Tuesday, 18 June 2013

"Ane Deformit Lump Of Clay": The Vendetta Picture in 16th Century Scotland (Part Two)

The Murder of Henry, Lord Darnley

Background: the murder

'Henry, King of Scots' is not a famous title, but in 1565, that was what Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley became upon his marriage to Queen Mary. A handsome, but not popular figure in his lifetime, Henry's murder at Kirk O' Field, Edinburgh in 1567 may have been the result of his own treachery. In March 1566, motivated mainly by jealousy, he had planned and helped to carry out the murder of Mary's Italian secretary, David Rizzio and, shortly afterwards, betrayed his fellow conspirators. Mary's role in the subsequent murder of her husband remains highly controversial, but whatever her motives, the Queen's pardoning of Rizzio's murderers in December 1566 was almost certain to have violent consequences.
In a night of great confusion, in which his lodging at Kirk O' Field was destroyed by a huge explosion, Darnley was murdered, probably through suffocation, by unknown assailants, most likely members of the Douglas family, his own kin. His body, along with that of one of his servants, was laid out in a nearby orchard.

The pictorial record of the murder (and this is true with almost all of the Vendetta pictures) was mirrored by other forms of popular art, notably the ballad. In Darnley's case this consisted of black letter ballads, many published in Edinburgh by a local printer, Robert Lekpreuik, rather than the sung ballads popular in the north.

The horror and mystery of the murder, along with the youth of the victim and various unsavoury rumours regarding the Queen's behaviour vastly improved public opinion of the dead man, as the ballads testify. These printed broadsides were aimed squarely at a popular audiences and, like the pictures, stress the treachery and the pity of the murder: "Ane King at evin, with Sceptur, Sword and Crown/At morn but ane deformit lump of clay/With traitouris strang sa cruellie put downe."

The Kirk O' Field Drawing
This coloured drawing made the morning after the murder, presumably at Kirk O' Field itself is of immense importance to the history of the Vendetta picture. It features, for the first time, all of the elements that define the genre. The drawing was made at the request of Sir William Drury, Marshal of Berwick and Deputy to the Earl of Bedford, to be sent in a report on the murder to Queen Elizabeth's chief advisor, William Cecil in England, presumably on the site of the murder itself. It is likely that the drawing was made by one of the many painters active in Edinburgh at the time, either attached to the Royal household at Holyrood, or perhaps one of the many 'servants' on record as being active in the town in this period. It can't be discounted that the artist was in the household of Drury himself, but the style of the drawing, clear, elegant and vigorous, agrees very well with the style of works being created across Scotland at this time in roughly contemporary works such as the murals at Kinneil House.

The format of the picture raises an important point about Scottish painting in this period. Recent writers on Scottish art of the 16th Century have stressed the independence of Scottish art from the influence of England. This is certainly the case with the larger-scale decorative work already mentioned and as mentioned, the Scottish court was usually less insular than that of England and therefore open to continental, rather than southern influences. However, while this is accurate up to a point (especially in the earlier years of the 16th century), it is not the whole picture. It was normal for the great families of Scotland, such as the Lennoxes and the Stewarts ,to have links in the English court and this essentially meant that, especially post-Reformation, portrait painters such as Hans Eworth had networks of clients that were not restricted by national boundaries. While these artists introduced Britain to a relatively modern style of Northern European painting, European emblem books were providing native artists across Britain with an almost literary approach to art that can be seen across the whole range of British art, from portraiture, to decorative painting and manuscript illumination. The Kirk O' Field drawing also represents another type of artwork common in Britain; the 'history' picture. Although regarded as outmoded and naïve in the wake of the Italian Renaissance's (admittedly delayed) impact on Britain, the genre was used by local painters for decades to come. The 'history' has the ability to relate a narrative through the condensation of several scenes into one (often compartmentalised) picture. The form, probably derived from the medieval manuscript and print tradition was extensively used in both secular and religious works throughout Britain, the most famous example being the Memorial Picture of Sir Henry Unton (1596), in which scenes from the sitter's life, as well as his funeral procession, are arranged around his portrait.

The strength of this kind of picture is that it allows for a documentary realism and a narrative alongside allegorical or symbolic elements, drawn together by a single theme, in the case of Henry Unton, that of commemoration. The history picture is also open to many different adaptations, lending itself easily to the emblematic portraits popular in Elizabethan England, and also to works with a strong element of propaganda, such as the allegorical painting of Edward VI and the Pope (c.1568-71), closely contemporary with the Darnley pictures, in which portrait-like images of Henry VIII and Edward VI are combined with the satirical depiction of the Pope and an inset image of Protestants engaged in the destruction of religion images.

This picture also demonstrates the way in which text can be employed in the history picture, explaining and reinforcing its meaning. The decorative arts of Scotland, despite having evolved quite separately from those of England, also included these elements, often combining heraldic devices, portraiture, figure painting and text, often moralising in nature, demonstrating the shared medieval heritage of the two nations.  Equally important to the Vendetta genre are the banners created by the artist/craftsmen of Britain and Europe for use in all kinds of processions and celebrations, including funerals, coronations and triumphal entries. This kind of painting was, though at the centre of the social life of the courts of Europe, but was by its nature ephemeral, and so very few examples survive.  The Vendetta picture, though a distinct genre, is almost a hybrid of history picture and processional banner, though it utilises their elements in a particularly pointed way.

The Kirk O' Field drawing is immediately recognisable as a history picture; with the aftermath of the murder represented as a narrative of events with the corpse of Darnley as its focal point. As befits its purpose of informing the viewer of the sequence of events, the drawing includes all of the key elements in an easily readable way.

In the top right the most important feature, the bodies in the orchard, is shown on a larger scale than the other details. Darnley's body is shown as it was found, laid under a tree in his nightshirt, his hand covering his genitals. His servant, William Taylor, is shown nearby, dumped unceremoniously by the murderers, in contrast to the careful laying-out of the King. Articles of clothing and a dagger are shown scattered on the ground. The figures are elegantly and economically drawn in a style very similar to that seen in the Scottish armorial books popular in this period. The gateway used by the murderers is shown, and it is possible to reconstruct their route from the ruined house on the left. At the bottom of the drawing, as in the Unton Memorial painting, the funeral rites are shown, with the body of Taylor being buried in the grounds of the small church which gave Kirk O' Field its name, while Darnley is being carried to the abbey at Holyrood, where he was buried a few days later, with little of the usual Royal pomp and ceremony.

The elements that make this drawing more than just a simple, documentary narrative, however, are the concealed murderers on horseback shown on the right, shown in an enclosed box to represent the fact that they were hidden (though it was not certain where exactly this was) and, most importantly, the figure of the infant Prince James in the upper left of the picture.
 The Prince, then less than a year old, is shown sitting up in his bed, his hands clasped in prayer. Issuing from his mouth is a scroll reading "Judge and Revenge My Caus O Lord". This emotive statement is in stark contrast to the other inscriptions in the picture, which merely supply details of place names, and was obviously intended to provide the viewer with a taste of the sense of outrage that swept through the city the morning after the murder, and which had already begun to focus on the Queen. Though this accurately depicts the suspicions of the local people as recorded in written sources, its tone is emotive rather than objective.

That the picture's intended viewer, William Cecil, was a fanatical Protestant and Mary's greatest enemy in the English also suggests that this drawing was not the product of a cold recording of evidence. In the days following the murder public attention was focussed on the Queen, and her failure to address the public calls for revenge was arguably more damaging to her reputation than the murder itself. As the drawing shows, the infant James, though controversially baptised a Catholic, provided a potent rallying point for those opposing the Queen, and the death of his father presented an ideal opportunity to take sides without allying oneself to Darnley himself. The presence of James was also important to Cecil as Elizabeth was not unsympathetic to Mary, and her instinct was to protect the sanctity of the monarchy, especially as the Tudor and Stewart dynasties were linked by blood. James, as a legitimate heir to the throne, unsullied by scandal and in need of a guiding hand for many years to come, was a powerful focus for those with political ambitions on both sides of the border.

The call for revenge was therefore not simply an emotive cry for justice and in this sense the drawing is an important precursor to the first large-scale, public Vendetta pictures, defining their mixture of documentary and propaganda within an established traditional format which would be readily recognisable to a contemporary audience. the potent combination of fact and polemic was to have an immediate and successful follow-up in the Darnley Banner and it is possible that the same artist was responsible for the design of the work, itself perhaps derived from the Kirk O' Field drawing.

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