“A Queen of a New Invention” – Q&A with J. Stephan Edwards

I’m so happy to be able to bring you this wonderful Q&A by regular commenter Foose with other regular commenter PhDHistorian about his new book A Queen of a New Invention: Portraits of Lady Jane Grey Dudley, England’s ‘Nine Days Queen’. My massive thanks go out to both of them for doing this so I can bring it to you all! Amazon US and UK ordering information for the book is at the bottom of this post and additional information on the book is available at the author’s website: Some Grey Matter.


1. What led you to the decision to buck the scholarly consensus that no verifiable contemporary portrait of Jane Grey survived – and to undertake your research?

Actually, at the outset of my research, the “scholarly consensus” held that the van de Passe Engraved Portrait, the first image discussed in my book, was a reliably authentic depiction of Jane Grey and was based upon some supposedly lost original. No less an authority than Sir Roy Strong, former Director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A Museum had given the engraving his stamp of approval some fifty years ago. Then the art dealer Philip Mould, of “Antiques Roadshow” and “Fake or Fortune” fame, paired in 2007 with the eminent Tudor historian David Starkey to declare that the Yale Miniature was a portrait from the life. With those two exceptions, there really was no other “consensus.” Jane Grey has largely been treated by academics as a footnote to Tudor history, so there was actually very little scholarly interest in identifying portraits of her. Even Susan James’s re-identification of the National Portrait Gallery’s painting (the Glendon Hall Portrait) was a product of James’s interest in Katherine Parr, not of any interest in Jane Grey. The iconography of Jane Grey was a very under-explored area, so I took on the task.

2. Why Jane Grey? Why not one of the other Tudors? How long has she been the focus of your historical interest?

I have been interested in Jane Grey since the late 1980s. Mary Luke published a “biography” of Jane Grey in 1986 that, though labeled by its publisher as factual history, was immediately and easily recognizable as nothing more than a historical novel. In the following year, Paramount Pictures released a movie about Jane Grey that was obviously full of historical inaccuracies and fabrications. I’ve always been easily irritated by Hollywood’s misrepresentations of historical narratives, so I decided to look into the “real” story of Jane Grey. And in order to do the project justice, I realized that I needed the formal training provided by a PhD program. So I returned to university as a mature student and earned a PhD in 2007 for my thesis on Jane Grey.

3. What sort of challenges and frustrations did you encounter as you pursued your theory?

The biggest single challenge, without a doubt, was gaining unrestricted access to the paintings themselves. For those held by a museum or preservation agency (e.g.; the National Trust), a limited degree of access was usually quite easy. I just visited the collection and viewed the objects in the same way that any member of the public might do, though I sometimes made the docents quite nervous when I got too close to the paintings! But few were willing to uninstall the painting to allow me unrestricted access to the entire object, front and back … and you’d be surprised how much information can be gleaned from the back of a painting! There were notable exceptions, of course, including the folks at Seaton Delaval Hall, home of the Hastings Portrait, who went to great lengths to facilitate my research, as did the curator at the Bodleian Library and the Earl of Normanton. But private owners in particular were sometimes exceedingly cagey about even acknowledging that they owned a particular painting, usually for security reasons. I pursued one owner for about two years before he finally relented and granted me access to his painting. And upon meeting him, I was better able to understand his reluctance. He was a stereotypically eccentric British aristocrat who had convinced himself that I should not see the picture until “the Divine” (as he referred to it) should give him some unmistakable sign to allow it. At our meeting, he spent over an hour regaling me with stories of his encounters with ghosts and his personal physical meeting with Jesus Christ.

Other paintings were very difficult to locate. I chased the Soule Portrait for several years, until a chance encounter through Ancestry.com finally led me to its current owner. And as Appendix Two of my book notes, there are a number of paintings that are mentioned in the historical record but that I have still been unable to locate. Others, such as the Klabin Portrait held in a collection in South America, were simply too remote geographically to visit.

4. What was most surprising to you as you conducted your research?

I think I was most surprised by the number of academic institutions that tended to accept without question the identifications attached to their paintings. Some of the most prestigious art institutions in the world were seemingly blind to the obvious incongruities between the supposed identification of the sitter as Lady Jane Grey and the actual depiction seen in the painting. But the reality is that most institutions lack the budgets and niche expertise to authenticate each and every one of the sometimes hundreds of paintings they hold. Most rely instead on outsiders like myself to eventually come along and do the work for them (and to do it for free).

5. Were you ever concerned that someone else might be on the same track? Were you ever discouraged?

No, I was never really concerned that anyone else was doing the same research on portraiture of Jane Grey and in the same way that I was. True, institutions like the National Portrait Gallery were conducting extensive research on single images, such as the Streatham Portrait, but none were approaching the topic in a broadly comprehensive and comparative manner. And all seemed to accept without question the work of their predecessors, including most critically that of Richard Davey and Sir Roy Strong. I chose to wipe the board clean and start from scratch, questioning in depth all evidence and conclusions from others.

6. When did you first realize that you might be able to find a surviving portrait of Jane Grey that preserved her actual physical features?

When I found the inventories of the possessions of Bess of Hardwick taken at Chatsworth House in about 1559 or 1560, and the inclusion in those inventories of mention of a portrait of Jane Grey, I realized that there was a slim possibility that a likeness might still exist which could be documented as authentic. I first saw that inventory in about 2005 or 2006. And very oddly, virtually no other historian working, even tangentially, on Jane Grey or sixteenth-century portraiture more generally seems ever to have been aware of the Chatsworth Inventory. Sir Roy Strong never mentioned it, for example, and neither have the current researchers at the NPG. It seems to have escaped notice for some reason, until Gillian White brought it to light when writing her PhD thesis on Bess of Hardwick’s possessions.

7. How did you feel when you identified the “true” portrait?

I would never make the claim that I have identified a “true” portrait of Jane Grey. Rather, I would say that I have confirmed that the Syon Portrait was intended by the artist who created it to depict Jane Grey, and that Sir Roy Strong was in error when he re-identified the sitter as Elizabeth Tudor. And while I do believe that the circumstances under which the Syon Portrait was created probably do give it the greatest likelihood of depicting Jane with some degree of accuracy, there is insufficient evidence available at this time to declare it categorically accurate. All I will claim for now is that it is perhaps the closest we shall ever come to a reliable authentic likeness, unless the Chatsworth or Lumley Portraits are somehow located.

8. The book is a staggering compendium of topics so diverse as the history of portrait painting, Tudor fashions in jewelry and furs, the art-collecting habits and vicissitudes of various aristocratic families, discussion of “Protestant” versus “Catholic” usages in records and letters, genetic inheritance patterns for physical features, the manners and morals of the 16th – and succeeding – centuries. This information adds weight and authority to your final conclusions. How did you develop your mastery of all this arcane knowledge or even know that these obscure details had to be considered in the development of your thesis?

“LOL” … I had not thought about it, but I suppose the book is rather full of “arcane” and “obscure” detail. But the devil is in the details, as the saying goes. And frankly, that is why I knew early on that I needed the training provided through PhD studies before I could properly undertake serious research on Jane Grey. I did spend almost ten years reading and studying all aspects of the history of the Tudor period. But I do also have deep personal interests in jewel history (I actually collect 19th century mourning jewelry), and in the manners and morals of any given era. The rest was simply gathered as I took classes and courses required for the PhD, or as I needed further background reading on some aspect of Jane’s life and times.

9. What do you hope will be the response of the academy and the scholarly community to your book?

It is my fervent hope that my book will spark sufficient interest in portraits of Jane Grey that others will keep an eye out for the many lost portraits, especially the Chatsworth and Lumley Portraits. And I hope, of course, that other scholars will confirm the validity of my conclusions and find my book useful. Lastly, I do hope that Jane’s name will be permanently removed from the many portraits erroneously labeled as her.

10. Some of the portraits presented as alleged images of Jane Grey seem clearly – and sometimes hilariously – way off the mark, even to an amateur’s eye, because of the style of dress or the age of the sitter, yet they have had professional historians, curators, and other experts backing up their claims. Why do you think this happens?

There is a huge misconception held by the general public, I think, that certain institutions are necessarily keenly interested in proving the authenticity of every object they hold or sell. It is true that institutions like the National Portrait Gallery do sometimes pursue extensive research on a limited portion of their collection (the current Making Art in Tudor Britain project, for example). But again, most institutions lack the budgets and niche expertise to authenticate each and every one of the sometimes hundreds or even thousands of paintings that they hold. Most rely instead on outsiders like myself to eventually come along and do the work for them (and to do it for free). And when no one comes along to assist, they instead leave old identifications unchallenged. The best that many will do when the label is patently wrong is simply to add the qualifiers ‘perhaps’ or ‘called’ to the identification.

Similarly, most members of the public probably view the major auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonham’s, etc.) as universally authoritative on the works that pass under their gavels. The reality is again one of budgets. Authenticating a painting can cost a very great deal of money. Highly specialized scientific tests may be required and can often run into the thousands of dollars. Consulting with multiple experts on a particular aspect of a painting or object in order to build a case for authenticity can likewise cost thousands of dollars in consultancy fees. And all that expense comes out of the sale proceeds. Most sellers and auction houses want to maximize their income and thus will pursue authentication studies only if there is a reliable indication that the authentication will be confirmed and will raise the sale price of the object by many orders of magnitude. For example, if an object has a pre-sale estimate of a few tens of thousands, and authentication would not add four or more zeros to the figure, then it is really not worth spending three or four thousand to authenticate it. But if the object was acquired by the selling owner at a low price and only later suspected to be of high value, the cost of analysis and authentication may be well worth the gamble.

The Fulbeck Portrait is a perfect example of this. Sotheby’s accepted the owner’s traditional identification in 2002 because they knew that the painting was in bad shape and would sell at a relatively low price (a few thousand pounds). It was apparently not worth even the most cursory of checks, which would have quickly revealed that the painting was a direct copy of a fully authenticated work depicting Anna of Hungary and Bohemia. Easy to do, but not financially worth Sotheby’s time and effort. And making the effort might have had the opposite effect and actually lowered the value. A ‘possible’ Jane Grey might have more appeal in a London sale room than would a definite portrait of a relatively obscure continental royal. Such pecuniary considerations, and such lack of effort and lack of attention to detail, is far more common among even the most prestigious of ‘experts’ than most people realize.

There is also one other factor involved. The majority of art historians are trained as experts on one particular artist (e.g.: Holbein) or group of artists (early-sixteenth-century Netherlandish artists). Thus many art historians are often well-qualified to provide authentication that a work is by a particular artist. In contrast, authenticating the sitter in a portrait usually requires expertise on that person. Very few art historians have significant expertise on individual non-artist sitters, whether they are Jane Grey, William Shakespeare, Anne Boleyn, or some other historical person.

11. Has anyone disagreed with your analysis, so far? Were any current owners of supposed Lady Jane Grey portraits dismayed by your conclusions?

Yes, a few owners and even a couple of art dealers have been less than happy with some of my conclusions. The folks at Philip Mould Ltd, for example, were quite peeved that I challenged their conclusions on both the Wrest Park Portrait and the Yale Miniature. And I have been given to understand that the unnamed owner of the Wrest Park Portrait is similarly unhappy.

Conversely, the Earl Spencer was sufficiently appreciative of my work on the Althorp Portrait to send me a very kind thank-you note. Nonetheless, he continues to consider the painting to be a ‘representation’ of Jane Grey, largely for sentimental reasons. It can be difficult to have one’s life-long beliefs about a family heirloom up-ended, after all.

And the owners of the Soule Portrait are not entirely happy with my re-identification of the sitter in that painting as Katherine Grey Seymour rather than Elizabeth Tudor. I think this is again based on sentimental reasons.

But these are exceptions, and all are motivated by either financial concerns or sentimentality. The vast majority of the owners, both institutional and private, were very receptive to my conclusions. The National Portrait Gallery has already amended the cataloguing of many of its engravings said to depict Jane Grey, and the National Trust has relabeled some of the paintings in its properties. English Heritage has even sought my opinion on other related works they hold, as well.

12. Your analysis confirms there seem to be quite a few portraits of Catherine Parr extant, but few of Henry VIII’s other queens. Do you think that there probably were an equivalent number of portraits made of these women? If yes, do you think these portraits were destroyed or painted over, and if the latter, could they still be out there?

This is a good question with a rather complex answer. Portraiture of living persons was still a relatively new art form in the first half of the sixteenth century. Between the end of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and the Renaissance of the fifteenth century, most realistic portraits of living persons were simply small inclusions within a larger scene-painting that had a religious subject. Realistic or ‘depictional’ secular portraits seem not have become ‘fashionable’ until the second half of the 1400s. So even at the time Henry VIII became king in 1509, the art form was still a relatively new one, especially in England. Indeed, Henry VIII famously relied on continental artists such as Hans Holbein rather than on domestic English ones because the English had not yet mastered the form and its techniques. Based on this one factor alone, we would expect there to have been fewer portraits of his earlier wives and more of his later ones, as portraiture became more popular over time.

But the length of time that each of his six wives was actually Queen is also a factor. Katherine of Aragon was queen consort for 24 years, and was very popular among the general population. Lots of time to produce multiple portraits, and lots of people interested in preserving those portraits. Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, was queen for only 3 years, and she died in scandal. Far less time to produce paintings, and far fewer people interested in preserving them (and possibly even an official campaign to expunge images of her). Jane Seymour was queen for barely more than a year. But had she lived after giving birth to Prince Edward, I suspect that Henry would have commissioned a great many portraits of her in recognition of her having given him his much-desired male heir. Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard were each married to Henry for such short spans of time that I would expect very few portraits of either to have been produced during their marriages. Katherine Parr, on the other hand, seems to have had a personal fondness for the increasingly popular fashion of having one’s portrait painted and to have commissioned a large number of them herself (it is important to note that portraits were, in the first half of the sixteenth century, more commonly commissioned by the husband or father, not the female sitter herself). So the relative numbers of portraits that survive today depicting each of his wives does not surprise me.

13. Your book and some other recent works make it clear that for contemporary Tudor people, the Grey line of succession was an active political option with real teeth behind it (in contrast to the general view in 20th-century histories that Catherine Grey’s support was negligible and she herself a pretty idiot with no political acumen). Were you always aware of it or did it only become increasingly clear as you did your research?

This is a perfect example of the differences between popular history and academic history. Many writers of popular history are interested first and foremost in the telling of a good story. And sometimes that story, for a wide variety of reasons, does not accurately reflect the narrative that an academic specialist might present. Yes, during my university studies, it was pretty clearly outlined in most scholarly texts that Katherine Grey’s claim to succeed Elizabeth had significant support. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the claim of her sister Jane. Even today, most academic historians have been so thoroughly indoctrinated with what I refer to as the Janeian mythology that it is very difficult for them to consider alternative views. To most academics today, the succession dispute of 1553 can be explained by one or both of just two motivations: Edward VI’s desire to preserve his religious reforms from his Roman Catholic sister Mary, and/or John Dudley’s nefarious desire to maintain personal control over the monarch. No other motivation has yet been seriously considered, though I plan to do so through my biography of Jane.

14. If you can speculate – do you think a Grey queen could have been successful against challenges from the Scots line or Philip II as Mary Tudor’s widower? (assuming Elizabeth had died, or been killed, or executed)

I am not a fan of counter-factual history, so this is a question I would rather leave unanswered.

15. The book is beautifully produced, in terms of the portrait reproduction, the flow and just the overall look and feel of the covers. Did you oversee the process so it would come out the way it did, or rely on your publisher’s team?

Thank you for that very kind compliment! Actually, the entire layout, structure, page design, and cover design were all entirely my own work. I took inspiration from a number of gallery exhibition catalogues to create my own book design. I had to teach myself how to use Adobe InDesign in order to create a fully print-ready digital file of the book, but I enjoyed the process. As the saying goes, if you want something done right, do it yourself!

16. What’s next for you? Are there other Tudor mysteries that you plan to explore?

I am still trying to re-write a manuscript on the life of Jane Grey and the succession dispute of 1553 that I hope will be published sooner rather than later. But after working on it off and on for so many years, it becomes quite tedious to keep doing the same thing over and over. Still, I do try to keep soldiering on!

I am also working on a translation of Michelangelo Florio’s Historia de la vita e de la morte de l’Illustrissima Signora Giovanna Graia. Despite the title, it is not really a biography of Jane Grey, but is instead a spirited treatise on the Calvinist doctrine of predestination with Jane deployed as an exemplar of an “elect of God.” I believe it will be of interest to those pursuing Reformation studies.

17. What about the Lumley portrait? Do you think it could ever be rediscovered or traced in some way?

Sadly, I rather doubt that it will ever be located. The Lumley Inventory has been very extensively studied, and numerous art historians have made very concerted efforts to locate as many paintings from that inventory as possible. But so many paintings have been lost over the centuries to neglect and decay, or been disfigured by over-aggressive cleaning that removed the Lumley cartellino, or been over-painted in botched attempts at restoration. I will be very surprised if the Lumley Portrait ever turns up.


Thanks again to Foose and PhDHistorian for this very informative Q&A! Feel free to leave comments with additional questions.

Ordering links at Amazon:

Amazon.com ordering

Amazon.co.uk ordering

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