Unravelling the mysteries of the paintings in Bolsover's Little Castle
The murals are based on well-known prints and paintings. These were adapted to reference William and his family, and to create a poetic statement about love, virtue, transformation and truth.
Astonishingly, the schemes are multisensory and theatrical. Living people are needed to complete the imagery.
Decorative art in early modern Britain often featured elements copied from Dutch and Italian prints.
The artworks at Bolsover are novel, however, in combining the traditions of mural painting in the churches and palaces of Europe with theatrical set design and portraiture to dissolve the distinction between the real and painted worlds.
The artists who created the decoration have not been identified, but they may have come from the Netherlands, bringing a detailed knowledge of continental art.
William and his wife Elizabeth probably guided the invention. They were familiar with the leading fashions at the royal court, and William had travelled through France, Germany and Northern Italy in his youth.
William may have consulted Ben Jonson on the themes for the decoration, and its theatrical potential. Jonson was a friend and colleague of Shakespeare. He was famous for his court masques, comic plays, and poetry.
Jonson visited the Little Castle in 1618, just before William began to fit out the interiors.
Light, presumably from lamps, is also coming from behind the pillars and the painted arch. The platform, the pillars, and skyscape are reminiscent of apron stages, such as that of the Globe Theatre in London, as well as the theatrical sets of Inigo Jones. Perhaps this is a stage, lit for a performance.
The fourth Temperament, which the painter excluded, was Sanguine.
This was the most sociable and fun-loving humour. When William and Elizabeth were enjoying themselves at Bolsover they would be taking the role of these lovers, enacting the missing print.
Maybe everyone is sanguine when they enter the Little Castle?
The lady might be compared with the woman in choleric whose confident stance, rude vegetables and young daughter show that she is far from chaste. The two swans on the river may allude again to Venus.
The paintings hint at the physical and spiritual aspects of love, challenging the viewer to consider female virtue and fertility.
William's name is written in the melancholic lady’s book, implying that he is the object of her love.
Elizabeth and William were married shortly before the paintings were commissioned, and we might suspect that this is a portrait of Elizabeth as an alluring, though nonetheless pure and faithful, lover.
Moving into the Hall, paintings derived from prints by artist Antonio Tempesta show Hercules performing four of his labours. He and Vulcan flank the chimney piece.
The names of the four beasts and Vulcan spell out 'CVEND', short for Cavendish: Cretan bull, Vulcan, Erymanthian boar, Nemean Lion, Mare of Diomedes.
The surface of the pictures appears open, expanding the room. The tails and manes of the struggling animals swish out of the picture space while the vaulting of the real hall continues into the mythical ancient world.
Visitors might be reminded of the famous murals at the Palazzo Te in Mantua.
A chest with a rosary and gold chains echoes the lady’s body and the hem of her gown. The shape of the ewer or jug resembles her pose and headdress.
Perhaps these are metaphors for Elizabeth, golden with alluring virtue, and an heiress. The dress is like some of the semi-classical costumes worn at court masques.
The Star Chamber was a presence chamber where William hosted entertainments including drama, music, dancing and banquets.
This is probably where part of Ben Jonson’s show for King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria was performed in 1634, and where William and his daughters staged some of their own masques and plays.
The gentleman on the left may be a portrait of William, and he may appear again in the opposite corner of the room, dressed as Moses.
Performances here probably raised smiles by referencing the pictures.
Jonson’s show of 1634 opened with an ‘overseeing’ army officer, and soon after William wrote comic scenes about the Ten Commandments and David and Solomon.
The Marble Closet was an elegant space, next to the Star Chamber. A 'closet' was a small room used for studying in solitude, or for private socialising and conversation.
The three paintings depict the Allied Virtues, based on prints by Hendrick Goltzius.
The fourth pair in the set, Peace and Concord, has been left out.
In the Heaven Closet Jesus is bathed in sunlight, dancing to music from a heavenly orchestra. The lyrics of the dancing and drinking song carried by the angels feature Robin Hood.
The angels on the cornices are sorrowing, but the scene above is of riotous joy. Curiously, this is a place of bodily as well as spiritual delight.
In Jonson’s entertainment of 1634 Eros, the god of love, wore a garland of red and white roses.
Eros may have been an allegorical role for William. As the host, he was the ‘Love’ of Jonson's title 'Love’s Welcome at Bolsover'.
Perhaps, charmingly, Eros had descended from the painted world, bringing this garland with him.
The pose of Christ recalls several continental paintings. The raised arm suggests that Christ is ushering William into heaven, rewarding him for his virtue. It echoes Rubens’ 'The Great Last Judgement', which in turn references Michelangelo’s 'The Last Judgement' in the Sistine Chapel.
These sources would have impressed William’s friends and tested their education.
William’s bedchamber has a second closet, with doors to a balcony that overlooks the garden. The murals are similar to the Heaven Closet scheme, but the setting is Elysium, where the Classical gods enjoyed the sensual pleasures of the afterlife.
Hercules is relaxing here in the final chapter of his story.
Some of the painted figures are derived from a print of a ceiling at the Palace of Fontainebleau, by Primaticcio, that is now lost. They have been rearranged and altered to create another puzzle.
The youth at the centre of the ceiling may represent Apollo. The position of his arms echoes that of Jesus in the Heaven Closet, and he too may be signalling to William to rise in a glorious ascent.
The painted schemes in Bolsover's Little Castle appear to have offered advice to William and Elizabeth on how to live their lives as a young and wealthy married couple, and to have provided a delightful interactive game for future entertainments.
We may never know if we have guessed correctly and solved the puzzles, but perhaps the intention was always to keep us guessing.
Crosby Stevens, Rose Arkle
Bob Smith, Martin Butler, Paul Drury, James Fitzmaurice, Mark Girouard, Anna Groundwater, Karen Hearn, Maria Hayward, Paula Henderson, Angela Hobbs, Lisa Hopkins, Helen Hughes, Lynn Hulse, James Knowles, James Loxley, Timothy Mowl, Stephen Paine, Timothy Raylor, Julie Sanders, Roy Strong, Anthony Wells-Cole, Lucy Worsley