The Mare’s Nest: A History of Provenance
The Alsager Roteane

Please note this history is a work of fiction by the artist Rory Macbeth. See the Tate collection for information about the artwork.

Unknown artist, Britain, ‘The Cholmondeley Ladies’ c.1600–10
Unknown artist, Britain
The Cholmondeley Ladies c.1600–10

This double portrait has its provenance clearly written on it. They are two sisters, born the same day, married the same day and ‘brought to bed’ the same day. A strange painting celebrating a rare occurrence; or so the inscription would have us believe.

In fact the inscription is an eighteenth century addition, along with the pillows and bedding, which give the painting a cohesion as a double portrait, and a great story along with it. The reason for this is the oldest and most common reason for a false provenance- it makes it worth more money.

Originally this was a roteane, an apprentice’s practice painting, where work would be learned by copying or ‘by rote’. In this case the master has painted the figure on the left, and his apprentice has copied his technique on the right. So rather than being two ladies by one artist as the inscription suggests, it is in fact one lady copied twice by two artists, with additions by a third.

If we look more closely, there are important inconsistencies in the rendering of the two figures. The shadows on the dress of the left hand figure are painted adding siennas and ochres, giving it a warmth and depth. The right hand dress is much more rudimentary in its rendering, using only white and a blue/grey, (with clumsier shadows such as on the top of the sleeve, and around the baby). The face on the left has a real insight into character, and a softness and translucence to the skin, whereas the lady on the right is wooden with unconvincingly ruddy cheeks. It is clear that each has been painted by a different hand. The left-hand figure is of a consistently higher standard in complexity and sophistication. The right figure also uses better pigments. One anomaly that had always given credence to the inscription is the differing eye colours of ‘each’ lady. Analysis of the pigments show that the figure on the left’s eyes (the master’s version) are ultramarine, and that the figure on the right’s are smalt, a cheap ultramarine substitute that degrades to brown after only twenty years or so. (The portrait by John Bettes of a Man in a Black Cap suffered the same fate, when its vibrant blue background became the muddy umber we see today). So originally both versions had blue eyes, as did their babies.

The figures would have originally been against a flat plain background, as is consistent with Elizabethan portraits. The eighteenth century additions are, by comparison clumsy, and the brushstrokes on the blanket are especially out of keeping with the work. The phrase ‘brought to bed’ is specifically eighteenth and nineteenth century, and not at all Elizabethan. But as a result of these additions, the work was now a great double portrait of two great ladies. As a roteane, it was worth little, but as a double portrait with an even greater story behind it, it was valuable.

Stories of identical twins leading identical lives are an oddity that has been remarked on as far back as Hippocrates, and the case of the two ladies of the Cholmondeley family of Cheshire was well known. There is no known portrait of either of them, but someone clearly saw the potential of making this work into one. And while we don’t know the perpetrator of this deceit, it has been suggested that the inspiration may have come from another work known also to have come from Cheshire: The Portrait of the Saltonstall Family.

David Des Granges, ‘The Saltonstall Family’ c.1636–7
David Des Granges
The Saltonstall Family c.1636–7

This work features two similar looking women awkwardly placed next to each other, one in a bed, the other seated holding a child wrapped in almost identical birthing clothes. It seems these elements could have been borrowed to produce the strange work we are presented with here. The clumsiness of the composition has arisen by it being forced to fit its new provenance.

Ironically, it is its present provenance as perhaps the most accomplished roteane in any European collection, which has now made it a far more valuable piece today than it ever was as a double portrait.