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Love in the extreme

by Joanna Gilmour, 20 January 2020

Venetia, Lady Digby, circa 1633-1634 by Sir Anthony van Dyck
Venetia, Lady Digby, circa 1633-1634 by Sir Anthony van Dyck

Portraiture, right from its beginnings, has always been thought of as a way of cheating death. If mythology is to be believed, the genre originated in ancient Greece, when a young woman, referred to as the ‘Corinthian maid’, traced the shadow cast by her beloved’s profile onto a wall of the room where he was sleeping. He was due to depart the next day on a journey from which he mightn’t return. The girl’s father, a potter, used the outline drawn on the wall to create a relief profile in clay, thereby supposedly giving rise not only to portraiture but to the tempting notion that a tangible, durable record of a loved one’s face could serve as a potent relic in times when that person might be distant, unattainable or even dead. Fancy someone, or lusting after them? Get a portrait, maybe a miniature that you can wear against your skin and kiss in secret when the inclination takes you. Yearning for a lost or absent lover? A picture of them will help soothe one’s sadness, or supply an aide memoire for the indulgence of unsatisfied desires. Mourning a much-loved and perhaps prematurely-taken partner? A portrait can serve as a stand-in or memorial, a memento of the looks, qualities and characteristics that had made you love the subject so in the first place. This inextricability of love, longing and loss from portraiture is one of the concepts underpinning Love Stories, a cracking exhibition of 120 portraits from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, that will travel to Canberra in winter 2020. At the exhibition’s heart is a lush, elegiac painting by Sir Antony van Dyck depicting Venetia, Lady Digby, whose untimely death in 1633 gave rise to portraits that are emblematic of the relationship between portraiture, desire and death.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography classifies Venetia, Lady Digby (née Stanley, 1600–1633), as a ‘gentlewoman and celebrated beauty’ – two of the very few rules by which seventeenth-century women might qualify as suitable subjects for portraits. A great-granddaughter, on her father’s side, of the Earl of Derby and the granddaughter of the Earl of Northumberland on her mother’s, Venetia was an infant when her mother died and as a result she was sent away to be raised by a family in Buckinghamshire. There she befriended Kenelm Digby (1603–1665), a diplomat, courtier to King Charles I, and a noted polymath and eccentric. Digby was interested in matters such as astrology and alchemy, was a founding member of the Royal Society, and authored various philosophical, scientific, poetic and biographical texts. It is said that he formed a strong attachment to Venetia in his youth, she reportedly being as young as thirteen when her beauty began to ‘draw the eyes and thoughts of all men to admiration’. Her reputation, however, was later impugned accordingly. The introduction to an 1827 edition of The Private Memoirs of Sir Kenelm Digby, for example, relates gossip of intrigues, assignations, illegitimate children and a suitor who ‘had her portrait painted … which picture he used to shew as a glorious trophy of her conquered affections’. Kenelm was seventeen when his mother – who had a more lucrative and untarnished prospective daughter-in-law in mind – dispatched him on the usual Grand Tour of Europe in the hope that this might dampen or redirect his ardour. The ruse failed. Kenelm’s love for Venetia instead ‘served as an impregnable bulwark to his virtue’ (he is held to have circulated rumours of his own death so as to evade the ‘overtures’ of the French queen mother, Marie de Medici); and though returning home to hearsay about the liaisons Venetia had partaken of in his absence – and because she believed he was dead – the pair reconnected and married, against both their families’ wishes, around 1625. They concealed the union for three years and kept the birth of their first child a secret also.

Whether or not there was much substance to the air of scandal surrounding it, the Digbys’ marriage was a successful one, with Venetia certainly upholding her end of the exemplary spouse bargain. She might have made money gambling, but she gave it to charity; she endured with fortitude her ‘exceeding paineful and dangerous’ confinements; she observed her Catholic faith fervently; and remained true to her husband, even though he didn’t necessarily do the same for her. But then when she died in May 1633, Digby entered into a period of extravagant, teeth-gnashing mourning that is perfectly encapsulated in two paintings he commissioned from his friend Antony van Dyck in order to ease his woe. ‘I dare say no man exceeded me in extreme loving’, Digby wrote – nor, one might add, in extreme grieving if these paintings are any indication. Flemish-born van Dyck (1599–1641), court painter to Charles I and known for his epic, imperious likenesses of the doomed but dapper monarch, made the first of his posthumous portraits of Venetia two days after she died. The artist’s haste was born in part of Digby’s desperation for his wife’s loveliness to be recorded before decomposition set in, but also because of the imminent autopsy, conducted because she had died so unexpectedly – and allegedly from an overdose of the viper wine Digby prescribed to preserve her complexion. In Venetia, Lady Digby, on her Deathbed, van Dyck ‘expressed with admirable art every circumstance about her, as well as the exact manner of her lying, as for the likeness of her face’. It is said that the bereft widower slept with the painting propped up beside him to create an illusion of waking up with her each day.

Van Dyck’s subsequent portrait came about some time later when malicious talk about the circumstances of Venetia’s death and her reputed tainted virtue started to resurface. This second, allegorical portrait was created to silence her detractors for good, presenting Venetia as Prudence and celebrating her legendary looks. Cherubs float above her head, about to crown her with a laurel wreath. Her right foot rests dismissively on the thigh of an anguished, vanquished Cupid, signifying triumph over blind lusts and fleshly pleasures, while the cowed and scowling two-faced figure in the bottom left of the picture represents fidelity’s defeat of deceit. The snake coiling itself round Venetia’s wrist is not an allusion to the concoction alleged to have had a hand in her death (most likely caused by a cerebral haemorrhage, incidentally), but a symbol of sagacity and wisdom. Her alabaster skin, the pearls she wears, and the doves settling contentedly under and beside her left hand are emblems of grace and purity. Van Dyck made two versions of the work: a large painting now belonging to the Palazzo Reale, Milan; and the one ordinarily on view at NPG London, a scaled-down, portable version that accompanied Digby on his subsequent travels. Digby never remarried, devoting himself to his scientific and intellectual interests, re-converting to Catholicism, serving Queen Henrietta Maria in exile in Rome, and returning to London to join court again after the Restoration. He died in 1665, having stipulated the wish to be interred alongside Venetia, ‘who was my greatest worldly blessing’.

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