Saturday, 31 May 2008

Pearls, currency of monarchy

For nearly a thousand years the entangled relationships with the Dutch ran like a seam through royal society and eventually was consummated when William 111 sailed to Torbay and seized the crown from the outmanoeuvred James 11.

The political marriage was embellished and enobled with the pearl as portraits of would-be brides where traded between families. Potential grooms could be flatted by rows of pearls in portraits.

There was a certain irony to this trade as far as the oyster was concerned. Where for the ordinary people the trade was in oysters as food, for nobility it was the pearls that travelled back and forth across the waters. One exception was the king’s sister. Despite a ban on all exports of oysters, a Dutchman Jaon Janson Steil was licensed to export oysters from Colchester to the Prince of Orange and his household, James 1’s daughter and Charles 1’s sister, the Queen of Bohemia. Judging from her portraits she glamorously showed off her royalty and appreciation, her russets were encircled with more pearls.

Charles 1’s wife, the curly haired and voluptuous Henrietta Maria of France - pictured - sailed extravagantly with her entourage to Holland, she took with her jewels and pearls to raise money for his army.

When William of Orange arrived in England in 1641 to meet his almost infant wife to be Mary he brought with him £23,000 in jewels and pearls in particular as a gift to the court.

Poor Mary. In official portraits she wore huge translucent pearls strung as necklaces around her neck and her bosom for her official portrait. But when she died (of the measles or smallpox or the bleeding that was supposed to be a cure for either or both) in 1694, Lady Stanhope took all her jewellery, linen and plate from her bedchamber while the Duchess of York was seen the next week wearing the same glorious pearls.

Strangely that same portrait illustrates another unusual closeness between England and Holland. It was by Pieter van der Faes, a Dutch portraitist who came to England and was patronised by both Charles 1 and Oliver Cromwell and then became court painter to Charles 11 and was knighted as Sir Peter Lely. His was a conventional historic portraitist role, but he was in another sense a part of the great Dutch masters of the time who illustrated much more vividly the way people lived at the time.