Those who follow Courtney Barnes’s blog Style Court will know of her strong interest in textiles, and it will come as no surprise that she wanted to know more about the splendidly embroidered purse of office held by John, Lord Hervey, in the portrait shown in the previous post and above.
I am no textile historian, nor do I know much much about British court ceremonial (so anyone who does know about those subjects, please do comment), but I have found a few other depictions of such grand ‘handbags’.
They were originally made for ministers to carry important documents to and from the sovereign and to hold objects associated with offices of state such as the Great Seal. Over time they evolved into portable symbols of the prestige of high office.
Even today (as Andrew reminded me in a comment on the previous post) the Lord Chancellor still carries a purse of office during the State Opening of Parliament, containing the Speech from the Throne which he presents to the Queen for her to read out – an elaborate display of deference that also hints at the fact that it is the Government which largely determines the contents of the Speech.
Incidentally, the famous handbags of Mrs (now Lady) Thatcher seem to be a modern mirror image of the purse of state, working in similar but opposite ways. Starting out as unassuming, self-consciously traditional objects, they somehow took on a symbolic quality because of their association with the particular aura of a particular Prime Minister.
One curious detail about this small series of images of office holders with their purses is that Lord Hervey is the only one not wearing robes of state. I am not sure whether that is a sign of his self-confident personality or whether there were several possible degrees of formality in this type of potrait.