A 17th-century portrait of a rich lady on her deathbed poignantly illustrates a time of high infant and maternal mortality, says Liz Mitchell.
John Souch. 1594-16445?
Son of a draper, Souch's name appears in the account books of the Painters, Glaziers, Embroiderers and Stationers Company of Chester in 1607 as apprentice to a local genealogist and herald. He remained with the company throughout his life. Only six signed portraits are known, of eminent families from the north-west of England. He may have died during the Royalist siege of Chester 16445.
"The griefs of death surround me; in the year of grief September 30, 1635, aged 35. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear not, I will be consoled." So speaks Sir Thomas Aston in this painting of his family gathered at the deathbed of his wife. The Latin inscription behind his reeling figure acts almost as a 17th-century speech bubble.
Magdalene, Lady Aston, died in childbirth on June 2, 1635. She had borne four children, only one of whom, a son called Thomas, outlived her. In the picture, he too is accompanied by an inscription, which poignantly reads "The little branch of his brother; the glory of his mother; the consolation of his father; aged 3 years, 9 months." In fact, he died two years after this picture was painted, in 1637.
The picture is an extraordinary and complex depiction of a private family tragedy, and a revealing illustration of 17th-century attitudes to death.
The widowed husband and his young son look directly out, the strength of their gaze at odds with the claustrophobic perspective of the room. Aston speaks of his grief through numerous inscriptions within the composition, at the same time apparently falling backwards into darkness, holding on to a skull beneath his left hand and a cross-staff in his right. His son too holds on to the cross-staff, connecting him with his father. An instrument of navigation and measurement, the cross-staff is inscribed with three biblical quotations and Aston's own declaration: "He telleth the number of the stars"; "He set a compass on the face of the deep"; "Thou hast set all the borders of the earth"; "My grief is immeasurable". Yet it also suggests the consolation of eternal life with its covert reference to the Cross and the resurrection of Christ. Just visible behind Aston and his son is a still-life group consisting of an Indian cloth embroidered with hunting scenes and lovers, a celestial globe depicting the heavens, and a broken two-necked lute: the earthly pleasures of sport, love, science and art are shown broken in death and grief.
It is probable that Aston himself, rather than the artist John Souch, was responsible for the complex symbolism of this picture. High Sheriff of Chester, and subsequently leader of the King's forces in Cheshire during the English Civil War, he was a well educated and important man. The death of his wife and child required a particular response. A marble wall monument in Aston Chapel bears a lengthy verse detailing Lady Aston's virtues in life, the public equivalent of this private essay on the nature of grief.
Aston chose a local artist. John Souch of Chester was a painter of genealogies and funeral hatchments (coats of arms). By far his most ambitious painting, the Aston picture is treated almost as a piece of heraldic art. A central coat of arms at the top shows the arms of Aston to the left and of Poulteney, Lady Aston's family, to the right. Below, the surviving Aston men are shown on the left, the dead woman and another female figure on the right, the two groups separated by the cradle of the dead infant, draped in black velvet. The pallid corpse of Lady Aston on her deathbed lies alongside the cradle of her dead baby. She is accompanied by a young woman, black clad, in a traditional mourning pose with one arm raised to her head. Who is this woman? She is not immediately identifiable as a family member and there is no inscription to give us a clue. It has been suggested that she is one of Lady Aston's sisters and a chief mourner: at heraldic funerals, the principal mourners had to be of the same sex and status as the deceased. However, it could be a depiction of Lady Aston in life, a young and beautiful wife in contrast to the lifeless figure on the bed. If this is true, then the composition portrays the living to the left and the dead to the right.
Religious teaching during the 17th century maintained that body and soul were separate entities. Death took command of the body but the soul enjoyed eternal life. Perhaps the woman represents the survival of the soul, the eternal life symbolised elsewhere in the picture - in the cross-staff and the laurel wreath surrounding the coat of arms. On the Aston side, the wreath is brown and withered, on the Poulteney side, green and living - explained by the inscriptions "My garland dries up" and "Virtue flourishes after death". Virtue is a recurrent theme in both monuments to Lady Aston.
However, like Sir Thomas Aston, the mystery female figure is dressed in black, wearing a mourning brooch, a single lock of hair suspended from a pearl. For whom is she mourning?
Aston himself cuts a handsome figure, splendidly dressed with extravagant shoe roses, breeches and mourning jewellery. Yet the picture dwells on real grief; it is not the dead who are pitied but the living. Both a memento mori (a reminder of the fragility and transience of life) and a demonstration of virtue, faith and the consolation of eternal life, it is a poignant and paradoxical image.
Life and death were closely related in the 17th century; in life we are in death, yet eternal life is found through death. The painting must have been carried out in a heightened emotional atmosphere, completed within four months of Lady Aston's death. Where would it have hung? How did Aston view it in the years that followed - on the death of his surviving son, or his subsequent remarriage two years later? It speaks eloquently across the centuries, of a universal human theme, and one which we still find difficult to articulate.
Liz Mitchell is online gallery curator at Manchester City Galleries
Art and design
Use graffito to explore the contrast of dark and light.
Fold a piece of paper in half and on the right side use pastels. Cover the entire page with black crayon.
Fold the paper over and, using a ballpoint pen, draw on the reverse side, picking out figures and key objects.
Open the paper to reveal negative and positive images.
Aston selected objects to represent his feelings and capture the story.
Pupils think about the objects they would select to represent a key stage in their own lives. How would they use them in an artwork?
Apparently this artist used life-drawing. If Lady Aston is dead, how did the artist capture her image? Do students think the other woman is Lady Aston?
Choose a character. In groups, discuss the character's look, dress and pose. Complete a character frame using headings: My name is..., I wear..., I live..., I feel...
Use the frames to produce letters, diary extracts or agony aunt articles.