, ed. Pauline Croft (Yale, 2002), pp. 121-138, p. 129) that this image may be posthumous, a proposal which is not accepted by Dimmock, but if the reader is to be persuaded by his thesis then a deeper exploration of the relationship between the Rainbow Portrait and the Ditchley Portrait (National Portrait Gallery) is required, especially if we are to agree that they are by the same artist and that the former was painted after the latter.