It’ll come as a bit of a shock if you don’t already know it but this portrait is only five centimeters in diameter. She’s a miniature or as the Tudors would have known it – a limming or limning. The image is one of the first minatures produced in England and was painted by Holbein. She’s been painted on vellum and stetched over a playing card (Denyer-Baker: introduction) which can clearly be seen if the mount, a later addition, is reversed. The miniature was designed to be worn a bit like a jewel.
Mrs Jane Small, as we now know her to be, isn’t a great courtier. She’s the wife of a merchant, Nicholas Small. Originally art historians thought that Jane was actually Mrs Robert Pemberton from Northamptonshire, which was problematic. Mrs Robert Pemberton was a Throckmorton so she would have had links to the court but certainly it seemed unlikely that Holbein who worked from London would have painted her. Mrs Jane Small on the other hand, lived just down the road from Holbein.
The black gown she is wearing is wool but because her husband is prosperous there is a faint possibility it may be silk. She’s wearing a linen smock with collar and cuffs decorated in black work – another reason I like the image. Katherine of Aragon made blackwork, or Spanishwork, popular in England. She embroidered Henry’s shirts even after he sought a divorce. Expert stitchers ensure that the work is the same on both sides of the fabric. Women like Bess of Hardwick employed embroiderers (usually men) for important pieces of work but in this portrait it is likely that Jane embroidered the blackwork pattern on her own collar and cuffs, as a bride she would seek, perhaps, to demonstrate her prowess as a housewife and capability with the needle was an essential skill. She would undoubtedly be wearing her best clothes for the occasion of the portrait.
There’s a flower pinned to her bodice – the iconography is important. Holbein’s subjects often hold a carnation whether they’re male or female and this is the indicator that they have become betrothed. So Jane hadn’t yet married Mr Small, certainly the coat of arms, of a later provenance, that accompanies the trinket is that of the Pembertons. Jane Pemberton was in her twenty-third year and married in 1540. She’s not important to Tudor dynasties, she hasn’t done anything particularly noteworthy but she is the face of an ordinary woman looking out at us from Holbein’s crisp blue background – she could be you and she could be me. She reflects changing and growing affluence within society. Ordinary people can now have their portrait painted to celebrate a special occasion – marriage.
But back to the iconography. She’s depicted with two ears of corn and holding what looks like a sprig of lavender – they must have meaning but your guess is as good as mine as to what message Holbein is conveying. The corn could be representative of fertility. She did go on to have several children. Equally, though perhaps unlikely, it could be a reference to her virgin status. Yates references Elizabeth I being compared to the goddess Ceres be depicting her holding corn – virginal but fruitful (Yates: 78) Culpepper writing in 1653 saw lavender as good for colds and a symbol of virginity. In folklore lavender was supposed to be loved by the Virgin Mary. The problem with foliage is that the meaning can shift depending upon the context.
Jane would marry again in 1567 after the death of Nicholas to another Nicholas called Nicholas Parkinson. She outlived him as well and seems to have reverted to the name Small.
Denyer-Baker, Pauline. Painting Miniatures
Yates, Francis A. (1999) Astraea – Yates London: Routledge