Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 25, 2017
Erin Griffey On Display: Henrietta Maria and the Materials of Magnificence at the Stuart Court New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 384 pp.; 84 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780300214000)

The title of Erin Griffey’s meticulously researched book is well suited to its principal argument: that early modern sovereigns, especially powerful women such as Queen Henrietta Maria of England, projected their authority through the specific and calculated allure of their material luxuries. All aspects of dress, appurtenances, architecture, and furnishings (including paintings and other fine arts) contributed to an overall “magnificence” which did not burnish the image of the monarch so much as it constituted the very essence of how she was publicly known. Only through attentive study of this complicated material culture, Griffey argues, is it possible to interpret the messages communicated through courtly physical display. Following the “spatial turn” (21) that cultural history has recently taken, Griffey strives to position in space as well as time Henrietta Maria’s many belongings and visual representations, from gems to palaces, silk stockings to tapestries, popular prints to Anthony van Dyck portraits. Although she leaves to historians of theater Henrietta Maria’s deep involvement in Stuart drama and masques, Griffey considers the ways in which the queen performed through her objects and portraits, as well as through her role in “directing” architectural and artistic projects. Indeed, one of the book’s strongest arguments is the case Griffey makes for the queen’s active engagement in guiding, altering, and at times initiating projects that concerned her own self-presentation or those of her family members. Because payments for commissions would generally come by default from “the king” (during his lifetime, Charles I), and many documents regarding works are simply lost, Griffey is often forced to rely upon conjecture when advocating Henrietta Maria’s agency as a patron, but the specific arguments she makes are carefully—and, in my opinion, persuasively—substantiated.

Henrietta Maria, the youngest child of Henri IV and Marie de Médicis of France, passed an eventful life as both a Bourbon princess and Catholic queen of Protestant England; her flight to France during the English Civil War, her sudden transition to widowhood with the execution of Charles I in 1649, and her subsequent return to England as queen mother with the Restoration of her son Charles II in 1660 are well known to students of early modern history. Griffey uses Henrietta Maria’s numerous travels back and forth between France and England as a means of structuring her book, quite literally following the queen’s many journeys, most of which entailed large entourages of people and even more material goods. The queen’s Catholicism, which Griffey convincingly portrays as sincerely devout, plays a large role in the book’s narrative, and she shows in detail just how thoroughly this religious commitment permeated Henrietta Maria’s personal display. Along with her controversial involvement in the court masque, the queen’s visible assertion of her identity as a Catholic—and the strong influence this had upon factions of her court—proved disastrous for the reign of Charles I, but also demonstrate Henrietta Maria’s boldness and resourcefulness in pursuing her double role as “daughter of France” and English queen. Another stratagem of display that quite literally accompanied Henrietta Maria on her travels between the two countries were the portraits of her family members to which she appears to have attached even more significance than such representations usually had in early modern courts. For example, van Dyck’s well-known portrait of her three eldest children (Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; 1635) remained with the queen until the end of her life, having made with her the final voyage back to France in 1665.

One of the best features of Griffey’s book is her analytical summaries of various surviving inventories, including the tremendous gift of goods bestowed upon Henrietta Maria as a wedding trousseau by her brother, the young King Louis XIII, as well as a number of lists of the contents of her residences both in England and in France. Griffey even manages to reconstruct the important “Browne” inventory of 1665 through references she identifies in Henrietta Maria’s 1669 postmortem inventory. The book’s appendices provide transcripts of several inventories along with a helpful glossary of terms, but for those unskilled in imaginatively transforming these lists of objects into patterns of material display, Griffey interprets them for what they tell about the queen’s potential concerns, means, and goals. For example, readers learn that Henrietta Maria hung Robert van Voerst’s engraving after van Dyck’s double portrait of herself with Charles I in her dressing room at Whitehall Palace; since the original painting hung in the queen’s new cabinet room at her residence of Somerset House, it is likely that this image held particular importance to her. Another revealing result of Griffey’s inventory analysis lies in her ability to glean from the order in which works are listed how they were physically placed around a room, as when she assesses from an inventory of Charles II’s state bedchamber that the portrait of his mother was given a place of honor, on the hierarchical right.

Illuminating, too, are Griffey’s interpretations of the colors used for drapery both in the queen’s clothing and in her furnishings. Like her fellow monarchs, Henrietta Maria preferred crimson, the most expensive and “magnificent” hue, and the particular ways in which crimson made its appearance in her surroundings speak of her concerns regarding her status in the court at various times in her life. After she gave birth to the heir to the throne in 1630, for example, Henrietta Maria saw an influx of crimson furnishings and goods at her Somerset House residence, a direct manifestation of the greater importance she had achieved through this queenly accomplishment. Learning the colors of Henrietta Maria’s drapery at particular times and places even sheds new light on van Dyck’s color choices in his portraits. In the large group portrait of the king and queen with their two eldest children, known as “The Great Piece” (Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; 1631–32), Henrietta Maria, with the princess Mary in her arms, sits before a swath of gold drapery while wearing a brilliantly illuminated gold gown; since gold was the color used for the lying-in bed after the queen gave birth to this princess, Griffey infers that van Dyck used the color here to underscore the significance of the birth.

The body of the queen was itself something like a precious object, both for its generative and its visual capacities. Griffey thus brings to her interpretation of the queen’s display the spaces she inhabited in England and in France, and broaches the important question of how the monarch positioned herself within these spaces. For example, as an English queen Henrietta Maria employed the French practice of using a ceremonial, balustraded bedchamber for receiving visitors, a practice that Charles II would continue in the second half of the century. Griffey does not extensively examine the architectural designs of the queen’s many residences, nor their painted installations; Orazio Gentileschi’s ceiling depicting female personifications in the queen’s house at Greenwich, for instance, is barely mentioned. Although Griffey notes that architectural historians have dealt extensively with the royal building commissions of this period, we now might query more deeply the ways in which the queen’s strategies of material display interrelated on a physical level with the spatial dynamics of her built environment.

Other questions emerge from Griffey’s densely detailed study. For example, the fabrics used in interior design, so significant to the culture of display: how, exactly, were they hung and otherwise disposed within the rooms? What did it mean for doors to be hung with curtains (107)? What distinguished “tapestries” meant for hanging on the wall from those intended for a bed? What were “cloths of estate,” or “sparvers”? (78) Griffey convincingly argues that such details would have mattered to their users, and one wonders how the actual physical display of fabric at court corresponded to the role of fabric in royal portraiture. More intriguing yet is the significance of beauty itself, the particular obligation and tool of female royals: Griffey notes the historical equation of female beauty with virtue, and argues that for a queen righteous beauty would constitute their power. But given the enormous complexity of Henrietta Maria’s personal material spectacle, so well illuminated in this book, one wonders whether the queen’s “beauty” itself possessed a significance that was equally multifaceted. One should ask the same question about other female rulers during this era when women played an unprecedentedly visible role on the European royal stage.

Sarah R. Cohen
Departments of Art and Art History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, University at Albany, State University of New York