Levina Teerlinc – Tudor artist

PrincessElizabethMiniaturec1550attributedtoLevinaTeerlinc.jpgWhen we think of Elizabethan miniatures we tend to think of the wonderfully Hilliard portraits with their stunning  azure backgrounds.  However before Hilliard there was a professional female artist who created some equally evocative images.  The image at the start of this post shows a young Elizabeth Tudor and is the work of Levina Teerlinc.

Levina started work for Henry VIII and in the twenty-first century in an era when we are still talking about the “pay gap” it’s worth noting that such was her repute as an artist was such that her pay was more than that of Holbein who had recently died and vacated the position of court artist.  Levina was born in Flanders, the eldest of five daughters to Simon Benninck, a renowned illustrator of manuscripts.   Simon must have seen talent in his daughter just as Holbein’s father saw talent in him because Levina trained to be an artist under her father’s tuition in their home town of Bruges.

In 1545 she is seen in the official record with her husband dealing with  her father’s accounts suggesting that Simon may have died at this time.  This in its turn might suggest why the daughter rather than the father arrived in London.  In any event, even if Simon was still alive he may not have been of a mind or in sufficient health to make the journey.

In November 1546 Levina and her husband, George Teerlinc, arrived in London where Levina was paid forty pounds year to be Henry VIII’s court artist.  Levina’s salary would go up every year and she would work for every one of the Tudors from Henry VIII onwards. She received £150 after the death of Mary Tudor suggesting that although she was much loved by the queen that her salary hadn’t always been paid.  The only problem for art historians is that she did not sign her work.


Teerlinc in her turn was followed by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac  Oliver.  Hilliard thought that creating miniatures was the work of a gentleman rather than a woman not that it seems to have stopped some of the leading women of the period for sitting for Levina. Indeed, it may be that as a woman in Mary and then Elizabeth Tudor’s household that women were more able to sit for their portraits.  It was Levina who painted the miniature of Lady Katherine Grey and her son (above).  It should be noticed that she is wearing a ribbon round her neck from which a glimpse of another miniature can be seen – of her husband Edward Seymour.  It should also be noted, I think, that this image is the first well-known secular image of a mother and child in the brave new Protestant world of Tudor England.

mary dudley.jpgThis image of Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney is painted in water-colour in vellum but rather than being mounted on ivory or precious metal the image is stiffened by playing cards.

The miniatures themselves are a bit different from Holbein’s portraits.  They were designed to be given as gifts that could be worn, often tucked out of sight.  Several of Levina’s appear to have been commissioned as New year gifts.  They are painted on vellum in the style of a manuscript artist.  In addition to being exchanged by lovers and friends Teerlinc’s works formed the basis for other jewellery as well as for the Great Seal.  She may have even written a text on how to make a limning as these miniatures were known and trained Hilliard who gained prominence in the 1570s.

She did not only paint miniatures in 1556 her New year’s gift to Queen Mary was a picture of the Trinity and in 1561 she gave Queen Elizabeth a “finely painted” box.  It is possible that the majority of her work was destroyed in the Whitehall fire.  There is also the possibility that since she did not sign her works some of the earlier ones have been ascribed to Holbein whilst the later ones may now be viewed as the work of Hilliard.

Levina died on 26 June 1576 when she was about sixty-six. I love the fact that her father as an illuminator of manuscripts was working in an artistic tradition that went back to the seventh century and that in training Levina, her miniatures which became so popular during the Tudor period, are a clearly route-marked bridge between traditions and art forms.  I also love the fact that she was paid more than Holbein.  It seems a shame though that although we have heard of Hans Holbein and Nicholas Hilliard that Levina is not so well remembered in popular memory.

James, Susan E. (2009)  The Feminine Dynamic in English Art 1485-1603, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Bergmans, Simone. “The Miniatures of Levina Teerling.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 64, no. 374, 1934, pp. 232–236. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/865738.


Is this Levina Teerlinc?


Mrs Jane Small and Hans Holbein

Holbein,_Hans_(II)_-_Mrs_Jane_Small,_formerly_Mrs_Pemberton_-_Google_Art_ProjectIt’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