- Portraits, Painters, and Publics in Provincial England, 1540-1640 by Robert Tittler
Painted portraits capture more than just a representation of the sitter. They reflect the society in which both the subject and the practitioner lived and how they chose to be depicted. They also speak of the transmission of skills and ideas on artistic representation, while providing a source for information on consumption and trade through the materials used and depicted. Although [End Page 314] there is a substantial body of work on court portraiture for the Elizabethan and early Stuart period, regional English portraiture has not received the attention it deserves. Robert Tittler addresses this issue in his most recent publication. He succeeds in contextualizing regional portraiture, setting the groundwork for further scholarship.
The areas Tittler has chosen to focus on are the rich veins of social and cultural experience of the English provinces. By locating portraiture in the context of its own era, Tittler reinforces the notion that for much of the period it was the subject matter of the painting that was valued over its aesthetics, or who carried out the painting. Away from London, and the court, experience of portraiture was dictated more by the skills of the available craftspeople that carried out the work and the demands and knowledge of the client. Through the exploration of archival sources, Tittler demonstrates that portraits appeared in wills and probate inventories of a socially diverse public, widely distributed throughout England. He further surveys provincial painters, examining their training and work practice, and includes discussion of the wide range of craftspeople - not necessarily painters - who may have been creating portraits. Indeed it is interesting to ponder that these practitioners were by necessity turning their hand to jobs as they arose rather than specializing specifically in portraiture. Only a very few, mostly London based, painters were able to specialize in the genre, and for much of the period painters were poorly paid for painting a portrait.
By focusing on the town of Chester, Tittler is able to sketch the careers of a number of lesser-known painters and highlight the importance of the journeyman painter to the master's practice when the workload demanded an extra brush. He also touches on the role that guilds played for the practitioner in a provincial town, along with painters who were members of aristocratic households outside of London. Women painters too are discussed, who may have taken over their husband's business on his death. By considering specific women, Tittler is able to demonstrate the integral role the wife played in the business of a painter.
Tittler's examination of the resources available to a painter, both material and cultural draws, in part, on current technical research into Tudor portraiture, specifically the project Making Art in Tudor Britain currently being conducted at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and also other London galleries' analysis of their own collections. This important examination of the materials behind the paintings informs research on trade, consumption of painters' materials, and the circulation of ideas. It is unfortunate that this level of scrutiny has not been carried out on regional vernacular portraiture, and Tittler laments this fact. However, he is able to draw together archival [End Page 315] evidence and a considered visual inspection to provide an evaluation of the pigments and colours used by regional portraitists to suggest the availability of materials. He also reflects on the exposure that the regional painter had to concepts such as the depiction of a three-dimensional subject and the use of pattern books. What he makes clear is the role of heraldry, particularly in regional portraiture, to emphasize the gentility of the sitter. Tittler also posits that native English portraitists reflected a strong heraldic tradition in the characteristics of their work and colour palette. In addition objects and devices within the portraits contribute to what Tittler terms the 'common vocabulary of the English provincial portrait' (p. 151).
Tittler's aim in writing this book was to...