Sir Nathaniel Bacon 1585–1627
Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit
Oil on canvas
1510 x 2467 mm
Purchased with assistance from the National Art Collections Fund 1995
... Roddam Hall, near Alnwick, by the early twentieth century; by descent to David Holderness-Roddam; by whom sold Christie’s 26 October 1973 (104, as by Adriaen van Utrecht); ...; sold Christie’s 9 July 1993 (9, as by Nicholaes van Heussen), bought Mr Ronald Lee by whom sold to Tate 1995.
Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630, Tate Gallery, London, October 1995 – January 1996 (148, repr. in col.); Nathaniel Bacon: Artist, Gentleman and Gardener, Tate Britain, London, November 2005 – April 2006.
Tate Report 1994–96, 1996, p.16, repr. in colour; Karen Hearn, ‘Acquisitions of Seventeenth-Century Painting at the Tate Gallery’, Apollo, December, 1996, p.22, repr. fig.3; Karen Hearn, ‘Rewriting History on the Walls’, Country Life, May 22 1997, p.55, repr. fig.6; Karen Hearn, ‘Sir Nathaniel Bacon I: Horticulturalist and Artist’, British Art Journal, vol.I, no.2, Spring 2000, pp.13–15; Barrie Juniper, ‘Sir Nathaniel Bacon II: The Vegetable World’, ibid., pp.16–18; Nathaniel Bacon: Artist, Gentleman and Gardener, Tate Britain, London, 2005, pp.10, 16–17, 22–9.
Sir Nathaniel Bacon, born at Redgrave in Suffolk in August 1585, was a kinsman of the natural philosopher and politician – and horticultural enthusiast – Sir Francis Bacon, and was the youngest of the nine sons of Sir Nicholas Bacon of Redgrave, the premier baronet of England. He himself was awarded the Order of the Bath in 1626, but was only to enjoy his title for a little over a year. Only a handful of paintings by him are currently known.
Nathaniel Bacon seems to have spent most of his life in Suffolk. He grew up at Redgrave Hall (now demolished) and, on his marriage in 1614, acquired nearby Culford Hall from his parents, four miles north of Bury St Edmunds, and Brome Hall through his wife.
In Britain at this period, where almost all painters were artisans – and were certainly viewed as such – Bacon was an exception. As a gentleman, Bacon did not need to paint for his living, but nevertheless it is clear that his art was of considerable personal significance to him. Carved on his funerary monument, which was already under construction in the months after his death on 1 July 1627,1 are two representations of a painter’s palettes. Bacon experimented with pigments and varnishes, and the painter and herald Edward Norgate (1581–1650) credited him with inventing a particular ‘Pinke’ (that is, yellow), of which the principal constituent was ‘a greene weed called in Latin Genestella tinctoria’.2 The earliest documentary reference to specific pictures by Bacon is in the inventory attached to his wife’s will, of 1659, ‘Ten great peeces in wainscoate of fish and fowle &c done by Sr: Nath: Bacon’ hanging ‘On the great Stayere [Stair] and in the Gallery’ at Culford.3 The Cookmaid with Still Life of Birds, still in the possession of the artist’s descendants, is traditionally thought to be one of these,4 as is the Cookmaid with Still Life of Game, acquired by the family in the 1950s.5 The Tate picture may be another from this set because although each of these three works is of a different width, all are about 59 to 60 inches in height.
The main source of such personal information about Bacon as survives is a group of letters still in the possession of his descendants.6 Jane, Lady Cornwallis, née Meautys, an attendant of James I’s queen Anne of Denmark and a considerable heiress, became the wife of Nathaniel Bacon on 1 May 1614, and correspondence to her survives from Bacon himself, and from Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford (1581–1627),7 who has been celebrated for her own gardens at Twickenham in Surrey and Moor Park, Hertfordshire, no traces of which now remain. For instance, from Moor Park Lady Bedford wrote in October 1618 requesting ‘som of the little white single rose rootes I saw at Brome, & to chalenge Mr Bacon’s promis for som flowers, if about you ther be any extraordinary ones; for I am now very busy furnishing my gardens’, and on 6 November she wrote to thank him ‘for furnishing me with such helpes for my garden’.8
These letters reveal Bacon’s second great interest – one that was becoming extremely fashionable in early seventeenth-century Court circles – horticulture. So great was his enthusiasm for and knowledge of this subject that it, too, is highlighted on his funerary monument, in this case in the Latin inscription, which may be translated thus: ‘Look Traveller, this is the monument of Nathaniel Bacon, a Knight of the Bath, whom, when experience and observation had made him most knowledgeable in the history of plants, astonishingly, Nature alone taught him through his experiments with the brush to conquer Nature by Art. You have seen enough. Farewell.’9
The fact that Bacon was growing melons – an exotic fruit given considerable prominence in the present picture – is made clear in a letter of June 1626 from Thomas Meautys, his wife’s cousin in London: ‘yf [Bacon] comes to town, I will shew him melons forwarder then his at Broome’.10
This interest was also known to subsequent commentators such as the engraver and antiquarian George Vertue (1684–1756), who said that Bacon ‘was in his time much esteem’d for his great skill and knowledge in Art. many of his workes remain being fruits flowers fowls. &c’; some of Bacon’s paintings were then still at Culford Hall.11 Vertue also mentions two mythological works by Bacon, one of which appears to have had significant horticultural elements; the whereabouts of both are now unknown.12
The Cornwallis letters indicate that Bacon travelled a good deal to the Low Countries,13 and to judge from his artistic style and technique, it is extremely likely that he received some form of training there. No other British artist of the period painted still lifes, and indeed the ‘cookmaid’ or ‘market scene’ subject originated in the Low Countries, where such artists as Pieter Aertsen (c.1533–c.1573) first combined a contemporary foreground kitchen scene with a depiction of an Old Testament scene in a room beyond.14 By the beginning of the seventeenth century, these scenes had started to focus on a rich array of produce attended by the figures of one or more servants. The Antwerp artist Frans Snijders (1579–1657) was a major exponent of the genre, and it is worth noting that Bacon was on his way to that city in 1613.
It has recently been suggested by Margaret Sullivan that Aertsen devised his cookmaid and market scenes to please an increasingly highly educated section of Netherlandish society, who were purchasing books written in Latin in ever-growing numbers.15 Classical satires sold well, in a range of affordable editions. Sullivan observes first, that Pliny the Elder legitimated low-life painting in his Natural History, and second, that in the writings of such satirists as Juvenal, Horace, Martial and Persius, fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, the kitchen and the market place were loaded with moral connotations. Indeed, Aertsen and his followers selected exactly the produce that was given a prominent and moralising role in ancient literature, such as the large and luxuriant cabbage. Pliny had used the giant cabbage known as the ‘Tritian’, for instance, as a metaphor for luxurious living, and Sullivan suggests that contemporary viewers would recognise the image as a reflection on the moral advantages of living moderately and avoiding excess. Simultaneously, the artist was displaying his skill as an illusionist in capturing a diverse range of objects and textures, and meeting the standards set by the painters of antiquity, such as Zeuxis. Classically read patrons would be aware of Pliny’s account of the grapes painted by Zeuxis, which were so convincingly depicted that birds flew down and attempted to peck at them, and it became a topos constantly repeated in the context of still life painting. So the artist who made, and the collector who displayed such works – which in the case of Bacon were one and the same – would be demonstrating a sophisticated response to the classical authors, knowledge of whose works was the mark of a gentleman. Rather than adopting a moralising purpose, however, Bacon’s interest seems to have been in making a visual record of the various items of his constructed still life – one in which the produce in reality would have ripened at differing times of year. It is an expression of the ‘experience and observation’ that ‘made hime the most knowledgeable in the history of plants’.16 It also evinces an extremely sensual response to the chosen subject matter.
In the present painting, the dish filled with grapes in the lower right-hand corner dates from between 1600 and 1620 and is Chinese. It is a type of porcelain made for export for Europe, known as kraak ware.17 Such porcelain was becoming available in London at the start of the seventeenth century. It was, for instance, on offer at Lord Salisbury’s New Exchange, in The Strand, which was opened by King James I on 11 April 1609. Indeed, on his death in 1612, the Earl himself owned at least 60 pieces of porcelain.18
The particular varieties that Bacon depicted in the Tate painting suggest that he may also have been pursuing his horticultural interests in the Low Countries too. Dr Barrie Juniper has made a close analysis of the produce depicted,19 some of which had originated in the post-Colombian New World, such as, on the right of the picture, marrows (Cucurbita pepo), squashes (Cucurbita mixta and C. maxima), and pumpkins (C. moschata), with what may be C. maxima cv. Turbaniformis – the ornamental ‘Turk’s Cap’ gourd – tucked in at the lower rim of the large basket. The curved cucurbits to the right, in the gardening trug, may be the forerunners of present-day ‘Summer Crookneck’. Also in this group may appear early versions of a cucumber (Cucumis sativus) and gherkin (Cucumis anguria); these latter are also Cucurbitaceae, but Old World selections. The other striking New World item may be the bunch of runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) in the double-handled basket in the centre foreground. These would appear to be mixed up with broad beans (Vicia faba) at the back, along with some peas (Pisum sativum) hanging over the rim at the front. The latter two are both from the Old World, but Bacon has here assembled an international collection of important Leguminosae.
Most of the rest of the cornucopia is Old World, but some are given greater prominence than others. The black grapes (Vitis vinifera) in the imported kraak dish would have had their origins in the Far East, but the light-coloured grapes might be a variety of Vitis labrusca, fairly recently brought in from North America. The vine leaves in the right foreground, with yellow and red segmentation, may indicate a virus infection.20 But Bacon obviously gives pride of place to two cultivars of ‘cantaloupe’ melons (Cucumis melo subsp.melo).
Another prestigious item is the bunch of white turnips (Brassica rapa) at the cookmaid’s right elbow. If Bacon actually grew them in Suffolk, he was almost certainly importing either the plants or the seeds from the Low Countries. Run-of-the-mill fruit and vegetables in the picture get less attention. There are brown skinned onions (Allium cepa) originally from the middle east. The foremost of these onions, with its hint of blue colouration, may possibly be infected with Botrytis mould which causes storage rots.21 Cherries, cherry-plums and mirabelles (‘myrobolan’ plums Prunus cerasifera) nestle on a cabbage leaf in the foreground. Quinces (Cydonia oblonga) rest on the corner of the table along with greengages, plums, black and white cultivars of figs and, in the basket, peaches, plums, pears and perhaps two varieties of apples (Malus x domestica) from central Asia. One of the pears has been attacked by a blackbird.
To the right, and in the background, can be seen immense cabbages (Brassica oleracea subsp. capitata) in green, white and blue forms. These may be identified as ‘kraut’ cabbages, giant farm selections and often preserved in brine or vinegar for the winter. The swollen veins of some of the cabbage leaves may also indicate a virus infection.22 Rows of these huge cabbages can be seen in the garden in the background, behind a rough vertical fence of planks.23 Nestling between the krauts, right centre, are globe artichokes (Cynara scolymus).
Also in the right-centre, but to the front, are four root vegetables. The thin light brown root is probably a skirret (Sium sisarum) also from central Asia. The other three roots at first sight look like parsnips (Pastinaca sativa), but are more probably yellow carrots (Daucus carota subsp. sativus).
Hanging on the wall behind the maid is a garland, principally of meadow flowers, but perhaps containing a few garden cultivars as well. Like the fruits and vegetables, these flowers must have been painted over at least a six-week period. But the later blooms are perhaps typical of the beginning of the hay harvest near the end of July. Reading from twelve o’clock clockwise, are stinking chamomile (Anthemis cotula), corn chamomile (Anthemis arvensis), lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis), field poppy (Papaver rhoeas), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) or wild chamomile (Matricaria restita), lady’s smock again, corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum), greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) an unidentified marigold (Calendula spp.) possibly a garden escape, field poppy again, chicory (Cichorium intybus), yellow ox-eye or tansy (Chrysanthemum vulgare or Tanacetum vulgare), field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) or hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium), charlock or wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis) and the garden marigold again.
Dr Juniper’s research reveals the considerable fidelity to nature that Bacon set out to achieve in this work, and helps to substantiate the horticultural claims made for Bacon both on his funerary monument and by contemporary and subsequent commentators.