Portraits, Painters, and Publics in Provincial England, 1540–1640. By Robert Tittler. Oxford University Press. 2012. 216pp. £60.00.

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This book makes a compelling case for the significance of vernacular portraiture to our understanding of the social and cultural history of early modern England. Its author calls it revisionist in that it ‘ought not merely to be taken as a desire to tell another side of a familiar story’, or to ‘fill in the gaps in well-worn narratives’ (p. 14); the argument presented here calls into question our current understanding of art and its consumers.

The first chapter outlines the conditions that created a market for portraits in the provinces: a social and economic mobility that was especially intensely felt amongst the middling ranks and above. Here portraits fit into a wider material repertoire of objects which could be deployed to negotiate one's place – ‘fashionable clothing, heraldic devices, country houses, wands of office, and extensive genealogies’ (p. 28) – recording the milestones of social advancement such as marriage and appointment to office.

Subsequent chapters investigate the size and composition of the portrait-purchasing public and the training, working practices and social standing of the painters whom they employed. A material analysis of their access to pigments, brushes and board or canvas, as well as their exposure to a different set of aesthetic traditions from those experienced by their metropolitan counterparts, follows. It leads into a chapter in which Tittler argues that a major influence on the distinctive style of these artists' works was their close relationship with the interests and techniques of heraldic painting.

Important themes thread their way through this book. First there is the way Tittler situates portrait painting, linking it not only to heraldry, but to training in cloth painting and staining, glass painting, wood carving, tomb masonry, metalwork, embroidery, and plaster and other house painting at various points in the chapters. Addressing a weakness in art-historical approaches he argues against ‘the enduring tendency … to privilege the painting and the painter over the ambient culture in which portraiture emerged’ (p. 5). Instead, he finds painters working in aristocratic households where they also surveyed the land and made maps, and in towns where they painted the more and less intricately decorated household interiors against which their portraits were so often viewed. These exciting connections resituate portraiture in relation to the social situations from which it emerged and within which it operated.

The book adopts a methodology influenced by Charles Phythian Adams's concept of ‘distinct regional societies’, a model which it extends to encompass patterns of material production and consumption, and an analysis of the market for goods which is sensitive to their purchasers' spheres of knowledge and influence. So Tittler finds regionally specific palettes determined by the nature of the raw materials from which earth-based pigments like ochres were made. But he also finds local circles of patrons and painters determined by their hinterlands (specifically in East Kent, Norwich, Gloucester and Chester), and considers the ways in which these might have built into a national ‘public’ for portraiture. In contrast to more ‘formal’ art whose influence was derived from international models and theories, regional variation was inevitable in vernacular works. And Tittler argues that this regional centring of style, distribution and interest upsets the ‘hubs-and-spokes model for relations between London and provincial England traditionally favoured by most economic and even some architectural historians’ (p. 52). This is one argument that cannot be made by putting London first; it must be focused on regional practice.

The other ‘poor cousin’ Tittler addresses is craft and its relationship with art. In the preface, he says that craft skill gained as the ‘hands-on experience of the workshop rather than from any formal mastery of academic principles’ should be seen as existing on a ‘broad continuum of skill, refinement, purpose, and imagination’ with what has subsequently come to be seen as ‘art’. In contrast to the bold assertions about the provinces, this aesthetic hierarchy is addressed more cautiously, but it is there on almost every page. The comparisons with heraldic practice are alive with ideas about different ways of representing identity, and Tittler characterizes the subjects of the paintings as aiming ‘for sober respectability and trustworthiness’ (p. 148). The solid, deliberately flat and non-illusionistic images they commissioned seem eminently fit for representing such characteristics, whereas the ‘inner emotion and workings of the mind, or the appearance of figures, objects, and landscapes as though they existed in naturalistic, three-dimensional space’ (p. 125) produced by elite painters look considerably less useful. Along with the vocabulary he develops for provincial portraiture – books, gloves, swords, hourglasses, clocks, skulls, scrolls and distinctive dress – Tittler makes an implicit case for a different kind of aesthetic, generated by the needs and talents of the buyers and sellers of provincial works, one much more intimately tied up with subject matter but not entirely subject to it, and with a distinct middling-status, provincial audience in view.

There are certainly places where the gentle and understated argument of this book could be pushed further, then. The traditional hierarchies encapsulated in the reference to Pevsner's distinction between the bicycle shed and Lincoln cathedral – one a building, the other architecture – have left a mark on the book, holding it back from bringing out the full implications of its reassessment of aesthetic value. And the influence of the ‘making publics’ project on the central chapters could have been pursued further to cover those consumers, beyond the actual purchaser, who engaged with portraiture. But overall the book is a richly rewarding read: the subject probably required a social historian because it needed someone able to see beyond aesthetic judgement to different kinds of value. And the subject deserves the historian it got – a scholar who habitually works at a level of local prominence; whose interest in people who would have been well known to their peers, but who remain largely hidden from us, has led him to pursue the lives of individuals whom historians and art historians alike have often seen as being ‘faceless’.

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