Rigg's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg


17th century

The Lost Velazquez: Charles I, King & Collector.

… lost portrait of a king …

One of the most alluring images in the Charles I, King & Collector exhibition is the informal portrait of Philip IV by Velasquez. Charles never owned the picture – so why did the curators include it?

Dallas Philip IV

In 1623, when Prince Charles was 22, he was betrothed to the King of Spain’s sister. Negotiations over this alliance had begun to drag so Charles seized the initiative and travelled to Spain to win the Infanta over. The whole mission was a bit of an embarrassing disaster because diplomacy is never that simple but his informal embassy was the springboard for Charles’ passion for art collecting.

It was a court of young men. In 1623 King Philip IV was 18 and had already been king for two years. He entertains the older Charles for months in Madrid and even gives him a Titian to take home (Charles V with a Dog, 1533). In this same year, Velazquez who was only 24, is ordered to the city to try out as the new Court Painter. It is probable that he painted this quick and informal portrait of Philip to secure his position – and a close, successful relationship began between monarch and painter which lasted until Velazquez‘s death.

Intriguingly Velazquez also painted a portrait of Charles during this year. The closest image we have to what it may have looked like is this portrait from the studio of the Dutch painter, Daniel Mytens.  A fine work – but no Velazquez.

King Charles Prince Charles

Daniel Mytens was the principle painter at the Stuart court from the early 1620s to the mid 1630s. This portrait is a contemporary replica, probably painted in Mytens’ studio, as it was one of his most important early commissions.  It shows Charles I before he became King in 1625.*

How exciting would it be if the original Velazquez was discovered! A young man – on the brink of kingship – by one of the finest painters of the 17th century. In the 19th century, one man became obsessed with the idea that he had found it. His fascinating story is told by Laura Cumming in The Vanishing Man: In pursuit of Velazquez It wasn’t. Here’s a link to her article about it.

Charles I, King and Collector at The Royal Academy, London runs until 15 April 2018. With all exhibitions of this size and popularity, it is worth getting the catalogue first to scope out what you want to see before plunging in. It’s a wonderful book with over 200 colour illustrations, essays to put the exhibition in context, and detailed notes on provenance. Softback £28. Hardback £40.  A link to the Royal Academy bookshop is here.

Philip IV c.1623-24 (Meadows Museum, Dallas) Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)

Charles I (when Prince of Wales) 1620s (Unknown) Contemporary copy after Daniel Mytens (c.1590–1647/48)

* Details from Philip Mould Fine Paintings.





Neither Virgin nor Venus. Five Outstanding Women from Charles I, King & Collector.

… neither Virgin nor Venus …

Among all the Royal portraits and big dramatic pieces in this outstanding exhibition, there are some extremely fine images of women. The Academy rooms are teeming with spectators and the show has 140 works of art on view, so it pays to have an idea of what you are looking for. Here are five I wouldn’t want anyone to miss …

My advice would be to ignore the crowded first couple of rooms and make straight for Gallery VIII which holds pictures from “The Queen’s House” and take a look at this Head of a Woman (c.1630-35) by Orazio Gentileschi. It’s such an arresting work combining beauty and determination in a very penetrating stare – as her former owner said: “She’s no extra!” The painting sold to a private buyer in January 2018 for $1.8 million and there’s a brief Sotheby’s video about her here.

gentileschi royal collection

Then turn around and, diagonally opposite in the same room, is a painting by Orazio‘s daughter’s Artemisia Gentileschi called Allegory of Painting (c.1638-39). Artemisia joined her father and her brothers in London in 1638. Charles and Henrietta already owned at least three of Artemisia‘s paintings by then and she found steady employment here. Some suggest this is a self portrait though it is not listed as such in Court inventories and is perhaps instead a younger, more idealised version of her 46 year old self.  It is probably more a declaration of her remarkable status: as a practising and successful female artist at this time – an image of a working painter not a fanciful allegory.

allegory artist

Travelling back a hundred years to the court of Henry VIII, the next picture is a portrait of Anne Cresacre ( c.1526-27) by Hans Holbein. This piece of fragile wonderfulness can be found in the next room along, Gallery IX, “The Whitehall Cabinet.” Charles’ Cabinet in Whitehall Palace was a private space decorated with more personal items from his collection; the core of which he inherited from his older brother, Henry, including these a set of drawings by Holbein. These sketches were made for a large group portrait of Thomas More‘s family – since lost. Anne was a ward of More’s and became his daughter-in-law around this time. The exquisite delicacy of this chalk drawing is truly arresting. It might just be me … but there’s a resemblance to the actor Louise Brealey who played Molly Hooper in Sherlock in the slight frown about her lips.


The next work executed about the same time but leagues apart in tone and handling. If there’s a Bronzino in a gallery I’m in front of it. The work is in “The Italian Renaissance” Gallery V and its understated elegance could be overlooked as there are Titians in the same room. There is some debate over whether Portrait of a Women in Green (c.1530-32) is actually a Bronzino or possibly a del Piombo or a Sarto. I have my doubts too – it’s not quite good enough but …. it could be a youthful work. Her direct gaze is typical of Bronzino’s portraits and she is an arresting example of a confident and self assured Renaissance woman.


The final painting in my selection is the Rembrandt. Again in any other exhibition, a work of this quality would be centre stage but again she is in a corner of Gallery IV, “The Northern Renaissance” and could easily be over looked. This Portrait of an Old Woman (c. 1627-29) is also called The Artist’s Mother as Rembrandt often used his mother, Neeltgen Willensdr, as a model at the beginning of his career. The painting is not a portrait but a tronie (a generic term for ‘face’). Such tronies move beyond imitation and become imaginative exercises using carefully chosen costume and dramatic illumination – a cross between a portrait and a historical painting. I was fascinated by the interplay between the lines on her face with the gorgeous lace and fabric detail, both picked out with a warm Northern European light. It is an amazing painting.

rembrandt portrait royal collection

So there you are: my top five paintings of women from Charles I, King and Collector. Which paintings caught your eye?

Charles I, King and Collector at The Royal Academy, London runs until 15 April 2018.

With all exhibitions of this size and popularity, it is worth getting the catalogue first to scope out what you want to see before plunging in. It’s a wonderful book with over 200 colour illustrations, essays to put the exhibition in context, and detailed notes on provenance. Softback £28. Hardback £40.  A link to the Royal Academy bookshop is here.

Head of a Woman c.1630-35 (Private Collection)  Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639)

Allegory of Painting c.1638-39 (Royal Collection) Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/3)

Anne Cresacre c.1526-27 (Royal Collection) Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543)

Portrait of a Women in Green c.1530-32 (Royal Collection) Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72)

Portrait of an Old Woman c. 1627-29 (Royal Collection) Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)

Quince, cabbage, melon & cucumber: Juan Sanchez Cotan

… intriguing still life … 

still life bodegón melon quince cucumber

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602, (San Diego Museum of Art) by Juan Sánchez Cotán (June 25, 1560 – September 8, 1627) was a Spanish painter, now famous for being a pioneer of a Spanish form of still life painting which is also called bodegón.

The Spanish term bodega is a pretty movable term and can mean pantry, grocery, or cellar. In Spanish art, a bodegón is a still life of food often arranged on a simple stone slab or sometimes in a kitchen. The quince and cabbage here show how food was often suspended to prolong its freshness rather than, as I first wondered, some sort of curious presentation technique. The simple images in Cotan’s work are often contrasted with the more opulent Northern European paintings of silverware and fresh flowers.

Soon after this was painted Cotán entered a Carthusian monastery and many historians have linked this spare representation to his later monastic and vegetarian life. However he painted bodegónes with dead animals including this one which is exactly the same arrangement with added dead birds: Still Life with Game Fowl, 1600/03, (the Art Institute of Chicago). Admittedly, the crowded alcove is not such a pleasing image.

spanish baroque still life

Talking about the first painting, Norman Bryson writes: “Absent from Cotán’s work is any conception of nourishment …”*  I agree that the clear light and the precise almost hyper realism of the food makes it less an appetising food stuff and more, perhaps to Cotán’s eyes, a wonder of God’s creation to be scientifically examined and recorded

Bryson also suggests: “What replaces their interest as sustenance is their interest as mathematical form.”* This seemed rather far fetched to me until, on rooting around a little, I found that the gradual curve has been compared to Archimedes’ hyperbola, suggesting that this painting could perhaps be understood as a geometric meditation for an educated class. Archimedes was first translated and published by the Italian Federico Commandino in 1565. This was followed by Luca Valerio’s De Centro Gravitatis in 1604 confirming a strong contemporary interest in spherical bodies that might be related to Cotán’s still-life experiments.**

Musing on spherical mathematics certainly isn’t my idea of fun, however it did remind me of another image, an intriguing miniature painted at the slightly earlier date of c1590-5 by Nicholas Hilliard of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam).


Nicknamed “The Wizard Earl” because of his interest in scientific experiments and his library, here Northumberland is seen in a garden with a serious book at his side and a mathematical puzzle of a sphere and feather behind him. So perhaps fancy maths was a thing at the turn of C17th?

* Bryson, Norman (2012). Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. London: Reaktion Books.

** Taken from Juan Sanchez de Cotán, Quince, Melon and Cucumber. Essay by Dr. Sally Hickson.


The Paintings at Upton House

… so which painting would you like to steal?

Rembrandt lievens magus


Upton House is another one of those gorgeous country houses with spectacular gardens and glamorous rooms; what sets it apart from a host of other National Trust properties is the quality and range of its astounding art collection.

I visited with a friend at the weekend and we played: “which would you steal for your house?” So it’s all about personal cravings, not money nor technical ability, and we spent a happy couple of hours debating and chatting to the knowledgeable guides.

My very favourite was A Magus at an Altar which is now attributed to Jan Lievens, a contemporary of Rembrandt. To my eye, the detail of the light playing on his silk robes are as exquisite as anything by his more famous contemporary.  In fact, the painting had previously been judged good enough to be a Rembrandt. Then it was relegated to “Rembrandt and his circle” and finally thought to be a just copy of some lost Lievens.

More recent analysis has revealed lots of re-worked passages proving that the work is not a copy but an original work. In fact the examination showed up so many alterations that it suggests, on balance, a Lievens’ approach working rather than a Rembrandt. There is a brief article and further links from the National Trust’s website here.

I was so pleased to be introduced to this Lievens and, after a quick internet search, I find this wonderful still life (in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) … which is a lovely combination of my two main interests: books and art.
lievens rijksmuseum

The man behind the extraordinary collection at Upton House was Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted. He was the chairman of Shell and owned M Samuel & Co. Bank. He was also chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery and the Whitechapel Art Gallery; and also on the board of trustees for the Tate. With his love of paintings and his huge fortune, he amassed one of the finest art collections in private hands during the 20th century. Walter donated the house, gardens and art collection to the National Trust in 1948.

For further information about Upton House, please follow this link to the National Trust’s page on the property.

A Skinful of Shadows (Extract) : Frances Hardinge

… deliciously atmospheric …

frances hardinge costa lie tree

Frances Hardinge‘s next novel is a thrillingly dark tale of witchcraft and possession set during the turbulent Civil War of the C17th. I have been given a First Five Chapters promotional extract by my indie bookseller, Emily, at Emily’s Bookshop. Thanks, Em!

The fierce Makepeace feels friendless and awkward. She is no more than a servant in her Uncle’s house. Her distant mother frequently locks the girl in a disused chapel at night.  “You need to stay here and sharpen your stick.” For the woman knows there are ghosts that will try to invade Makepeace’s mind. Out on the marshes one day, she tries to rescue a dying animal, and the creature’s spirit becomes part of her. As a “by-blow”, she is sent to live at Grizehayes, her grandfather’s house, and this is where the adventure really begins …

… and I can’t wait to read the rest of it!

Frances has conjured up another passionate, caring outsider in Makepeace. Her character alone would make me read on. But this girl combined with the C17th and witchcraft is my idea of heaven. As always, her turn of phrase is sparkling: the terrifying minister whose preaching contains “love like a cold white comet”; and her pacing of the exposition is spot on, trailing just enough clues for the reader to guess at what’s to come.

Highly recommended.

Cover design moment: The gorgeous cover, reminiscent of mille fleur tapestry patterns, is by the very talented Romanian illustrator, Aitch. More of her work can be found here. And a blogpost about the ideas behind the design can be found at MyKindaBook here.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge will be published by Pan Macmillan on 21st September 2017.

Vasa Museet, Stockholm

vasa museum

… brilliant museum built around a C17th war ship …

Well, I could have spent the whole day in the Vasa Museet. This Swedish museum houses the only almost fully intact c17th century ship that has ever been salvaged and it’s an extremely well laid out and thoughtful museum with plenty to see for the casual and more historically minded visitor. There are the finds cases describing life on board and a film detailing history of the modern salvage operation; and there are recreations of the colourful (even gaudy) wooden carvings decorating this Royal ship and contextual models and displays explaining the history surrounding the disaster.

The 64-gun warship Vasa sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. It was simply too tall and too unstable to withstand a powerful gust of wind. It capsized after only 1,300 metres. In a letter to King Gustavus II Adolphus, the Council of the Realm wrote …“she heeled right over and water gushed in through the gun ports until she slowly went to the bottom …”

I particularly liked the c17th salvage display showing the technique used to bring up the valuable guns. “The diver was entirely clad in leather and had double leather boots. He stood on a platform of lead hanging under the diving bell,” reported a fascinated Italian priest in 1663.

vasa museum diving bell

The recreations of the extraordinary sculptures decorating this royal ship were also fascinating.

seventeenth century sculpture

So, if you are considering a Nordic trip, pick Stockholm! It has a lovely old city centre with lots of Viking gold in the National Museum, great Swedish design, very friendly people – and the finest c17th century warship in the world.

For further information, here’s the link to the Vasa Museet website.

The Hypocrite : The Swan RSC

… fabulous cod C17th comedy …

mark addy

After the success of his One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean has returned to his native Hull, reprising the dilemma of a man serving two masters.  This time he has adapted the true story of Sir John Hotham charged with holding the city’s arsenal during the Civil War. Which side should he declare for: Parliament or the King? He is doing his best to be seen supporting both.

With frenetic slapstick and volleys of wit, it’s a great vehicle for a very likeable Mark Addy. He and Caroline Quentin battle and scheme their way around each other and his impossible situation. There’s a strong Hull accent and many affectionate local and Shakespearean references. The supporting cast had some brilliant scenes including the almost show-stopping, Ben Goffe, as both King Charles, a child ghost and an executioner; also, Jordan Metcalfe and Rowan Polonski, as the Prince of York and Prince Rupert respectively.


It was such a pleasurable evening: a fabulous cod C17th comedy – and you really can’t have too many of those.

Highly recommended.

As part of the UK City of Culture 2017 celebrations, this is a RSC co-production with Hull Truck Theatre. Its first performance was on 24 February and it transferred to Stratford on 31 March.  Limited ticket availability can be found here.

A Griffin, a Fire Demon and a Monster.

… C17th extravaganza …

ommegriffinThere’s a side to C17th Europe which fascinates me: the Courtly emphasis on masquing and processions.  These theatrical displays employed the finest painters, writers and architects, cost fabulous amounts and, being largely ephemeral, can only be caught via hasty sketches, terse descriptions and the occasional commissioned painting or engraving.

In London’s V&A we are lucky enough to have The Ommeganck in Brussels on 31 May 1615: The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella. It was commissioned by the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella to celebrate an Ommegang. This was an important civic procession honouring Isabella as Queen of the procession and the scene shows the ten pageant cars that formed the most spectacular element of the parade.

These must have been the equivalent of the big budget movie extravaganzas of their time with fantastical beasts, special effects and royalty on display.

There’s huge unicorns and griffins made from wickerwork and painted canvas; special effects like this demon who holds a fire club, a fizzing hollow reed packed with charcoal and gunpowder;


and a scary backwards monster waving a bladder (?) to amuse the crowds.


The V&A has a marvellous interactive programme of the work where you can zoom in, roam around and read details about various elements of this large painting.  The work and the computer display can be found in the Europe 1600-1715 Galleries but can be overlooked as it’s in a low lit corner.

There’s another scene of this festival in the Prado.  It appears they got the boring religious procession whereas we’ve got the lighter side of the affair. Huzzah.

Best of 2016 : 3 books & an exhibition

Looking back over the 32 book reviews I have posted in 2016, I’ve had a brilliant reading year : so much imagination; so much wit and adventure; scenes and characters that linger long after the books close.  If you follow my blog, you will know that I only publish reviews for books I would recommend and so my “Best of 2016” is really ALL my reviews.  Obviously.

However, if someone forced me to narrow it down, I would chose (in no particular order):

The Australian Urban Fantasy,  Vigil by Angela Slatter, for its dazzlingly inventiveness of plot and character combined with smart as a whip one liners.  My original post is here.

The intense, thrilling Nevernight by Fantasy virtuoso, Jay Kristoff, for delving so gloriously into the dark side of the genre.  The full review is here.

The fast paced and scary The Call by Peadar O’Guilin for its kiss-ass heroine and seat of the pants race to the end.  Here’s a link to my review post.

Although I didn’t plan it this way, they all have strong female leads and dark Fantasy backgrounds.  Whether it’s my preference or some 2016 zeitgeist, who knows?

And my very favourite visit of 2016 was to the extraordinarily inspiring Lost Library of John Dee at the Royal College of Physicians, a fascinating exhibition, crammed full of gorgeous exhibits and helpful explanatory notes.  I could have camped out there.  My full review is here.

I started this blog just over a year ago to share my love of books and to create an aide memoire for myself.  It’s great fun to write and I find the quality of my reading (and visiting) has improved with the focus of this blog.   I particularly want to say a big THANKS to Emily at Emily’s Bookshop in Campden for giving me so many ARCs and book suggestions.

Wishing you all a productive and creatively filled 2017.





Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑