An amibitious lawyer - a portrait of Edward Phelips

Stained Glass Window at Montacute House

Looking at this picture, I can’t help but wonder about the man whose ambition led to the magnificent and beautiful building in which his likeness still hangs.

This painting speaks to me of the public and private sides of a human character. 

Portrait of Edward Phelips
Portrait of Edward Phelips by an unknown artist
Portrait of Edward Phelips

Although a later copy, this is a typical portrait of the time.  A message to those who see it.  It’s intended to communicate how important and successful Edward is.  

But beneath the official purpose of the painting there is of course an individual.  Someone who has achieved immense personal power.  It is also someone who is perhaps not yet fully aware that his family will never rise to such a position again.

His upright stature, the simple but expensive clothes and the direct gaze are those of a confident man.  The other elements in the picture tell us why he can feel so assured.  The symbols of his political and legal power are the Mace and Bag of Office of the Speaker of Parliament.  They lay on the table close to his hand.  The family arms set into the expensive glass of the windows that look to a wider landscape beyond signify a secure and prosperous family.  

Close up detail of a portrait of Edward Phelips
Close up detail of a portrait of Edward Phelips
Close up detail of a portrait of Edward Phelips

It’s not impossible that the view was intended to be of Montacute.  Similar armorial glass remains in the library today.  Much like photographs of those we love, displaying your arms and those of your friends is comforting and a reminder of the importance of family in our lives. Like celebrity selfies it’s also a way of showing off.  An easy way to let others know ‘who you know’ and the importance of your social connections. 

Stained glass window in the Library
Stained glass window in the Library at Montacute House
Stained glass window in the Library

The portrait shows a man and a family at a pivotal moment.  Despite his achievements, Edward himself might have begun to see that all he had achieved was beginning to slip away.  

Differences between Edward and James I meant that he no longer had the King's patronage.  His son Robert had failed to secure a parliamentary seat in contested elections that further eroded his local political authority.  The cost of maintaining a lavish London home at which he could entertain the King and the ambitious building of Montacute meant that he was already £12,000 in debt.

Aged over 50, with little chance to build new political networks, does Edward sense that the future of his family is no longer as assured as he once thought it was?