The painting popularly known as The Cholmondeley Sisters resided at the Vale Royal Abbey in Cheshire, from approximately 1615 until it was sold in 1939 as Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family to the Howard Family. It was sold again in 1955 to an owner who presented it anonymously to the Tate Gallery in London, in memory of Francis Howard. The painting was in bad condition when it was presented to the Tate, requiring three years of conservation. The painting is 68” (173 cm) by 35” (89cm) oil on wood. It was not signed or dated, and the original frame is long gone.
In this article, I will discuss the identity of the four sitters as well as who may have painted their portrait and for whom, with a dash of fashion and swaddling history.
- Why History Matters
- The Legend
- The Subjects
- Wild Speculation
Why History Matters
When I was writing up this research, my friend, clearly bored in the face of my interest, asked me why the subjects of the painting mattered, why finding out their identity was interesting let alone important. Would it settle a property dispute? Were they involved in some major historical event? No, and not really. Because this is The Baby Historian, my assumption is that babies and history are intrinsically interesting to my audience. It never occurred to me that I would or should convince someone to be interested.
But it made me consider: why am I interested? It’s simply because they were people who lived, like me and you. Fellow human beings separated by time and geography but with the same capacities of thought and feeling. It’s satisfying to put a name to a face (or vice versa). So many historical figures, people whose names are in the historical (written) record, have no contemporary likeness made of them. Here we have both a portrait of four individuals seen by millions of people over the last 400+ years and a list of potential names which tell us who their family was, where they lived, their ages at marriage, their experience of motherhood, their deaths, and their sphere of influence.
The mystery yet to be solved is linking the names with the faces.
On the lower left-hand corner of the painting is an inscription:
Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family
Who were born the same day
Married the same day
And brought to Bed the same day.
This little inscription was the only identification of the sitters in the painting and it leaves a lot of room for speculation. It is echoed by a similar one found by the Tate conservators penned on brown paper on the other side of the painting, much faded:
… adys of the Cholm…
… daily, who were born…
… me Day, Married the …
… me Day, & their Children
… n the same Day.
A major issue with the inscriptions is that they postdate the painting by at least a century. The one on the painting is on top of a layer of varnish which itself was on top of previous restoration attempts. The paper on the back is in an 18th-century hand. (I wonder if my ridiculously bad handwriting will someday be identified as a “late 20th-century hand”.) It wasn’t unusual for a verse like this to be inscribed on the original frame, which in this case has been lost to history, so it’s impossible to say one way or the other.
The verse correctly describing the painting (two women, two infants, in a bed) lends a little bit of credence to its authenticity. Historians don’t discount that the verse was part of the family’s oral tradition regarding the painting, but there are other examples of family portraits being misidentified by descendants, like a generations-long game of telephone.
Let’s take a closer look at the subjects. Frequently mistaken as twins, an up-close inspection shows the differences between both the adults and the infants. The Left Mother (who I think looks like Anna Maxwell Martin) has grey eyes like her baby. The Right Mother (Sophie Thompson) has dark brown eyes and her baby has light brown.
A combination of the style of painting and the fashion depicted helped historians give an approximate date between 1600 and 1610. For example, the inner ruff puff wasn’t seen until 1600 and was only common after 1605. The Cholmondeley family was part of the Cheshire gentry and would have been well aware of London’s up-to-date fashions despite living so far away. That said, their hair is a bit old-fashioned for the early 1600s.
Elizabethan portraiture focused heavily on apparel: the ruffs, lace and jewels on the gowns demonstrated the sitter’s status more so than their personality. Personality became more popular in the Jacobean era. In this way, this painting could be considered a cross-over, in that it focused on attire (Elizabethan) but included the sitters’ focus on sisterhood and motherhood (Jacobean).
The painting uses a symbolic childbed (where they had given birth) as the setting. These ladies and their babies are in formal attire, though. It was common for women to wear their wedding dresses for anniversaries and christenings, so it is likely both women are wearing their wedding dresses, and their babies are in christening outfits made from matching fabrics (perhaps a christening outfit was made when the wedding dress was made). It is likely that all the babies in their families would have worn the same Christening outfits.
As for the babies, art historians suggest that they are pictured at a few weeks old. They would have been swaddled with linen bands, and then secured to a wooden board before being wrapped in fabric (the luxury of which was determined by family wealth and rank). Swaddling like this did a few things in the Early Modern mind: it retained the infant’s (humoral) heat and moisture which preserved their youth and vitality, their plumpness. It also ensured their limbs would grow straight. And it made babies easier to handle, instead of squishy, randomly flailing newborns, they were a solid plank. It also prevented babies from moving themselves around (including crawling) which would be dangerous in early modern environments and was considered animalistic.
All infants were supposed to be swaddled during infancy. This was a tradition going back thousands of years in Europe (perhaps to the palaeolithic era) by the time of the Cholmondeley portrait. I don’t mean to say that this kind of swaddle must be okay (let alone beneficial) just because it was a long-standing tradition, but rather that the sisters and their families would not have thought to do it any differently. This form of full swaddle only began to go out of fashion in England in the 18th century when male physicians and philosophers decried it as unnatural and/or unhealthy.
Historian John Hopkins dug through all the records of the Cholmondeley family trying to find the identity of the sitters in this portrait. The records were spotty and often contradictory, but he eventually narrowed down the options to the daughters of The Bold Lady of Cheshire: Dame Mary Cholmondeley (nee Holford).
Dame Mary’s Daughters
Mary, her eldest daughter, born between 1576-1584 (likely closer to 1584, but her birth and christening were either not recorded or lost to history) married to Sir George Calveley of Lea Newbold around age 20 after September 1601 but before January of 1606.
Lettice, another daughter, was born on July 15, 1585 and married to Sir Richard Grosvenor of Eaton on August 31, 1600 (both she and her husband were 15 years old).
Perhaps you’re thinking “wait, but the verse says were born and married and had their babies at the same time.” Not quite… the verse said “same day” not necessarily the same year. And while Mary’s birth and christening records are gone, we have references to Lettice’s and she certainly wasn’t a twin. That would have been a marked occasion, and they would have been christened together. So if the verse is accurate, Mary and Lettice were born on July 15 but in different years, married on August 31 of different years, and gave birth to their first babies on the same date though not necessarily the same year, despite the babies looking the same age in the portrait.
Cheshire Painters’ Company
In 1606, there are two entries in the Chester Painters’ Company accounts from “Lady Cholmley”: one payment of 2s (shillings) and another for 10d (pence) for some “troble” they had with her (so vague, so tantalizing). These payments could have been made at any time before October 18th of that year, which was the end of the financial year. This would be another clue to the identity of the babies in the painting if we have the mothers’ identities correct (and if those payments were for the painting in question): Mary’s first baby Mary (Mary’s Mary’s Mary) was born in 1606 but Lettice’s only baby at this time was Richard (born in 1602 or 1604 depending on whose records you believe), so if the verse is accurate they must share a birthdate but not the year. Little Richard, by then a toddler, was aged down via artistic license.
Using the Chester Painters’ Company records of Cheshire at the time, historian John Hopkins narrowed the painter to a handful of experienced painters and their apprentices (keep in mind that a painter was closer to a carpenter in status at this time, i.e. skilled labour). Because Dame Mary was a figure of great influence in Cheshire, only the most experienced and competent portrait painter would have been selected either by her or the guild, so that excludes a few names, leaving three possibilities: William Handcock, William Poole, and Nicholas Hallewood.
A married woman’s life, especially an upper-class woman, was one of repeated pregnancy and childbirth (Jane Austen lamented this 200 years later). Dame Mary was married in 1575 at the age of 12 or 13 years old to a man at least ten years her senior. While not all births, let alone pregnancies, were recorded, we know of at least eight of her children. The last was born when she was 38 years old, two months after her husband died, in 1601. This the same year her daughter Lettice was married. Of Dame Mary’s known children, one died in infancy (a son Francis commemorated with a little figurine in the family’s plot, below), and she survived three more of her children: a son Hatton, born in 1587 died in London in 1605, Lettice in 1612 just 27 years old, and Mary Calveley in 1616, likely in her early 30s. Mary Calveley died only six months after giving birth to her seventh child Richard who went to live with Dame Mary at Vale Royal. Of Dame Mary’s other grandchildren through her daughter, Mary Calveley’s known seven children, two of them died in early childhood (that’s a 29% mortality rate). You can imagine how poignant a memento of two daughters would be, surviving to adulthood and then both they and their children surviving pregnancy and childbirth.
Only a few years after completion of the Sister’s painting, it was moved to Vale Royal after Dame Mary purchased the estate from the Holcrofts in 1615 for £9000. By this time, Lettice had been dead for three years and the following year Mary Calveley died. The double portrait hung in a private hallway near the bedrooms at Vale Royal. The sisters’ immediate families would have individually recognized them, perhaps Mary’s brown eyes and shy demeanour and Lettice’s grey eyes and self-assured look. Perhaps their children were shown the painting to say hello to their mother and aunt. When Dame Mary died on August 16th 1625 she left the estate of Vale Royal and all her papers, books, plate, and family paintings to her third son, Thomas, baby brother (b 1595) to Mary and Lettice. Sometime over the next 315 years, when the living memory of the women and babies was gone, the knowledge of which sister was which was lost to future generations of the family.
The tradition of sisters sharing a double portrait, though still unusual at the time, continued in their family. An inventory of Sir Calveley’s (Mary’s husband) goods dated January 17 1620 survives and references a painting: “Mistress Marie Calveley and Mistress Elizabeth, their pictures, at 13/4” (the 13/4 is a valuation of 13 shillings and 4 pence). The fact that their portraits are valued together is taken to mean that it was a double portrait of Mary Calveley’s daughters Mary (b 1606) and Elizabeth (b 1609), who would have been 13 and 10 years old at most at the time of the valuation. If we could find this later portrait (if it still exists) we might be able to determine which baby is which in our painting by the eye colour. Sadly, Mary “Mistress Marie”, one of our assumed portrait babies, died only weeks after her grandma Dame Mary in 1625, she would have been 19 years old at most. The other suspected baby, Lettice’s son Richard, Sir Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Baronet lived a long life, dying in his 60s, on January 31 1665.
Dame Mary is a fascinating character. She filed a lawsuit over a property with one of her uncles which lasted 40 years. Following her husband’s death in 1601, she didn’t remarry, becoming the head of the family while her eldest son was still in his minority. On May 21 1604, King James I (who dubbed her the Bold Lady of Cheshire) provided her with a pardon referring to homicides, felonies, transgressions, and other offences including acts of rape, incest, buggery, and witchcraft committed before the death of Elizabeth I (March 24 1603).
The year after her daughter Mary’s death, in 1617 (around 2 years after taking possession of Vale Royal), she had King James I over for a visit, where she (boldly?) asked him to give her son a job at court. That year she was also remodelling her new house and recovering from a fall that broke her leg. Based on her correspondence and will, she was a loving mother and grandmother– and mother-in-law to her daughter’s husbands even after they remarried.
In my media research for this post, I discovered a portrait of Mary Calveley, Lady Sherard (d 1702) dated 1696, around 90 years after our painting was made. Obviously, the style of painting and the beauty standards were very different. Looking past that, though, Lady Sherad has wide, double-fold blue-grey eyes like Left Mother with a similar distinctive nose, angular nostrils and a flat, almost chiselled squared tip. The philtrum (between the nose and upper lip) is also distinctive, very sharply grooved with a pronounced cupid’s bow of the upper lip (which is echoed on her baby). Whereas the other sister has a more rounded nose tip, flatter philtrum and thinner upper lip. Of course, both women in our portrait have a wide high forehead and long slender fingers, which is shared with this more recent Calveley.
The link between these women is wild speculation on my part: I cannot find a genealogy or even a birthdate for Lady Sherard (and she died a few years after this painting in 1702). But IF our Left Mother and Lady Sherard are related as their features may indicate, a direct descendant perhaps, then I would bet you a nickel, eh-hem, 5 shillings, that Left Mother is Mary Calveley, the eldest child of Dame Mary and older of the sisters, the baby in her arms is Mistress Marie Calverley, and Lettice Grosvenor is the Right Mother with Richard, aged down a few years for the painting.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this painting and/or its subjects. Are there other historical paintings you’d like me to look into? Please leave a comment or send me a message. If you’d like to support my work please consider becoming a patron on Patreon.
Hopkins, John T. 1991. “‘Such a Twin Likeness There Was in the Pair’: Investigation into the Painting of the Cholmondeley Sisters.” Transactions of the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire v 141 pg 1
One response to “The Cholmondeley Sisters | Art History”
It looks like the artist just had a “stock image” they traced twice and swapped out the eyes, like a Mad Libs game or like the tattoo patterns in a book for you ahead of time at a tattoo parlor.