Identifying the sitters in the NCMA’s Scott family portraits is one of the main goals of the Scott-Jacobean Project. After two and a half years of research, one thing is certain: who these people are is anything but clear. Of the seven NCMA Scott paintings, five identities are in serious question.
The portraits came to the Museum with names attached—ancient inscriptions on the front and decaying labels on the back—with places, death dates, and other details. Unfortunately, very little of this information is original to the painting; much of it was added 100 or more years after the paintings were made, long after the sitters were dead. It’s likely that someone in the Scott family felt the need to put names to these ancestral images, but memory rarely serves portraits well. Karen Hearn informed me of this last year while consulting on the Scott portraits. As former curator of 16th and 17th century art at the Tate Britain, she has found that the identification of subjects in 400-year-old portraits is frequently wrong. Portraits have been mistakenly identified as that of a more popular or infamous relative. A generation or two after a person’s death, there’s no longer anyone living who knew the person, so who’s to know the difference?
Another complication is that the art of early modern England has received minimal study and is a labyrinth of wishful attributions and false identities. Tudor-Jacobean painting has been deeply unfashionable for centuries and poorly studied up until recently. Few people cared about these paintings, except for portraits of Queen Elizabeth or Shakespeare. Families stashed old portraits in closets or just threw them out; some studies say 60 percent of the paintings from this era have been destroyed. There are stories of bakers using portraits of the queen, after her death, to shovel bread in and out of their ovens. You’d think we’d all know what Shakespeare looks like, but of the dozens of portraits identified as the bard, only two are accepted as legitimate, and those were made after his death. Historic records documenting works of art are probably even thinner: wills, receipts, and letters have been misplaced over time or lost to neglect or catastrophe, such as the Great Fire of London in 1666. After 400 years facts can get really confused.
A twist to the story is that one of the NCMA portraits is of Reginald Scott (his identity is undisputed, so far), the author of the infamous Discoverie of Witchcraft, (1584). Scott was apparently the first to document magic tricks in English, particularly sleight of hand. “Legierdemaine” or prestidigitation is the classic example; the shell game is described in Chapter 23. A pea is placed under one of three shells, the shells expertly shuffled, a spectator left to guess which shell hides the pea (in skilled hands the pea is probably not under any of them, but rather up the magician’s sleeve). For the Scott portraits, history has become the magician, shuffling the paintings and scrambling the names, in the end leaving us to guess who they may be.
For example, we have the NCMA’s portrait of Col. George Goring, which has a very nice old inscription right on the front identifying the subject. The painting dates circa 1590, judging by the fashion of the armor and clothes. But research tells us Goring was born in 1608, so this portrait can’t be his. An interesting clue is the armour, which has been identified by Thom Richardson of the Royal Armouries as circa 1580s, probably from Antwerp. Coincidentally Sir John Scott, who appears to have owned all of these paintings, including another portrait of himself circa 1600, fought near Antwerp in the late 1580s and was knighted for his bravery. Could this portrait be of a younger Sir John, commemorating his knighthood?
Our portrait of Lady Catherine Smythe Scott, circa 1610, is another questionable identification. Catherine (or Katherine, in the fluid Elizabethan spelling), who lived from 1564 to 1636 (or 1616, depending on which records you trust), would have been in her late 40s in 1610, but the woman in this painting looks 10 years younger at least.
Successful research depends on logic and organization, the systematic identification of pertinent records and information, and careful reading with attention to detail. Or you can just be in the right place at the right time. During my research trip to the U.K. in May 2012, on my last day in London, five minutes before the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Archive was to close, I was leafing through a folio of portraits attributed to Gheeraerts. I had already looked through dozens of books and folios in my three days at the archive, without much luck. Keeping in mind that practically every painting from this era has been attributed to Gheeraerts, I didn’t expect much to come from this last folio. But then there it was, an old photograph of a portrait with a striking similarity to our Catherine. Certainly not the same painting, but almost certainly the same woman, wearing the exact same necklaces, lace collar, and lace cuffs! But this woman was identified as Anne Finch. So is the woman in the two paintings Catherine or Anne?
Last to consider is our portrait of Lady Mary Waters Honeywood. Lady Mary (1527–1620) is well documented. She was a staunch Protestant, regularly corresponding with imprisoned religious dissenters during the reign of the Catholic “Bloody” Queen Mary. What really made her famous was attaining the ripe old age of 93 in a time when life expectancy was about 40, and living to see 367 descendants (mother to 16, grandmother to 114, great-grandmother to 228, great-great-grand mother to 9). She also suffered through many years of “melancholy” and came to believe she was possessed by the devil. She sought help from famous religious leaders and Puritan preachers, even suffered through exorcism. At one point she was told that she would recover and live a long life, to which she is said to have replied, “As well might you have said . . . that if I should throw this glasse against the wall, I might beleeve it would not break to pieces.” And saying this, she threw it against the wall. Miraculously, the glass neither broke nor cracked! Shortly thereafter Lady Mary’s life turned to “spiritual gladness” after receiving comfort “like lightening into her soul” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]. A number of portraits of Lady Mary survive, invariably including that glass or a Bible. With a story like that, who wouldn’t want to claim her as an ancestor? And considering her fertility, quite a few could be right. The Honeywoods married into the Scott family, and the Scotts were proud to claim Lady Mary as their own.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of concerns with our painting, which appears to date from 1618. Mary would have been about 90 years old at that time, much older than this woman appears. Second, there’s no glass or Bible in the portrait. The woman’s clothes are black, like those in other Mary portraits, but they are very fine, of expensive fabrics and richly embroidered, very much in opposition to the Puritan leanings of Mary.
The clue that lays this mystery to rest is the tomb sculpture of Lady Catherine Scott. The tomb was recently conserved and rededicated in May 2012. Close inspection shows that the figure on this tomb is nearly identical to that in our painting. Yes, a different pose, but the clothes are practically identical: black clothes and hat overall, white stone mill collar, straight white cuffs, a “pie crust” edge of farthingale peeking out from the bottom of the waistcoat, the jagged edge of the cape. It would seem that our painting is actually of Lady Catherine Smythe Scott. Such definitive proof of the identity of a 400 year old painting is rare and very fortunate.
This summer Scott-Jacobean research continues in London with Dr. Tatiana String, UNC–Chapel Hill art history professor, and Leah Thomas, graduate student in art history. They will be diving deeply into the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Archive and the Courtauld Institute’s Witt Library. among other places, working their skill and art-historical magic to shed more light on the Scott portraits. Who knows what name lies under the next shell—I mean portrait.