Portraits can reveal more than you think: Chichester Probus Club talk

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When painting wives, the Old Masters were skilled at hiding much information about them in plain sight.

That was the message from Father Peter Bustin, attached to Boxgrove Priory, when he gave an illustrated talk to Chichester Probus Club at Crouchers on “The wife in art – not all is as it seems.”

Fr Peter, an Oxford theology graduate who also has a degree in fine art, used Holbein’s picture of Anne of Cleeves, first wife of Henry V111 , as one of his examples. The King commissioned a portrait to show her true likeness before he married her.

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Holbein portrayed her nearly photographically as almost non-sexual, but wearing a sumptuous green dress which denoted fertility, and with oranges in the background which were really exotic at the time and denoted great wealth.

Father Peter Bustin talks to Chichester Probus ClubFather Peter Bustin talks to Chichester Probus Club
Father Peter Bustin talks to Chichester Probus Club

Another portrait, Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough, showed that all was well with the couple. The right-hand half of the canvas depicted the wife wearing an elaborate dress and sitting on a carved bench under an oak tree with her husband behind her.

The gun dog at his feet, he carried a gun. He had to be wealthy to have a gun licence, and the church in the distance showed he had the power to hire and fire the incumbent. The fertile land pictured on the right hand side indicated inherited wealth.

In a portrait of Victoria and Albert, the Queen is shown much shorter than Albert when they were, in fact about the same size. He was standing on a stool for the painting at her request because she wished to show he was the senior partner in their marriage even though she was the Empress of the biggest empire the world had ever known.

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Fr Peter also cited more modern examples using photography; and showed wartime posters to encourage men to think that it was all right for women to take on roles that were traditionally theirs, and the start of the drive for equality for women.

The club is open to new members who have or have had a career in business or Government in their own right.

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