This is the first room of the Walk Through British Art. The earliest part of the collection dating from around the 1540s, through to 1650s, from the last years of the reign of Henry VIII, through the period of Elizabeth I and the Armada, through to Charles I and the Civil War period of the 1640s, so covering a long period of the early period of British art and a very eventful period of British painting.
This painting is a real favourite, and an icon of the Tate collection because it’s so unusual and so striking in its appearance. It’s an evocation of the dress that was thought to be worn by Irish foot soldiers, bare-legged so that they could go through the boggy lands of the Irish landscape. Captain Thomas Lee was a soldier active in Ireland. At this time, he was suspected of treachery and thought to be a traitor. This painting was probably produced to convey his loyalty to the Queen and to the Crown. He wanted to secure greater funds and soldiers for his campaign to colonise and subjugate Ireland for the Queen.
This striking painting is quite unusual for British art of this period in that it shows quite a lavish still life. Still life painting really becomes established in Britain in the late seventeenth century. The painting also reveals the artist’s interest in gardening and horticulture, the cultivation of plants. This was becoming increasingly fashionable in this period and Nathaniel Bacon took a great interest in this. We have a variety of grape on display here which was a new introduction from America and the melons that we can see prominently displayed near the cook-maid herself were grown on his own estates. The painting is also unusual in that the artist himself was of the gentry, the son of the leading Baronet of Britain, who doesn’t have to paint for professional reasons and he paints for his own pleasure.
At first glance, this painting seems to be a celebration of the birth of a child within a family. The mother in the bed, the midwife holding the baby. But on closer inspection we can see that the midwife is in fact a lady of high status and that the lady, or the woman, in the bed is pale and deathly. Closer inspection reveals that the woman in the bed is in fact the dead first wife of the chap standing here and that the woman holding the baby is, in fact, his second wife. This painting really encapsulates this early period of British art in that it focuses on portraiture, depicting people. It shows a family dynasty and status and this is what really dominates British art from the early period.