Handbags of state

Portrait of John, Lord Hervey, holding his purse of office as Lord Privy Seal, by Jean-Baptiste van Loo, 1741 (inv. no. 13016). ©NTPL/Angelo Hornak

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.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Egerton, 1st Viscount Brackley (1540-1617), as Lord Chancellor by Edward Wright (fl. 1730s – d. c.1773), 1615, at Dunham Massey (inv. no. 932327). © National Trust Collections

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They were originally made for ministers to carry important documents to and from the sovereign and to hold objects associated with offices of state such as the Great Seal.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.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Coventry, 1st Baron Coventry of Aylesborough (1578-1640), as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, after Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen (1593-1661), 1650, after an original of 1625, at Erddig (inv. no. 1151371). © National Trust Collections

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.

Portrait of Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke (1690-1764), as Lord Chancellor by the Reverend James Wills (fl. 1746– d. 1777), c. 1740, at Erddig, inv. no. 1151294. © National Trust Collections

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.

18 Responses to “Handbags of state”

  1. style court Says:

    My that was fast. Thank you, Emile.

    I love how you contrast the image of Lady Thatcher’s modern bags with the opulent pieces in the portraits. From a fashion perspective, the structure of (and maybe even the ornament found on) the latter make them resemble what we now think of as ‘boho’ bags.

    Also, this turned out to be timely — I hadn’t thought of the connection with the Queen and the State Opening of Parliament.

    The examples in the portraits you found are great. Thanks again for inspiring me to explore a new topic!


  2. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    These bring to mind those handsome red dispatch boxes, which I suppose are their natural successors. It’s interesting how red is so associated with power.

  3. elisabeth in CT Says:

    And so many feel that ‘manbags’ are a 21st century phenomenon!

  4. Margaret McAvoy Says:

    Dear Emile:
    What an interesting “niche” topic…I’m always taken with the detail of textiles, so a hearty “thank you” to Courtney for the wonderful suggestion (I’m reading NT’s “The Art of Dress” right now and highly recommend to her, if she hasn’t already read it)! And in the happy coincidence of blogs, I just read a post at Austenonly regarding the exhibition of the work of Johann Zoffany at the Royal Academy, only a short time after reading your “Tea with Molly” post! And since your blog seems to be not unlike a fun cocktail party (drinks anyone?) :), I have to ask if Mark is perhaps affiliated to a publishing house in Michigan? I worked there ages ago, and yet how funny to be typing a question of someone on a blog out of the UK? Goodness, this online world can be might small! Thanks again for the neat post!

    With kind regards:

    • Mark D. Ruffner Says:

      This is Mark, responding to Margaret’s question. I was indeed in publishing (and as a blogger, still am), but I never was affiliated with a publishing house in Michigan.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, thanks, I was lucky enough to find a few similar examples.

    Your mention of boho bags is yet another interesting comparison. Of course the bohemian connotations of those bags are at the opposite end of the scale semiotically to purses of state. But I wonder whether the earliest boho bags were perhaps based on Indian examples, and whether in India they may have had similarly grand, ‘dress to impress’ associations, as part of the costume of the higher castes? We need a thorough study on the origins and history of the boho bag 🙂

    Mark, yes indeed those handsome red dispatch boxes that UK Government ministers carry around are another consciously anachronistic, even heraldic aspect of British public life. I wonder when they were first made in that format?

    As today happens to be Budget Day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be holding up the ancient battered dispatch box that comes with his office in front of his official residence at no. 11 Downing Street, to signify that the budget is ‘in the bag’ – a nice bit of public theatre.

    Elisabeth, yes, the ultimate manbags, avant la tettre 🙂

    Margaret, great to hear you are enjoying Jane Ashelford’s The Art of Dress (http://bit.ly/GGlidQ). I need to try to see that Zoffany exhibition, I love the evocative costume and interior details in his paintings. And yes, I am trying to keep those virtual drinks flowing 🙂

  6. Andrew Says:

    The red budget box was (until last year, and with a few exceptions for Chancellors who preferred a new one – most notably Gordon Brown) the original one made for Gladstone in 1860. It was “retired” in 2011 as too fragile. No doubt there were earlier examples of cases for official government papers.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, how interesting, thanks for that. So today a new incarnation of that dispatch box will be used – a bit like the living ‘incarnation’ of Churchill’s cat that the National Trust keeps at Chartwell 🙂 And also a bit like that Japanese tradition of exactly rebuilding Shinto shrines every twenty years.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Susan Odell Walker of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale has just told me about a wonderfully evocative portrait of Sir Robert Walpole with his wife Lady Catherine that they have in their collection, showing Walpole’s purse of office as Chancellor of the Exchequer proudly propped up against busts of Kings George I and II: http://bit.ly/GCMlHU (click on ‘image 2’ for a closer view).

    It may just be my imagination, but I wonder whether the way Walpole’s purse half obscures the busts of the two kings he served somehow hints at the real balance of power between the first two Georges and their First Minister?

    Thanks very much Susan for alerting us to this splendid picture.

  9. Andrew Says:

    There are some interesting examples in the Government Art Collection –

    * Earl of Dartmouth as Lord Privy Seal by Kneller, c.1714 – http://www.gac.culture.gov.uk/work.aspx?obj=23134
    * Walpole as Prime Minister by van Loo, c.1740 – http://www.gac.culture.gov.uk/work.aspx?obj=29888
    * Viscount Simon as Lord Chancellor, 1945- http://www.gac.culture.gov.uk/work.aspx?obj=24496

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much Andrew – very interesting too to see that more recent example of Viscount Simon, and how he seems to slightly disappear behind his robes and whig and purse, whereas Walpole’s expansive personality clearly dominates the van Loo portrait.

  11. style court Says:

    Emile — definitely!

    This is why it’s so fascinating. A slightly slouchy 18th century bag or something more opulent embroidered with silver thread communicates an entirely different message in a new context, paired with jeans.

    I’m going to look for bags in old Mughal paintings — thanks for the thought.

    Margaret, yes, The Art of Dress is wonderful.

  12. Ana Says:

    I’d never would have known these things existed if it weren’t for this post 🙂 !

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Watch out, you may now not be able to get them out of your mind, like in Borges’s story ‘The Zahir’ 🙂

  14. May Berkouwer Says:

    Hello! It is very interesting to see so many images together. I am a Textile Conservator and have made a small study of such ‘bags’ when i conserved a particularly spledid one for Weston Park.
    I would call such an object a ‘Burse for the Great Seal’. Such a Burse would contain the Great Seal and be carried on a cushion (often also elaborate) at ceremonial occasion for the Lord Keeper of the time. The one at Weston Park was held by Sir Orlando Bridgeman as Lord Keeper from 1667-1672. Such an object was given by the King (in Orlando’s case Charles II) to the Lord Keeper who was allowed to keep this high value item once completing the term in office.
    They are usually made of fine red velvet with quality, raised gold and silver work embroidery. When I started to look into the subject, there were many to be found – both in images, and in collections.

  15. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    May, than you very much for these interesting comments. It is wonderful to imagine how the Great Seal would be placed in the burse which in turn would be placed on its own special cushion – it reminds me of the reverent handling, wrapping and presenting of Japanese tea ceremony utensils. There are several of these burses in National Trust collections too (including at Ickworth), I just could’nt find good images of them to show.

  16. Andrew Says:

    Interesting that you refer to the Japanese reverence for items used in the tea ceremony. I think the term “burse” come from the Latin root and later became “purse”. The same term is used for the bag used in Catholic liturgy to hold the corporal – the plain cloth in which the chalice and consecrated wafer are placed during the Mass.

  17. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, I didn’t know that, how fascinating. Indeed there seem to be a lot of similarities between the Catholic Mass and the Japanese tea ceremony: food and drink taking on symbolic or even mystical meanings, the sequence of ritualised movements, the covering and revealing of objects, the intermingling of aesthetics and religion (with the tea ceremony sometimes having a Zen undertone). And the tea ceremony has its own ‘priesthood’, of course, in the form of the hereditary schools of tea masters.

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