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The history of the English monarchy is littered with hard-luck stories, but none is more poignant than that of Lady Jane Grey. A series of political and family machinations elevated Jane to the throne of England on July 10, 1553; tradition says she was only 16 years old at the time. She reigned for nine days before her cousin Mary Tudor, the rightful heir, claimed the throne. Mary remanded the ex-queen to the Tower of London, and there Jane remained until, on February 12, 1554, she was beheaded.
Starting in the 1590s with a popular play, the nine days’ queen has inspired myriad writers and artists. (The latest best-selling novel came out just this past February.) The best-known painting is Paul Delaroche’s 1833 depiction of the execution, in which Jane, blindfolded and dressed in glowing white, gropes for the block while her ladies-in-waiting agonize and the executioner waits. As melodramatic as the picture is, it’s not too much more fanciful than any of the others. Not one of the putative portraits of Lady Jane Grey is known to have been created during her lifetime.
Unless David Starkey is right.
In early March, Starkey, a prominent historian of the British monarchy, made an announcement at the opening of an exhibition in London called “Lost Faces: Identity and Discovery in Tudor Royal Portraiture.” Starkey said a portrait of the young queen had at last been found, in the miniatures collection of the Yale Center for British Art.
In the art center’s catalog, the watercolor—painted on vellum and roughly two inches in diameter—is described as a portrait of an “unknown woman.” But based on similarities Starkey found to Tudor accounts of Jane’s appearance and jewelry, and on other clues lurking in the tiny painting, he told the British press he was “90 percent certain” of his identification.
Dissent quickly followed. “I’m 99 percent certain this is not Jane,” says J. Stephan Edwards, who recently completed a detailed biography of Lady Jane Grey for his doctorate in history at the University of Colorado–Boulder. “If you examine Starkey’s evidence critically, it just doesn’t hold up.”
A number of Jane portraits have been under debate in recent years, and both Starkey and Edwards have had horses in the race. The one party that, presumably, stands to benefit most from a positive identification of the miniature—the Yale Center for British Art—has kept out of the fray entirely. Its curators and officials say they prefer to let the scholarly debate take its course.
All we know for certain about the Yale miniature is that on June 1, 1970, an art dealer named Christopher Fry purchased at Sotheby’s, for 760 pounds, a pair of what the London auction house called “rare and important miniatures attributed to Luke Horenbout of a man and his young wife.” A couple of years later, Fry sold them to Paul Mellon ’29, who gave them to the Center for British Art he founded at Yale. While the miniatures have always been available to scholars, with two exceptions they have been out of public view since the center opened in 1977.
In 1983, the woman’s portrait was sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for an exhibit of Tudor miniatures. Writing for the exhibit catalog, British art historian Sir Roy Strong suggested that the artist was a portraitist named Lavinia Teerlinc, and that the sitter was “possibly Elizabeth I as a Princess.” Strong’s theory about the painter has gained some acceptance, but not his suggestion of Elizabeth I.
Then, last August, the art center received a letter from the Philip Mould Gallery in London requesting the loan of the “unknown woman” for what would become the “Lost Faces” exhibit. Philip Mould is a respected London art dealer who lists the center as a client, but his letter was vague about his reasons for wanting the miniature.
Loan requests are often low on detail, says Scott Wilcox, curator of prints and drawings for the art center. But in this case, he adds, Mould Gallery officials “certainly had reason not to tip their hands.”
The miniature is so fragile that the art center at first refused to lend it. Wilcox and his colleagues needed specific assurances about temperature and humidity control, as well as security. Moreover, the center rarely lends objects to private galleries, and Wilcox wasn’t convinced that Mould needed the “unknown woman” for his exhibit. After several months of discussion, Philip Mould finally shared the secret he and David Starkey planned to reveal when “Lost Faces” opened on March 6.
Starkey is a respected Tudor scholar who has written several books. He’s comfortable in the limelight: thanks to his numerous BBC programs on the British monarchy, he is a nationally known TV personality in the United Kingdom. But he was well aware of the risks in a high-profile identification. In 1996, art historian Susan E. James proved conclusively that a National Portrait Gallery painting thought to be of Jane during her lifetime was actually of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife—“just one of many erroneous ’Janes,’” Starkey has written. Jane remains the only British monarch since 1485 of whom the National Portrait Gallery has no portrait from life.
“Given Lady Jane Grey’s status, I was convinced that there had to be a lifetime portrait,” says Starkey. “Finding one was just a matter of patience and inspiration.”
Starkey had what he called his “Eureka moment”—he would later describe it as a “slow burn”—early last year, as he was thumbing through Sir Roy Strong’s 1983 book on Tudor miniatures. He stopped at a black-and-white image of a young woman Strong called a “fully developed, tough teenager.”
Something clicked. “Miniatures are so unusual at this stage in the sixteenth century,” Starkey says. “It clearly wasn’t Elizabeth, so who was it?”
Intrigued, he obtained a high-resolution color image and began to investigate. Making an identification, he says, involves “a kind of trigonometry. To feel comfortable, you need to establish at least three coordinates.”
The first coordinate was the similarity Starkey perceived between the woman in the miniature and an eyewitness description of Jane when she was queen. “This Jane is very short and thin, but prettily shaped and graceful,” wrote Baptist Spinola, a Genoese merchant. “She has small features and a well-made nose, the mouth flexible and the lips red. The eyebrows are arched and darker than her hair, which is red. Her eyes are sparkling and reddish brown in color.”
Jane’s dress and accessories were the second coordinate. “It seems [Jane] abhorred high fashion,” Starkey explained in the catalog essay he co-wrote with Bendor Grosvenor, an art historian and director of the Mould Gallery, and Alasdair Hawkyard, another Tudor expert. The dress, with its square-cut neckline, is in keeping with Jane’s stated preference for plain dress. Starkey says its characteristics fit styles worn around 1553, which is when he believes the miniature was painted—either during Jane’s brief reign or while she was in the Tower. (High-born prisoners generally lived in relative comfort while under arrest.)
And Starkey asks viewers to pay special attention to the young woman’s brooch. He has successfully identified other unknown portraits by their jewelry; this brooch, with its classical profile in agate mounted on gold, answers to the description of a “brooch of gold with a face in agate” listed in an inventory of Jane’s possessions in the Tower. Even more telling, he says, are the flora—oak leaves, acorns, and a spray of small yellow flowers—tucked in behind the brooch. “Such floristry is highly symbolic,” Starkey and his colleagues write in the “Lost Faces” catalog; it is “the identifiable ’badge’ of a family of distinction.” In this case, the badges represent “the many sons of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and Regent for Edward VI.”
It was the Duke of Northumberland whose schemes put Jane on the throne. Northumberland had enjoyed extraordinary power as regent to Edward—power he was sure to lose when Mary Tudor became queen—and he hoped the populace would support the Protestant Jane over the Catholic Mary. In May 1553, he had made Jane his daughter-in-law by arranging her marriage to his oldest son, Guildford Dudley.
The small yellow flowers are gillyflowers, a kind of wild cabbage. This plant does not appear in the miniature by accident, says Starkey: the gillyflower was Guildford Dudley’s personal emblem.
So far, so good—Jane and Guildford, the Greys and the Dudleys, joined florally and in matrimony. The third coordinate is the lettering “ano xviii” in the miniature. Tradition has it that Jane was born in October 1537, which puts her on the throne when she was 16. But Starkey and others say there is no evidence for this date. And in the “Lost Faces” catalog, Starkey and colleagues describe an “accumulation of inferences” suggesting Jane was born earlier. For example, Jane’s mother was a chief mourner at the funeral of Jane Seymour, the queen, on November 13, 1537. Yet medical and religious practices of the time would not have allowed a new mother to make a public appearance until at least 40 days after the birth of her infant. Starkey also believes that Jane Seymour might have been Lady Jane’s namesake and godmother.
Starkey interprets “ano xviii” to mean that Jane was in her 18th year—that is, 17 years old—at the time of the portrait. His proposed birthdate would have Jane turning 17 during either her reign or imprisonment.
In a paper under review by art history journals, Edwards and Christopher Foley, a respected London art dealer, take issue with all of Starkey’s “coordinates.” Foley pointed out in a March 24 article in the Antiques Trade Gazette that the miniature does not, in fact, match Spinola’s description, because the sitter’s hair isn’t red but “very clearly a sort of mousy brown.” (Starkey concedes that he never saw the actual painting until the Mould exhibit.) Others, including National Portrait Gallery curator Tarnya Cooper and this reporter (through a microscope at the British art center’s conservation laboratory), have noted that the sitter’s eyes aren’t reddish brown, but blue-gray.
As for the dress, Foley says it was out of fashion by 1553: decollete had been “supplanted by the v-neck with small lace ruff.” Edwards thinks Jane would likely have worn a chemise underneath the dress as a cover-up, because “bare skin was going out of style at that point.”
And whereas Starkey considers the agate-and-gold jewelry “distinct and unusual,” Edwards argues that such items, while “highly prized,” were also “fairly common in the Tudor period.” The description of the brooch in the Tower inventory, he says, is too vague to serve as a reliable identifier.
Perhaps most important, Edwards believes Starkey is wrong about Jane’s age. The only piece of documentary evidence on the issue is a letter in which Jane’s tutor writes that she is “just fourteen.” Because the letter also refers to the “recent” death of the Protestant reformer Martin Bucer—who died on February 28, 1551—Edwards concludes: “Jane was 16 in May 1553 and remained so throughout her reign and imprisonment.”
Starkey acknowledges the uncertainties. But he remains sure of his trigonometry. “Colors fade and change,” he says, of the portrait’s blue eyes and brown hair. “Women were wearing many different neckline styles at the time. And even the dates of birth of the high-born, including Henry VIII, are often extremely uncertain. But if you look at the whole package, at the coordinates we’ve established, it all fits.”
Few other scholars have had a chance to examine the evidence yet. But art historian Maurice Howard of the University of Sussex, author of The Tudor Image, did a preliminary review of Starkey’s and Edwards’s arguments for the Yale Alumni Magazine. “Sixteenth-century miniatures are largely confined at this period to the court,” Howard wrote in an e-mail. “It is very likely this is someone royal.” He thinks the portrait is probably not a Teerlinc, but rather “a very late Horenbout of say 1543–4”—a date just right for the “fashionable French hood” the sitter wears. But that date, he admits, leaves him with no plausible young royal to suggest.
Howard adds that Roy Strong thought the brooch was jet, not agate: “so we have quite a lot of dissension here about what we actually see, what the colours are (and they may not be the same as when it was painted).”
Dissension, in fact, has been the norm for would-be Jane portraits recently, and Starkey, Edwards, and Foley have all taken part. In 2005, Edwards put forward his own candidate, a painting by Hans Eworth. (In an essay in the “Lost Faces” catalog, art historian Hope Walker took issue with that claim.) Last year, Christopher Foley helped the National Portrait Gallery to purchase (reportedly for 100,000 pounds) the “Streatham portrait.” This painting, done 40 years after Jane’s execution, is thought to have been copied from an original created during her lifetime. After the purchase, Starkey and the National Portrait Gallery engaged in a public shouting match in the press: Starkey said buying the Streatham was tantamount to “stamp collecting.”
All the Jane controversies support a point Maurice Howard brings up. In much historical scholarship today, he says, “jewellery and clothes are seen as the ‘clue’ to, effectively, ‘mysteries.’ … here is this pervading sense that everything that has survived … has to be associated with the few famous names of the period, every bit of rediscovered jewellery must have belonged to Mary Queen of Scots, every portrait found in the Midlands must be Shakespeare. It’s a kind of sense of history where everything has to ‘fit.’” But this academic fashion will pass, Howard says, to be replaced with the next. And in the meantime, work like Starkey’s identification of the Yale miniature “takes the debate forward.”
On that point, Starkey would agree. “The time of the Tudors is the first age where we have realistic portraiture, where we can envision them as real people,” he says. “The miniature and her companion have sat for more than 20 years with nobody disturbing their slumber. Now, as a result of the process we’ve started, everybody’s looking at them.”
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