Puzzles and Portraits

English Heritage

Unravelling the mysteries of the paintings in Bolsover's Little Castle  

The Riddles of Bolsover
Bolsover Castle was designed as a retreat for banqueting and pleasure. Boasting one of the finest views in Derbyshire, it is a beacon of magnificence. The keep or ‘Little Castle’ was decorated by William Cavendish, later Duke of Newcastle, in about 1620 as a place to entertain family and cultured guests with romance and splendour. The murals present intricate puzzles to flatter and amuse.  
Paintings of Praise and Inspiration
Seven rooms in the Little Castle at Bolsover are richly decorated with paintings on plaster, panel and canvas. They comprise a carefully planned cycle.The images are a curious mixture, inviting the viewer to discover clues to their meaning.

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.

Read information about the walk that took Ben Jonson to Bolsover from the University of Edinburgh.

There are clues in the pictures to suggest that William and his family appear both as real portraits, and in allegorical roles.

Even today it is a sociable and competitive game for us to wonder at the faces, spot the references, and contemplate the possible meanings.

Finding the Clues in the Anteroom
The painted scheme in the first room of the Little Castle may show us how to unpick the knot of references and ideas in all the paintings at Bolsover. 

Three of the pictures here are based on a series of prints showing the Temperaments or Humours, after Martin de Vos.

Curiously the fourth print has been excluded and replaced by a contrasting image of a platform with classical pillars and a temple in the sky.

The temple painting gives the first clues.

Light seems to come from the real windows in the room, and the arch could be an open doorway. If the space was filled with people it might remind us of grand Renaissance murals like Raphael’s Mass at Bolsena in the Vatican Palace, Rome.

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.

In Jacobean court masques the noble men and women who danced often performed on the floor in front of the stage.

Perhaps William and Elizabeth imagined stepping onto the imaginary stage of the painting, or emerging out of its fictional or historic world as fanciful characters.

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 phlegmatic temperament is relaxed and easy-going.

If William and Elizabeth had the power to enter the paintings, then the painted characters might refer to them. They could even be shape-shifters taking roles.

We can find links to them by spotting differences from the original prints.

In the painting, a rope has been added beside the fisherman’s boat. It falls in the shape of a knotted snake, one of the Cavendish emblems.

Also, one fish has become a knife, perhaps reminding us that William’s family profited from the local metalwork industry.

Choleric is the temperament associated with violence and anger.

In the painting the background has become peaceful wooded countryside, like that of the Midlands where William and his family owned land.

Also, the foot soldier has acquired a red sash that is similar to the sash that William wore as a Knight of the Bath.

The Melancholic temperament is associated with pining lovers, old age and greed.

The changes to this image are intriguing and complex. The globe on the right shows the alchemical symbol for lead, a metal associated with melancholy. On the left, there is a chest of gold. This may remind us that the Cavendishes made a fortune from lead mining.

Changing lead to gold is the ultimate alchemical miracle.

The face of the man is copied from a print depicting Albertus Magnus, one of the founding fathers of alchemical science. His title, Count Bolstaedt, suggests, ludicrously, that he was lord of Bolsover, and so could be William’s ancestor.

Albertus Magnus was also a Dominican priest, and the left half of the painting is set in a church with a wooden box pew.

He is shown holding a circle of jewels. His pose recalls Renaissance paintings that show St Dominic receiving the first rosary from the Virgin Mary.

Although she is bare-breasted, the lady’s pose, her blue outer robe, and her desk with books all recall images of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps with her golden girdle she is a mixture of the Virgin and the infinitely desirable Venus, the goddess of love.

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.

The face of the lady is similar to that of Elizabeth in the portraits that survive.

The Puzzles in the Hall and the Pillar Parlour
As the decoration continues we can search for more clues to the love and moral views of William and Elizabeth.

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.

You can learn more about the Palazzo Te on the Google Arts page.

The Pillar Parlour was an intimate dining chamber. Here smaller paintings are set into the wooden panelling.

They present the Five Senses, associated with temptations of the flesh, and with the spiritual journey from earth to heaven.

The paintings are derived from prints copied from Frans Floris.

Visus or Sight was considered the most refined sense, and one that could bring us close to God. Like all the senses, though, it might also encourage immorality, deceiving us or making us vain. Sensual pleasures can be good or bad.

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.

There is a clue to the lady’s identity on her chair. The back is decorated with a carving of a mythological griffin.

Griffins guarded gold, but they were also the emblem of the Elizabeth’s family, the Bassetts of Blore in Staffordshire.

Enacting the Virtues in the Star Chamber and Marble Closet
There are more clues on the first floor to the moral outlook of the Cavendishes and their friends.

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.

There is some resemblance between the face of the Biblical prophet Aaron and a contemporary portrait of Ben Jonson. Perhaps the poet was a constant presence in the room, appearing to observe and comment as he would in real life.

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.

These pictures may have been added for the royal visit of 1634. If the King and Queen stood in front of the doors to the balcony they would represent Peace and Concord just as William and Elizabeth represented Sanguine.

The little angels on the panels above would proclaim their virtue.

The Promise of Heavenly Pleasures in the Bedchamber Closets
In the final two painted schemes William could rise into either Christian heaven or Classical Elysium to enjoy an eternity of sensual delights.

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.

One of the angels carries a trumpet that could signify fame. He descends with a garland of red and white roses.

If William stood in the light by the window, he would complete the scheme, while Christ looked on.

Any visitor can receive the garland standing in that spot.

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.

More figures have been added to the outer ring and the cornices. They are positioned to create vertical lines of connection, so every figure on the cornices relates to figures directly above, ending with the young man at the centre.

The physical love of the gods resulted in the birth of boys.

The weeping philosopher and Pan’s companion on the ceiling appear to point at one another, suggesting that the figures are connected. It is possible that all three are mischievous portraits of Jonson.

A banner over the glazed doors displays the Biblical quotation ‘All is But vanite’. The word ‘vanity’ could mean a show or a masque, as well as vice or emptiness.

This may be the final clue that the cycle of paintings is a dramatic as well as artistic invention.

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.

Credits: Story

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

To find out more about the paintings and the literature associated with the castle

Visit Bolsover Castle

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.