The magic of portraits - every picture tells a story.
By Vivienne Brereton
When I set out to write my historical series, ‘The House of the Red Duke’, set against the background of four European courts (Tudor, Stewart, Valois, and Habsburg) I decided to use all five (or six!) senses in my research. With that in mind, art galleries were firmly on my visual list, along with TV series, movies, historic houses, and magnificent gardens. Today, I’ve selected three characters that appear in my books: the Valois king: François I, and the famous Boleyn sisters (or Bullens as I call them): Mary and Anne. And a few of the paintings associated with them.
I think the first time I realized that portraits could be a way of connecting with the past for me was when I stood in front of one of François I of France in the Condé museum, located in the Château de Chantilly. Of course, in my research I’d looked at the portrait many times in books but this time it was completely different. The page in the book made the portrait seem flat, dull, and lifeless.
The reality was totally different, as if the personality of the sitter had somehow lingered in the oils used by the painter. Instead of a face that Desmond Seward, the historian, once described as (in a woman) ‘belle laide’, it was as if I was standing in front of a colour photograph or a video recording, leading me straight back to Jean Clouet and his illustrious sitter in 1515. When I looked at the same portrait in a book, I saw a strong, interesting face with a very long nose; close-up, the most remarkable thing was François’s incredible sense of humour, teasing me as if he knew I was looking at him. Right then and there, it changed my whole view of the King of France, called ‘the sun king of the sixteenth century’ by Seward. The laughter in his dancing brown eyes bubbled up from within and I left the gallery knowing I’d found my man. From there on, it was easy to incorporate him into my novel, using that humour always lurking near the surface.
While I was doing my research, this was a possible portrait of Mary Boleyn by Lucas Horenbout, entitled ‘Miniature of an unknown woman’. As with Mary’s sister, Anne, there were several portrait versions claiming to be a true likeness. At the time, I looked at all of them and decided this one best matched the Mary I was describing in my novel. But still not really how I imagined her. Too sad, too serious. The ‘unknown woman’ was twenty-five which corresponded with Mary’s age; in 1525, Mary had been married to William Carey for five years and, as mistress to Henry, possibly borne the King two children.
In my mind’s eye, Mary had a pretty sensual face, and a self-assurance that won her the admiration of two European kings: François I of France, and Henry Tudor of England. When I was writing, unlike Anne, who was very difficult to capture, Mary came racing across the pages with a zest for life and a sense of mischief and fun I imagined she possessed at the time. She didn’t leave her relationship with Henry rich and set up for life (even though her husband received favours). In fact, when William Carey died of the sweating sickness in June, 1528, and her sister was already high in the King’s affections, Mary became so impoverished that she took to begging at court for money. Instead of making a prestigious second marriage, approved of by Anne and Henry, in 1534, Mary caused a scandal by finding love with a soldier of lower birth and turning up at court obviously pregnant. Anne was outraged and perhaps more than a little jealous that Mary had found true happiness, and possessed easy fertility, when both continued to elude her. There is an irony that the eldest of the three Boleyn children, and to outward appearances, the least successful, she alone survived to middle age and died peacefully in her own bed.
So, imagine my excitement when in 2020, after the publication last year of ‘A Phoenix Rising’, Book One of ‘The House of the Red Duke’, a new version of Mary was unearthed. I haven’t yet had the chance to stand in front of this ‘newly discovered’ portrait of Mary, with her distinctive cupid’s bow mouth: a painting that had been hanging anonymously in Mary Queen of Scot’s bedchamber in Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. A team from the Jordaens Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project finally decided, after extensive research, that they had found their woman. If I compare the two portraits of Mary, there is no doubt in my mind which one I would choose. And which one fits the description of my own Mary.
Anne Boleyn has been my most elusive character to pin down and where
portraits are concerned, controversy still rages about what she actually looked like. The portrait most associated with her (in the National Portrait Gallery, London) depicts a thin, hard-faced woman with pointed features, surely not one who could capture the heart of a man like Henry Tudor for so long. After much deliberation and a careful study of all the ‘portrait candidates’, I feel the above one of Anne by John Hoskins, a 17th century miniaturist ( who claimed he copied it from an ancient original), appears to be the closest.
Hever Castle was Anne’s childhood home from the age of three and when I stood in her bedroom there, I felt very close to her. Standing in front of a different version of the same portrait (dated 1534), I became aware of a much more sensitive, dreamy woman than the ruthless, almost hysterical one we’re used to reading about. Yet, still one a woman who’d been clever enough to get the best out of a tricky situation.
Life at the Tudor court was notoriously fraught with danger, and although Anne was navigating its waters with a certain aplomb, without a male heir in the cradle, she was far from secure. The woman in front of me had a sadness about her, a disappointed air, knowing that with each humiliating new tryst Henry began, it was a rejection of the great love he’d once had for her. He was also showing her it was time to keep her end of the bargain and produce the son she’d promised him. In the end, despite her courage and intelligence, and fighting to the end to regain Henry’s affections, she remained powerless against the force of his anger.
To finish, I’d like to include a passage from ‘The House of the Red Duke’ featuring François. He suddenly appears in the kitchens at La Colombe, near Ardres, in Picardy, where nine-year-old Valentine de Fleury, and her younger sister, Charlotte, are looking at some books on a shelf….
‘Valentine had never bothered to learn the long titles of the two cookery volumes but knew that one had been written more than a hundred years ago.
‘Who wrote that one?’ asked Charlotte, pointing to the book on the left, her brown eyes big with curiosity.
Valentine wasn’t about to let her sister know she had no idea.
‘It was a rich Parisian,’ said a male voice from behind them.
The girls whirled around to come face to face with a youth of about sixteen or seventeen, not far off six feet tall, powerfully built, and dressed entirely in green satin. Although he wasn’t conventionally handsome, his pale oval face with lively hazel eyes (almost the same hue as his shoulder-length hair), his over-long nose, and shapely mouth, together with his fine clothes, made it obvious he’d stepped out of the French court.
‘He was an extremely old man,’ said the boy. ‘He knew a great deal about many topics and decided he was the best person to educate his fifteen-year-old bride. His book is at least three hundred pages long, and besides recipes, has advice for his poor young victim on everything from hawking, and looking after horses…to how to pray.’
‘Are you the King?’ asked Charlotte, to Valentine’s disgust.
She gave her sister a hard nudge. ‘Of course, he isn’t, you jolthead! The King’s very old. So old I don’t even know how old he is.’
The boy in front of them started to laugh. ‘I’m not sure the King would be pleased to hear that.’
‘You’ve got a very long nose,’ said Charlotte in a matter-of-fact voice, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to say to a complete stranger.
Valentine was mortified. <<What’s wrong with Charlotte today? It’s as if some evil sprite has taken control of her tongue>>
Luckily, the boy didn’t seem to mind. ‘Some call me “Foxnose”. Behind my back of course.’
Valentine decided she liked this newcomer with his clever face that reminded her of a satyr - but one always on the brink of laughter. Even so, he was an interloper in the Fleury family kitchens, and as the most important member of the family present, it was up to her to straighten matters out. She put her hands on her hips. ‘Who are you then?’
The boy gave a deep bow, whether to mock or flatter, she couldn’t be certain.
‘May I present myself. François d’Angoulême. Duc de Valois.’
Thomas Howard Charismatic head of one of the most powerful Houses in Tudor England. An indomitable old man approaching eighty: soldier, courtier, politician, a ‘phoenix’ rising from the ashes. After a calamitous period of disgrace, the Howards, renowned for their good looks and charm, are once more riding high at the court of Henry VIII.
Set against the backdrop of the extraordinary 1520 ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’, it is a tale of ambition, love, and intrigue, with Thomas at the centre of this intricate tapestry
Will Thomas’s bold vow be fulfilled? Danger stalks the corridors of the royal courts of Europe. Uneasy lies the head beneath a crown. Every other ruler - a fickle bedfellow…or sworn enemy.
The action takes place in England, Scotland, and France. On either side of the Narrow Sea, four young lives are interwoven, partly unaware of each other, and certainly oblivious to what Dame Fortune has in store for them.
“Nicolas de La Barre laid his lute to one side, hardly bothering to stifle a yawn of boredom. Nevertheless, he couldn’t escape the fact he’d agreed to take on a new wife….”
Explosive family secrets are concealed behind the ancient walls of castles in three lands. But…
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