The catchily titled Lady was a Squirrel and a Starling was painted, experts believe, on Holbein’s first visit to England (1526-28). She is sometimes supposed to be Margaret Giggs, Sir Thomas More’s step-daughter on account of the fact that her unusual fur hat is very similar to a drawing of Margaret held at Windsor in the royal collection but evidently a pointy hat was a fashionable item – because who would want to be painted in clothes that weren’t their very finest?
Another, and more likely, suggestion made by the National Portrait Gallery is that the lady may be Anne Lovell nee Ashby. The rationale for this suggestion comes from the presence of the very perky pet squirrel in the portrait. Holbein portrayed monkeys and even a marmoset as well as falcons in his portraits. Not that there was anything new about being painted with your pet – think of Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of the girl with her pet ermine. The squirrel may indeed just be a pet in the picture for a bit of foreground interest. Apparently they were popular from medieval times onwards but this is a sixteenth century portrait and symbolism was important.
Alternatively, and more likely, the squirrel is an allusion to the Lovell family of Norfolk who had three squirrels on their coat of arms. If this is the case then it is also suggested the starling is a rebus for the East Harling Estate in Norfolk which Anne’s husband Francis inherited from his uncle Sir Thomas who had fought at Bosworth on the side of Henry Tudor. There is a squirrel lurking in the stained glass at East Harling.
Anne and Francis were only recently married when Holbein came to England. It is possible that the picture is one of a pair of husband and wife but that the husband has gone astray. So is the portrait a celebration of marriage? Of inheritance? Or something else? Once again history in it’s many guises offers some tantalising insights but leaves much of the story untold. We do know that Anne was dead by 1539 and that Francis remarried to a woman called Elizabeth but of Anne we know very little other than what she looked like.
According to Time Out this picture is number thirty-one on the hundred best paintings to see in London. It is certainly an opportunity to admire the way that Holbein creates texture not only in the textiles but also in the squirrel which looks as though it is about to leap off the oak board upon which it is painted.