Preening and posing

Clare Backhouse on “Painted Pomp: Art and Fashion in the Age of Shakespeare”, the Holburne Museum, Bath, until 6 May

William Larkin, Portrait of Richard Sackville, Third Earl of Dorset, 1613

This one-room exhibition concentrates on nine full-length portraits that represent the pomp of elite English clothing in the early 17th century. Alongside these articles of Jacobean dress, information panels invite us to imagine the expense and labour involved in constructing such appearances in real life. Commissioned from the artist William Larkin (around 1580- 1619), the portraits are thought to celebrate a dynastic marriage between the Howard and Cecil families in 1614. Since the principal guests' wedding-clothes would have cost thousands of pounds (vastly more than Larkins' fee), it was an apt moment to record their wealth and power for posterity.

The canvases shimmer with mesmerising, meticulously observed luxury. Intricate lace extends over profusions of glittering embroidery and vibrant colour. Tiny stitched strawberries can be discovered among the mass of roses and violets that adorn Edward Sackville's breeches; even smaller, light-reflecting spangles (or "oes") can be detected amid swathes of silver-gilt lace; and then, more subtly, black embroidered lace is just discernible on the rich black silk of Elizabeth Howard's gown. Such visual details would have been hard to spot skied on the walls of Kenwood House, but here they can be enjoyed at very close quarters.

Seven of the nine paintings have been placed next to each other, encouraging comparison, as well as emphasising the sitters' family connections and the dynastic message. The remaining two portraits stand somewhat apart, but placed near an embroidered woman's jacket (or "waistcoat") that closely resembles those worn by both sitters. The three-dimensional gleam of gold braid that we see on the jacket can thus be appreciated beside its imitation in the thickly applied gold paint of Elizabeth Cary's portrait. Unlike the painted representations, of course, the jacket's display case allows us to walk around the actual garment and examine its colourful, minute stitches, its cut and construction.

Dress surviving from this period is rare and needs explaining. We are told how men's shirts, actually linen undergarments (two are displayed), were thought to cleanse the body as well as preserve one's finery from its dirt. Then follows a description of how the shirt collar on display would have been stiffened and supported so as to look as it does in the nearby portrait of Richard Sackville, Third Earl of Dorset. The découpé design of a leather-and-bone folding fan from the Royal Collection reveals a design aesthetic similar to the geometric cutwork lace shown in the display cases. At the end of the exhibition, a short video and two reconstructed suits of clothes demonstrate how undergarments and outer garments were layered and tied together to create the stiff, angular shapes so characteristic of those in the portraits.

Inevitably, a small exhibition will leave much unsaid. We could have learned more, for example, about textile artisans, or the artistic context of the period. More importantly, something might have been mentioned about the differences between what can be learned from visual art, which implies a perfection of appearance, and surviving garments, which reveal awkward shapes (like the elbows of the embroidered jacket) and decay over time. Larkin, like other contemporary portraitists, implies a direct correlation between precisely rendered finery and the social position of its wearer, but this convention was soon challenged by Van Dyck’s more approximate representations of dress in the 1620s and 30s. Other niggles include the drab effect of cream linen lace displayed on pale grey mounts, the number of unexplained terms for historical dress and the lack of concrete comparisons to convey the oft-repeated assertions of sartorial expense. Aside from these things, however, this small exhibition is a great delight. It successfully invites us to see and understand the "painted pomp" of its portraits in a variety of satisfying ways.

Clare Backhouse is a PhD, the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her thesis was on 17th-century prints and costume.

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 06:43:00 GMT

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