I used to think early 17thc portraits were rather dull and dreary, and in galleries would generally walk past them rather fast. They had neither the austere simplicity of many early Tudor portraits, nor the flamboyant excesses of Stuart ones. Of course I should have known better because when I began researching gardens of the period for my Ph.D I began to realise what I was missing. Take this picture of William Style of Langley which is on display in Tate Britain. At first sight its a portrait of a well-dressed and presumably wealthy man, standing at the entrance to his house and looking out over an elaborately structural “green” garden. And of course it can be read like that – but only superficially. Looking beyond the obvious reveals a lot more… especially the fact that pictures can be just as deceptive and complex as words.
All the details of the painting are taken from the image on the Google Arts & Culture website in association with the Tate
William Style was a wealthy and fashionably dressed London lawyer, and probably born sometime between 1599 and 1603. His elder half-brother, Sir Humphrey Style, was a gentleman of James I’s privy chamber, and later cup-bearer to Charles I, and their family owned Langley Park at Beckenham, then in Kent and now in the Borough of Bromley in Greater London. [The house was destroyed by fire in 1913 and the site now largely developed for housing.]
Like many young men of his class William went off to Oxford at 15 or 16 but left without taking a degree, instead going on to study law at the Inner Temple where he eventually completed his legal training in 1628. He went on to practice law, with, as he candidly put it himself, “very little profit either to others or myself.” In the process he wrote two collections of legal reports and decisions which continued to be reprinted into the early 18thc. Despite that he would have been totally forgotten, had it not been for the commissioning, in his mid-30s, of this portrait which now hangs on the walls of the Tate where it is seen, even if not closely inspected by thousands of people every day.
At first glance the portrait is fairly conventional, and the garden equally so. Small geometric beds with standard topiary, wooden rails and low hedging are backed by a green tunnel. Such tunnels were popular features at the time and can be seen in other contemporary images. However this is, I am sure, not a conventional portrait in any sense.
To understand it better and in particular to understand the significance of the garden you will have to bear with a bit of 17thc philosophy and theology, but I’ll try and keep it light. In the late 1630s William discovered a devotional work by a German theologian, Johann Michael Dilherr, written in Latin of course, whch had been published in 1634. It must have a had a very profound effect on him. That an English lawyer should have been reading a dense foreign religious tract in the first place might surprise us today, but that’s because we forget how intricately and intimately religion was wrapped up in every aspect of life in the 17thc.
The 1630s in particular were also a time of intense political ferment in England, with sides beginning to form up for what was to break out, within a few years, as the Civil War. What was so unusual about Dilherr’s writing is that, although a Protestant, he was not violently partisan and anti-Catholic. Instead he was more concerned with the underlying common principles of Christianity rather than its theological divisions, effectively making him an early promoter of church unity.
Dilherr is quite unusual stylistically too because he often employed images to support his written argument and he also wrote 9 emblem books – which are illustrated moral texts. Usually each page of an emblem book had a picture which acted as a visual symbol, a motto or proverb relating to it and a short verse or paragraph explaining it all to the reader. Many of these images had landscape or garden settings. They were a popular literary form in continental Europe in the 16th and 17thc and hundreds were published there, and while not quite so well-known in England there were quite few published here too. [To see some them follow this link to the English Emblem Book Project.]
So where’s all this theological stuff going? I suppose the nearest equivalent in contemporary terms would be to say that William Style was “born again” having read Dilherr, and he decided to translate the text into English.
His efforts were eventually published in 1640 as Contemplations, Sighes and Groanes of a Christian with a frontispiece that includes a formal garden complete with tunnel arbour. Does the image look familiar in any way?
Despite this I can still hear you muttering “So what”. I’d argue that to understand the portrait and its garden requires an understanding of the book, since it was probably painted while William was writing his translation.
Contemplations, Sighes and Groanes of a Christian is an elaborately worded, and to our minds, a
rather very dull exhortation to its readers to abandon the pomp and vanity of the world around them and begin to lead a more virtuous Christian life.
The link with the painting becomes clearer when you realise that Style uses the portrait as the equivalent of an emblem book. It is effectively a giant morality story, full of visual symbols, with accompanying mottos, although without any explanatory text. In some ways the painting can be seen as a kind of vanitas picture which used pictures of people’s luxury possessions mixed up with skulls or other images of death and decay to remind the viewer of their mortality.
Contemporary viewers would have understood much of the symbolism almost instinctively but I suspect this portrait wasn’t designed for wide public display, but rather for personal contemplation. So let’s analyse the picture and see what it was that William Style was going to contemplate.
His stance is the first thing. The painter shows the lawyer standing with his back to a collection of his possessions. These include a small violin, his books [notice they are turned round so the titles are not visible] , his fashionable outer clothes and his writing desk.
That he is symbolically turning away from them, and implicitly, all his other worldly possessions too is echoed by the motto under his coat of arms in the window above them. ‘Vix ea nostra voco’ which translates as (‘I scarcely call these things my own’).
Style is also pointing with his cane at a rather strange looking object on the floor. It is in fact a globe surrounded by a flaming heart, which was a symbol used at various times by religious sects of all persuasions, showing the power of divine love.
The motto, written on one of the floor tiles, associated with it is another Latin tag: ‘Microcosmus Microcosmi non impletur Megacosmo’ which translates as ‘the microcosm of the microcosm is not filled by the megacosm (or macrocosm)’ That translation [taking from the Tate website] probably needs translating too! The microcosm of the microcosm means the heart of man and the megacosm means the world, or to make it even simpler: the human heart will never be satisfied with physical possessions, however many and wonderful they are, but will only be satisfied with knowledge and acceptance of God.
But I still haven’t mentioned the garden! Is that just another pretty backdrop to all this theological symbolism? Far from it. The archway from the house to the garden can be seen as representing the entrance to the garden of the Church, which is another well-known metaphor in religious literature. The garden is neat and orderly, protective and protected. Those inside are safe, surrounded by secure boundaries and able to contemplate in peace the greatness of God reflected in nature.
Beyond those green tunnels, arbours and hedges is the wilderness. Wild untamed countryside was still regarded with suspicion and hostility in 17thc Britain: wild beasts roamed, outlaws and robbers lurked and it was inhospitable and unknown. Just like the world outside the church. Standing high on the hill in the distance is an overgrown ruined classical temple. This is not the romantic ruin of the 18thc landscape but one symbolic of the fate of the pagan world which Christianity has overcome and conquered.
So to conclude, just because the picture shows an imaginary garden rather than the reality of Style’s own home at Langley Place, doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as of no interest to the garden historian. In fact not only does it depict a believable and representative grand garden of the time and bear comparison with other contemporary images, but, knowing its emblematic nature enhances our understanding of how gardens, both real and imaginary, were understood and read.