Face to face with the Herberts of Powis Castle
For centuries the Herberts, one of the most influential families in Welsh history, have had their likenesses captured by artists of outstanding skill, from Isaac Oliver to John Singer Sargent. These works of art have been handed down many generations to adorn their ancestral home of Powis Castle in Powys, Wales, and are now on show in the exhibition 'House of Portraits'.
John Chu, curator of the exhibition, discusses how the Herberts have long been experts in manipulating and projecting their personal image to make a place for themselves in a competitive world of politics, money and power.
Portraiture and family history
The great halls and quiet chambers of Powis Castle are full of pictures of real people. Ranging from majestic full-length portraits to intimate miniatures that can be held in the palm of your hand, they are the work of many talented artists.
Some of these faces belong to kings, emperors and maharajas while the identity of others has long ago been lost and forgotten. But the overwhelming majority of these pictures depict men, women and children of the Herbert family who have lived at Powis for over four centuries.
Many of the family portraits at Powis were made for personal and emotional reasons that most people would recognise today: to celebrate a rite of passage such as a marriage or to capture the childhood looks of a son or daughter before they grew up. A portrait might be copied in miniature form and carried around or worn as an expression of love or affection.
Suitable to the public stage upon which the Herbert family lived their lives, other portraits project a much grander and more obviously flattering personal image; as valiant warriors, as peoples of taste and fashion, as allies of kings, or as travellers to distant lands.
Portraits to attract
For high-born young women on the 18th-century marriage market, the latest fashions were a must. Lady Henrietta Herbert, daughter of the Earl of Powis, sat for a portrait by the top London portraitist, Joshua Reynolds, when she was about 19 years old and of an age to marry. The result is one of the most alluring he ever painted.
Seen preparing for a country walk, Lady Henrietta puts the finishing touches to her immaculate outfit by pulling on a silk glove. As she sets off, she turns to meet our gaze as if to invite us along.
In 1784, some seven years after this portrait was painted, she married Edward, 2nd Lord Clive, who was later created Earl of Powis in 1804. It was through Lady Henrietta that the Powis estates passed to the Clive family.
Portraits to celebrate
Centuries before the modern wedding photograph, there was the pendant marriage portrait.This pair of pictures from 1595 is an example of this convention, celebrating the union of Lady Eleanor Percy, daughter of the Earl of Northumberland, to William Herbert who was heir to the Powis estate.
Alliances between such high-ranking families were a matter of state importance, so it is significant that Eleanor's costume bears variations on the Tudor rose to signal the couple’s allegiance to the ruling dynasty. The precious jewel at Eleanor’s breast depicts Cupid and Venus, ancient gods of love and desire, appropriate to the expectation that marriage should produce heirs.
Portraits to aggrandise
Large portraits such as this full-length portrait of Mary Herbert, Marchioness of Powis presented the public face of the aristocracy and were deliberately designed to keep the viewer at a respectful distance.
Here Mary, wife of the 2nd Marquess of Powis, is shown standing serenely on a terrace of a garden where roses and orange trees grow. This setting alludes to the splendour of the Herbert estate.
Mary does not appear in fashionable dress, but in the soft drapery of a classical statue as if elevated to a realm beyond mundane reality. The artist has deliberately emphasised her goddess-like height by reducing the size of her head in proportion to her body and extending the line of her figure with a long flowing train.
The many faces of Lord Herbert of Cherbury
Of all the members of the Herbert family represented in the pictures at Powis Castle, none used their image to promote their ends more intensively than the multifaceted Edward, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury.
Living in a courtly world in which great power was brokered through personal relationships, Lord Herbert understood that the highest rewards came to those talented few who could present themselves and their abilities with the greatest panache.
An unabashedly ambitious soldier, scholar, diplomat, musician and poet, he was a man of many parts and well aware of his worth. Portraits promoting the different aspects of his personality and achievements played an active role in his rise from son of a country gentleman to international statesman.
Foremost amongst these works of art is the miniature by the court artist, Isaac Oliver, whose attempt to capture the many layers of Lord Herbert’s complex character in a single, exquisite likeness resulted in one of the masterpieces of British art.
Herbert was at the height of his glamour when this miniature was painted in his early thirties. He had already distinguished himself in the violent field of war, but was also sought after for his fast wit and learning borne of genuine scholarship.
Oliver's suprisingly small picture cleverly packs in several of these contrasting dimensions of his persona by depicting him poised between different worlds. High on a tranquil wooded hilltop, he is presented in a state of seclusion resting his head thoughtfully on his hand and stretching out alongside a stream.
In the background, courtly display and power politics await. As Herbert’s squire prepares his jousting gear, the landscape stretches to the horizon promising adventure.Tiny details draw you closely in to this microcosm of a portrait, inviting you to marvel at the skill of its creation and the different facets of its remarkable subject.