Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Mapledurham House portrait

You know how it is - you flip through the family photograph album and suddenly you come across that old snap, a woman standing in the back garden.  She's definitely a relative - she's got grandma's nose and cousin Edith's smile, but who is she?

Well the St John's have just such a portrait.


The manor of Purley Magna came into the St John family as the result of a 16th century marriage between Jane Iwardeby and John St John.  When Jane died in 1553 her grandson Nicholas inherited the estate which came to him by right of settlement on his wife, the former Elizabeth Blount from neighbouring Mapledurham House.


The medieval Mapledurham manor house near Reading was partially demolished in the 17th century as successive members of the Blount family renovated and rebuilt the property but for more than 200 years a full length portrait of Lady St John of Bletso hung in the dining room.  Attributed to William Larkin, dubbed the 'Curtain Master,' for placing his sitters framed by shiny drapes and a carpet boarder, this Lady stands against a woodland backdrop.

Diana Cecil painted by William Larkin
A guide book available in the 1990s identified the sitter as 'probably' Catherine Dormer d.1615, the widow of John 2nd Baron St John of Bletso d. 1596, one of the peers who tried Mary, Queen of Scots.  The Lady St John portrait arrived at Mapledurham in 1755 as part of the inheritance of Mary Agnes Blount from her father Sir Henry Joseph Tichbourne who died in 1743.

In 1969/70 the portrait went on loan to the Tate Gallery for 'The Elizabethan Image' exhibition and in 1985 was part of the Treasure House of Britain exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  In the catalogue that accompanied that exhibition art historian Sir Roy Strong questioned the identity of the lady in black and suggested she might be Anne Leighton, first wife of Sir John St John, 1st Baronet.

Sir Roy compares the Mapledurham portrait with the representation of Anne on the St John polyptych, also thought to have been painted by William Larkin.



Unfortunately the polyptych has been subject to 400 years of fiddling and fussing, considerable overpainting with copious amounts of varnish applied to the portrait. Conservation work in the 1980s saw most of the damage reversed, but sadly the portrait of Anne had suffered.  She appears with a ghostly white face on the arm of her husband , but a comparison of the fashion bears up well to the Mapledurham matron.

What do you think? I think she has her mother's eyes.

Images - Lady St John; Mapledurham Manor House; Diana Cecil, Countess of Oxford and the St John polyptych.

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