Walking into the National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff, people of all ages are drawn to this enigmatic portrait. Questions are whispered. Why does she look so pale? Why is her hand resting on the skull? Why the heavy chain around her waist and what is she holding in her hand?
Katheryn of Berain, painted, we believe, by Adriaen van Cronenburgh in 1568, is shown deep in thought. What might she be thinking about? Her very pale face stands out against the dark background. She does not smile; her expression is vacant. She has a high forehead, thin eyebrows and pale, ivory skin, all of which were considered signs of beauty. It is believed that women during the Tudor times plucked back their hairline in order to achieve a fashionably high forehead. Suntans were associated with peasants working in fields and so a pale complexion was achieved by using face powder. The wearing of make-up in England began around the beginning of Elizabeth's reign. Face powder was often made from white lead, which was poisonous and made its users ill.
Studying portraits is a good way for pupils to discover information about costume. Katheryn's dress of black velvet was the height of Netherlandish fashion; it has a barely visible damask pomegranate pattern. In England the tendency to wear more sombre colours was often seen during the closing years of the reign of Henry VIII. Her dress has a ruff collar. The ruff was a mark of aristocratic privilege; as the century progressed, ruffs grew larger and larger, until it was difficult to see how wearers could have moved at all. Katheryn of Berain is often called Mam Cymru, the mother of Wales, because she married four times and had many children and stepchildren. In her right hand she is holding what seems to be a locked book or a casket.
Thomas Pennant, an 18th-century traveller and writer, misinterpreted this as a casket containing the ashes of her second husband Sir Richard Clough, which would be absurd because he was still alive when the portrait was painted. It is in fact most probably a richly bound prayer book. Pennant's morbid interpretation was probably prompted by the presence of the skull on which her left hand rests. This was not unusual in a portrait of the period, being a common symbol of mortality (a memento mori). Historically, there is little evidence to suggest that people kept skulls lying around the home, but they did commonly wear rings and other items of jewellery engraved with skulls.
Katheryn was born into a very wealthy family in north Wales. When her parents died the whole of the family property in Anglesey was passed on to Katheryn so that she became wealthy at a young age. Katheryn's first husband was John Salisbury of Llewenni, Denbighshire. Their marriage lasted nine years and they had two sons. John Salisbury died in 1566. Thomas Pennant told a story, which has been often repeated and is referred to as the "wooer who came too late":
"The tradition goes that at the funeral of her beloved spouse she was led to church by Sir Richard Clough and from church by Morris Wynn of Gwydir who whispered to her his wish of being her second; she refused him with great civility, informing him that she had accepted the proposals of Sir Richard on her way to Church: but assured him (and was as good as her word) that in case she performed the same sad duty (which she was then about) to the knight, he might depend on his being her third..."
Whether this story was actually written about Katheryn is questionable since a version had appeared in a collection of jokes published before she was born. It probably became associated with Katheryn when she later married Morris Wynn of Gwydir.
This portrait was painted for her second husband, Sir Richard Clough, who was a wealthy merchant from Denbigh. During their marriage they lived mostly abroad in Antwerp, which is where the painting was probably painted in 1568. Katheryn may already have been pregnant with her daughter Anne, who was born the same year the portrait was painted.
Her third marriage was to Morris Wynn of Gwydir around 1573. Wynn had already buried two wives and Katheryn two husbands. Wynn died in 1580 and Katheryn was a widow for the third time. By then she was a mother to six children, two Salisburys, two Cloughs and two Wynns. Her fourth marriage was to Edward Thelwall, of Plas y Ward. She died in 1591 at the age of 56.
This portrait has certainly generated many lively responses from visitors of all ages to the gallery. One nine-year-old boy was adamant that the skull just had to be the skull of her husband. Whether you study this portrait during a gallery visit or from a reproduction it will engage your pupils as it has done since the work came into the collection 45 years ago.
The National Museum of Wales, A Companion Guide to the National Art Gallery, by M Evans and O Fairclough, 1993, pound;15 Postcards of the portrait, 35p each.
The guide and postcards can be ordered from the gallery shop Tel: 029 20573477
Image and information available on www.nmgw.ac.ukartcollectionshistoricpaintings
Education enquiries and school visits Tel: 029 20573240
Eleri Evans is education officer at the National Museums and Galleries of Wales
A study of this portrait can be integrated into many subjects within the national curriculum. Pupils of all ages looking at this work for the first time should be encouraged to look and question. What do they notice first? Describe the dress that Katheryn is wearing. Describe the mood of the painting.
When asking pupils for their opinions it is important to ask for their reasons. Guided through this process they will develop opinions and responses that go beyond the initial "yes I like it because it's nice". Their responses will be based on understanding and evidence from studying the work. A pupil's personal response can take many forms.
The work often provides the initial inspiration for creative writing with prompts such as "If I could speak what story would I have to tell?" and "Look in my locked casket. It's my diary. Write a page in my diary". The work can also provide the inspiration for the pupils' own artwork.
Key stage 3 pupils could consider ways of changing the mood of the work through looking at the pose and expression and considering elements of the visual language of colour, shape and pattern.
GCSE and A-level students often use the gallery's historical collection of paintings, objects and sculptures as the source of inspiration for their own practical work. Design work for contemporary jewellery, embroidery or fashion could be developed from a study of small areas of detail from the portrait.
The history curriculum in Wales states that pupils at KS2 should be taught about the Tudors or the Stuarts and to find out about the past from a range of historical sources. Looking at this Tudor portrait helps pupils to consider a way of life, costume and the art of the period. The Welsh subject of this work also creates opportunities for considering the requirements of the curriculum Cymreig.
Looking at this portrait alongside portraits from other historical periods could also contribute to the pupils' chronological awareness.