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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Marriage Portrait?

Object 11 - This 17th century portrait of an unknown couple is a mysterious item from the collections. Peter Hewitt explores who the couple could be.

Peter Hewitt

Today’s blog comes from Peter Hewitt, Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham.

Portrait of an unknown couple
SBT 1993-31/335 Portrait of an an Unknown Man and Woman (said to be Thomas and Judith Nash), 17th C, unknown artist of the British School, oil on canvas, H117mm x W 940mm

Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a

Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth.
Would it not grieve a woman to be overmaster'd with a piece of
valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward
marl? No, uncle, I'll none: Adam's sons are my brethren, and
truly I hold it a sin to match in my kinred.

Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, scene 1, 57–65

A young woman and a middle-aged man look out at us with cheerful yet solemn faces.  What is their relationship?  What thoughts are passing through their minds?  Is she like Beatrice, skeptical of marriage or, perhaps, desperate to escape her family home?  Could they even be part of William Shakespeare’s own family?

The only information we have about this picture, now hanging in Nash’s House in Stratford, is a commentary written by the Trust’s Head Librarian Richard Savage in 1926, who describes the portrait as bearing the likenesses of 'John Hall and his wife or daughter’.

Is this father and daughter or man and wife?  It could be John Hall with his betrothed Susanna Shakespeare, 8 years his junior.  There is a distinct age gap between the two, but also a sense of intimacy.  They married in 1607.  Or could it be their daughter Elizabeth Hall and her husband Thomas Nash in 1626? – she was 18 and he 33.

What does the painting itself suggest?  At a meter high it would have been hung in a roomy parlour of a well-to-do home.  The woman wears a string of pearls and drop pearl earrings, of good size and quality.  By the mid-17th century these once precious stones reserved for monarchs and courtiers were widely available among the minor gentry.

Both part their hair and draw it back into long buoyant ringlets.  This style was popular through the 1630s and 1640s.  Although we may associate black with Puritans, the man’s black cloak may equally suggest wealth – black dye was expensive – this garment was probably one of his best items.

Eye levels in portrait of an unknown couple

Both sitters are displayed on different levels.  This may suggest male dominance or paternal care.  The painting could be organized in this way to 'invite' the viewer to imagine themselves between the two figures – most 17th century viewers' eye-level would be somewhere between the two, higher than the woman but lower than the man (see illustration).  Another strange aspect is the way both figures look in different directions (see illustration); though a dominant presence, the man’s gaze does not interrupt us while we look at his companion.  Note also the lack of wedding rings – can this be a marriage portrait?  Instead, we could imagine a suitor standing in the parlour gazing at this young woman whilst still in the presence of a watchful father.

So the painting itself can be read in different ways.  The way the young woman is foregrounded in the painting, as if the man is gently pushing her forward suggests that this may be a 'presentation' portrait where the father presents his daughter as a good marriage prospect to potential suitors.  The costume indicates that this was painted in the 1640s, long after Shakespeare's daughters were married.  Nevertheless, it is a quite rare example of this kind of painting in England and provides an intimate window into the public nature of family life in the 17th century.

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