Illustrated companion

The painting shows Sir Richard Saltonstall of Chipping Warden, near Banbury, with his family It appears to represent the father bringing the elder children to his wife's bedside to congratulate her on the arrival of a new member of the family. The fact that she has just given birth would account for her very pale and ill looking appearance. However, the lady holding the baby is far too grandly dressed and prominent in the picture for her to be just a nurse or relative The probable answer to this puzzle is that she is Sir Richard's second wife Mary, holding their son Philip who was born in 1636. The lady in bed is probably Sir Richard's first wife Elizabeth who died in 1630, which would account even better for her death-like pallor and for the way in which the artist has put her in a white head-dress and gown, in a white bed, to create a positively ghostly appearance. The two children on the left are her son Richard and daughter Ann who were seven and three respectively when she died, so she and her children seem to have been depicted just as they were at that time, some seven years or so before the picture was painted. In those days, incidentally, boys were dressed in girls' clothing until the age of about nine when they were 'breeched'. The idea of including Sir Richard's first wife in the picture would have seemed quite normal at the time: many Elizabethan and Jacobean tombs in particular, depict together dead and living members of a family.

A number of psychological touches reinforce this warm picture of family life and family history. The first wife gestures towards her children; Sir Richard looks with tenderness at his present wife and new baby and draws back the curtain of the bed to reveal its occupant. The downward pointing glove makes a visual link that completes a chain of hands uniting the first Lady Saltonstall with her husband and children.

The richness of subject matter of this painting is reinforced by the strikingly decorative and bold colour scheme of red and pearly white, set off by the sombre elegance of Sir Richard's black and gold suit and tall black hat, in what was the latest fashion.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.17