Mother's pride

30th January 1998 at 00:00
What can we tell by looking at a picture? Here is a family group from the 17th century. The painter is anonymous, but we know that the Tasburgh family lived in Suffolk. What clues does the painting hold to the lives of people in 1615?

Look at the little girl with her gloves on a string round her neck. This is a detail unknown elsewhere before the 20th century. Who put them there? Was it her mother, whose face glows with pride at the back of the group? Or a nursemaid? A family whose display of affluence is so conspicuous - look at the pearls on those impractical shoes, at the jewels at ear and throat - would not have been short of servants. Yet the gloves add a touch of timeless humanity to a conventional statement. The little girl is called Lettice, like her mother: was she her favourite?

The children with diagonal sashes are not, as you might suppose, girls in gowns. Before the First World War, boys did not assume male garb until the age of six or eight when they were "breeched". The sashes foreshadow the sword-belts to be worn by Charles and Cressy (his mother's maiden name) when they are older.

From the gloves we may guess it is winter, yet Lettice holds a bunch of cherries. These are an emblem of youth and mortality, added by the painter, just as the posy at the breast of her oldest sister, Penelope, represents not real flowers but the state of being eligible for marriage.

And there are more questions yet. Why is the father not in the picture? What was the occasion of its painting? Finding the answers takes us deep into the heart of English social history.

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