An Imaginary Portrait of Margaret Wotton (c.1490–after 1535), Marchioness of Dorset

Mother’s Day, as a day of celebrating maternal bonds, is a comparatively modern celebration. Its origins can be traced back to Mothering Sunday, which was originally a feast day celebrating the mother church rather than motherhood.

Oil painting on panel, Margaret Wootton, Marchioness of Dorset (1517-1535), British (English) School. 18th century. Three-quarter length portrait of a woman, turned slightly to the right, gazing to the right, holding a long cane and a small sprig of flowers in both her hands which she holds at her waist, wearing a black dress edged with ermine at the neckline and a black ermine-lined coat, revealing large expanse of ermine in her turned-back sleeves. She also wears a black gable hood with white reveals. Wife of Sir Thomas Grey Marquess of Dorset.Lengthy inscriptions.

This may have been good news for Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk, one of the sons of Margaret Wooton whose portrait hangs on the walls of Dunham Massey Hall. Throughout his life Henry managed to antagonise his mother in a variety of ways. Most notably he was fined a huge sum for breach of contract after he renounced his betrothal to the daughter of the Earl of Arundel. His mother attempted to restrict his allowance to the point of nearly ruining him, an act which her peers denounced as unmotherly and wicked. Shortly afterwards she was even compelled to answer charges that her treatment of her son meant she was an unnatural mother.

This painting is known as an imaginary portrait, in that it was created around two centuries after Margaret’s death. Although Margaret’s likeness strongly resembles those in contemporary portrayals, such as in the sketch by the noted court painter Hans Holbein the Younger, it differs in one important respect. As she gazes into the distance she appears emotionally distant, perhaps even cold-hearted. This may have been a deliberate attempt on the part of the artist to convey her in a regal, timeless manner rather than a discrete statement about her nature. The prominence of her lavish ermine trim and jewellery implies that she is a lady of means, but the artist offers very little else to the viewer and it is left to the inscription to fill in the gaps about her life. What is missing is that despite her apparent hostility towards Henry, Margaret suffered many tragedies throughout her life that no mother would wish to undergo, including seeing three of her sons beheaded for treason.

This painting can be seen at the National Trust owned Dunham Massey Hall, Altrincham, Cheshire WA14 4SJ which will be reopening this month.


Why you should see this:

This deceptively simple portrait of a lady masks a tragic tale of a mother driven to extremes of behaviour.





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