Conversing with aliens

Portrait of Elizabeth Murray by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1645. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Portrait of Elizabeth Murray by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1645. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Columnist Howard Jacobson recently made an interesting point about the relevance of history. He turned the argument upside down by stating (in a paraphrase of John F. Kennedy): ‘It’s not history’s job to be relevant to us; it’s our job to be relevant to history.’

I think there is much to be said for both sides in the relevance debate: we don’t want history to be so remote that we feel alienated from it, but equally we cannot automatically project the issues and preconceptions of the present day onto people and situations in the past.

Portrait of Elizabeth, Lady Tollemache, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1650. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Portrait of Elizabeth, Lady Tollemache, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1650. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

But I am inspired by the reasons Jacobson gives for being attracted when he was young to what he could easily have regarded as irrelevant to him in history and literature : ‘… we read … in order imaginatively to enjoy the company of others, in order to understand what those who were not ourselves were like, in order to feel the world expand around us, in order to go places we didn’t routinely go to in our neighbourhoods or in our heads, in order to meet the challenge of difference … Reading felt like a journey out of self, not into it.’

Portrait of the Duke and Duchess oif Lauderdale by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1672. ©National Trust Images/John Bethell

Portrait of the Duke and Duchess oif Lauderdale by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1672. ©National Trust Images/John Bethell

I think the figure of Elizabeth Murray (1626-98), chatelaine of Ham House, is a good illustration of the complexities of relevance. She was clever, cultured, beautiful and feisty. She had 11 children by her first husband and married the second following a scandalous extramarital affair. She lived through the roller-coaster of the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration (her father had been a courtier of Charles I).

After marrying her second husband she enjoyed great wealth and prestige, expanding and redecorating Ham House on a princely scale (including the astounding purchase of 152 gold and silver thread tassels in October 1573). At the end of her life she was reduced to near penury, but her need to pawn jewels, silver and paintings has provided us with a poignant and wonderfully detailed record of her taste.

Some of these aspects of Elizabeth Murray’s life we can undoubtedly relate to, while others are as alien as life on Mars. But it is one of the benefits of history that it occasionally allows us  to converse with aliens.

12 Responses to “Conversing with aliens”

  1. Anny Says:

    One of the reasons I love to stand and stare at portraits, is to see if I can ‘read’ the person on the canvas – although I realise that our ancestors lived their lives in a different context to our own, I doubt that at the emotional level we are very different beings – how often I have wished I could ask the sitter questions and hear their replies.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Absolutely, it is fascinating to try to ‘interrogate’ portraits. But of course the way faces and facial expressions and body language were depicted changed from period to period, and we might end up ‘liking’ a portrait for the ‘wrong’ reasons (but then of course we have to ask ourselves whether there can actually be a wrong reason for liking something!) 🙂

  3. deana Says:

    Most excellent thread to contemplate.

    How I used to love the worlds that history and literature constructed in my little noggin –– they pulled me out of small-town life completely.

    I have wondered a lot lately about the way young people are growing up with everything delivered in SURROUND SOUND/Hi-Def/3D/CGI glory. Where is the room for imagination? Where is the time and the room for your own creativity and personality to interpret when it’s all done for you? And on the historical front, how can you engage young minds when all they get these days are names and dates and no context, no story to titillate. Blah blah 1642 blah blah –– hopeless task to inspire that way.

    I’m with Anny on the reading of faces in portraits. I wonder what they were thinking and what was going on in their lives when they were captured… how much the artist had improved the sitter or disliked them and made snide visual comments –– no blahs in sight when you interact with art and history.

  4. MJH Design Arts Says:

    What an amazing life!! It seems as though it was well-lived…..11 children? And not one could bring their mother to his/her home.
    She was an elegant women, perhaps the arrogance was the barrier. Lely knew how to get to the heart of his sitters.

  5. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    How interesting that Lady Elizabeth is portrayed all three times wearing brown and blue. I wonder whether that’s coincidence or perhaps symbolic of something?

  6. Gésbi Says:

    And some people we live among may be even less approachable than certain aliens from the past. I notice a tendancy to hobnob with people of all sorts as long as they are in history books – or decoration blogs. I’m sure many of us feel quite chummy after reading a few articles. Life’s a dream!

  7. Andrew Says:

    The somewhat inadequate biography at Wikipedia is still interesting –,_Duchess_of_Lauderdale – daughter of an earl, inherited the title in her own right, friend of Oliver Cromwell but secret Royalist, rewarded for her loyalty by Charles II, and married the L in the original CABAL.

    Not sure about the blue and brown, but just to note that she was 19, 24, and 46 in these portraits. The third was done around the time of her second marriage. Eleven children from her first marriage but none from her second (hardly surprising, given her age).

    Here is another portrait of her at the V&A – – c.1680, in her fifties, brown and red this time.

    And the NT has one of her in green – – probably from the 1640s.

  8. Andrew Says:

    Oh, and a rather less accomplished portrait of her first with her husband and her sister – (somewhat peculiarly, the catalogue says it was painted about 70 years after both she and the attributed artist had died!)

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Deana, indeed, and that is one of the challenges the National Trust faces: how to make historical objects, and the past more generally, accessible and enjoyable and ‘readable’. One trump card I suppose is that historic houses and museums can show tangible historical objects, in all their physical, beautiful, quirky glory, which is a powerful counterbalance to the online experience.

    MJH, yes her life was a roller-coaster. Although she was in financial difficulties at the end of her life, she wasn’t entirely dispossessed either and she seems to have staid mostly at Ham, which was her own ancestral home.

    Mark yes Christopher Rowell mentions in the recently published book about Ham how her costume reflects contemporary fashion, and also how these three portraits show her as girl, young wife and powerful matron, respectively.

    Gésbi, yes and talking about historical figures (removed in time) in a blog (removed virtually, and communicating with others removed geographically)) makes us aware how most of our existence is in fact lived ‘at one remove’ 🙂

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, thanks very much for those links. The difference in the body language between the V&A portrait and the Ham double portrait is interesting: elegantly twirling a handkerchief in the latter, introspectively resting her head on her hand in the former.

    Well done for spotting that odd 1740 date of that group portrait as listed in our online database. The new book dates the picture to c. 1650. I will check with colleagues if we should change the database entry to c. 1650, which would seem to make sense.

  11. KDM Says:

    Brilliant post – so true. A the uncertainty and anxiety of debt is a historical constant we today can relate too – and has been a connecting thread in the lives of two biographies I am reading: Thomas Jefferson and Serge Diaghilev – men who would have found each other as alien as the one reading the story of their lives.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Sorry for the delay in responding, Keith. Yes debt seems to be something we have in common across societies and periods 🙂

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