'Liveliness' in English visual culture

Images in Tudor England were powerful, vivid communicators.

In Tudor England, people frequently described the objects and images that surrounded them as ‘lively’. Yet when we look at their paintings, they can seem stiff, artificial and lifeless. What did Tudor people mean when they said their objects were ‘lively’? My research seeks to re-enliven these once-‘lively’ objects, by uncovering how they were seen at the time.

I have discovered that the word ‘lively’ is tied up with one of the most powerful means of communication known to the Tudors: the ability to conjure a vivid mental image from a detailed verbal description. Techniques used by writers to create these mental images were also used by painters to make their images powerful. Such techniques come under the umbrella of the art of rhetoric – the art of eloquence and persuasion, which formed the basis for the Tudor education system.

My PhD seeks to recover historical responses to images, but also answers bigger questions about the act of artistic creation and its purposes. Art History is often about asking ‘what’ a picture represents. My research takes a different tack, asking not ‘what’, but ‘how’ images represent things. I explore the kinds of technique that make images effective communicators, then and now.


Image: British Painter, Walter Devereux, First Earl of Essex, 1572. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. 


Clocks and Watches in British Portraits c.1530-c.1630

What's the point of a painted clock?

At the University of Cambridge in 2014-2015, I explored the symbolism of clocks and watches in Tudor portraits for an MPhil research masters.

I discovered that clocks didn’t just remind viewers of the onslaught of time and the approach of death, but had a complex range of secret meanings which said a lot about the people who owned them. I revealed the clock’s hidden symbolism, which included personal qualities such as reliability, patience and self-control, but also religious ideas about the workings of the soul, expressing different ideas about faith and salvation.

Image: Cornelis Visscher the Elder, Jacques Wittewronghele, 1574. Rothamstead Research, Harpenden.