“unrelenting flatness and wallpaper symmetry”

Janet Couloute

Rarely if ever are the Cholmondeley Ladies understood as an early modern visual statement on that most enduring of Western ideals: Female aristocratic whiteness.[1]

Sitting stiffly upright in a bed, looking directly at the viewer, they hold their respective babies, swaddled in red christening robes. An inscription in the left-hand foreground reads: ‘Two ladies of the Cholmondeley Family, borne the same day, Married the same day, and brought to Bed the same day’. Seemingly identical, the viewer very quickly enters a game of ‘spot the difference’: from the blue-eyed mother and baby, as opposed to her brown-eyed companion, and her offspring to the latter’s lace ruff and necklace, similarly different in design from her companion.

Artist unknown, the painting’s unrelenting flatness and wallpaper symmetry lends it an air of icon rather than portrait. Possibly the work of an heraldic painter, it reads like a coat of arms. The picture dispenses with the usual Tudor use of visual puns and esoteric codes, with the one exception of the symbolic use of the bed that the figures occupy. A reminder that for many of us; we are conceived in a bed, born in a bed, and die in a bed. But its real message is delivered by its limited colour palette consisting of white, red, and black, which together showcase self-fashioned aristocratic whiteness and suggests an unbroken lineage (hinted at by the mirroring of the women’s gowns with that of their babies).

White identity was an ever-evolving status that remained the preserve of the noble few, well beyond the Tudor period into the Victorian era.[2] Whiteness was a sign of affluence and power, and individuals went to great pains – quite literally – to stay white. Undeterred by the physical damage caused by its application, the ‘Spirit of Saturn’, consisting of a mixture of lead and vinegar, remained a popular Tudor cosmetic. The very term ‘blue blood’, originates from the noticeably blue veins of the aristocracy, whose pale skins suggested an indoor and sedentary existence.[3] Uniformly white as the pillows that prop them up, the equally white hands of The Cholmondeley Ladies show no signs of toil. A whiteness that is shot through with the red christening gowns. A bloodline resembling a crimson flow of ‘laudable blood’, ‘sweet and homogenous’, in its purity[4]. The babies are strategically placed across each respective womb. A reminder of the fragility of pregnancy, a ‘rough passage’, where the maternal imagination was believed to have the power to produce monsters, or worse: Black babies, simply through an act of illicit looking.[5] Minimising such risks, the two mothers have their backs to the black background that frames their whiteness.

Reflective of an age concerned with, what Elisabeth I described as, ‘diverse blackamoores…of people there are allready here too manie.’[6] Shakespeare’s Othello, written in the period of the picture’s production, is suffuse with references to black male sexuality and spoilt bloodlines. Intent on provoking the wrath of Desdemona’s father, Iago warns of an ‘old black ram/tupping your ewe’. Caught in ‘the gross clasps of a lascivious moor’ (Act 1, Scene1)

January 2022

[1] Most authors locate the work within the tradition of Elizabethan tomb sculpture. See Richard Humphreys, The Tate Britain Companion to British Art (London: Tate Publishing, 2000), p. 29;Martin Myrone, Representing Britain: 1500–2000. 100 Works from Tate Collections (London: Tate Publishing, 2000), p. 26 and Tim Batchelor, Tate Britain Companion: A Guide to British Art (London: Tate Publishing, 2013), p. 15.

[2] Alastair Bonnett, ‘How the British Working Class Became White: The Symbolic (Re)formation of Racialized Capitalism’, Journal of Historical Sociology,vol. 1: 3 (1998), pp. 316–340.

[3] Currently in Tate Britain, The Cholmondeley Ladies is flanked by two works by Marcus Gheeraerts, Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee (1594) and Portrait of an Unknown Lady (1595), in which both figures exhibit blue veins.

[4] Early modern physician George Thomson, cited in Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 65.

[5] Rosemary Betterton, ‘Promising Monsters: Pregnant Bodies, Artistic Subjectivity, and Maternal Imagination’, Hypatia, vol. 21:1 (2006), pp. 80–100; The frontispiece image of the anonymous author’s, Pseudo Aristotle’s Compleat Masterpiece: or the Secrets of Generation (1684), depicts ‘The effigie [sic] of a maid all hairy, and infant that was black, by the imaginations of their parents’.

[6] Quoted in David Dabydeen, Hogarth’s Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth Century English Art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), p. 17.

Artist / Maker