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‘My Own Picture’

‘My Own Picture’

In contrast to the printed book illustrations seen in many earlier ‘Picture this…’ articles, this month’s image was never destined for public viewing but is a personal portrait produced for a specific purpose. The painting forms part of a seventeenth-century legacy donated to Canterbury Cathedral Library by John Bargrave (the painting’s central figure), who is best known in connection to the major part of his legacy, his cabinets of curiosities. The cabinets are valued as much for their survival intact as for their contents. This small painting is oil on copper, measuring just 13.5 cm wide and was specifically commissioned by Bargrave in Siena, Italy, in 1647, ‘To hang upon my cabinet’. Unlike the eclectic variety of objects within the cabinets, the painting has three simple elements: three similarly attired and modest figures, a map and a small coat of arms. This simplicity, however, belies a deeper interpretation whereby the painting captures not only a particular moment in time but the challenging situation in which Bargrave found himself in 1647.

Bargrave, born in 1610, grew up close to Canterbury, surrounded by an extensive family network across Kent. This network included his uncle, Canterbury Cathedral Dean, Isaac Bargrave, who along with many from the wider Bargrave family, supported King Charles I as England descended into civil war in the 1640s. Bargrave’s family connections and his own royalist convictions led to his ejection from a fellowship of Peterhouse, Cambridge in 1644 and, shortly after, he left for Europe. His subsequent European travels may have taken the form of an early ‘Grand Tour’ but his reasons for leaving England – and for spending much of the 1640s and 1650s abroad – were political and not for pleasure.

In 1676 Bargrave, by now a canon of Canterbury Cathedral, produced a manuscript catalogue of his collection and perhaps at this time wrote the short note affixed to the reverse of this painting which describes the piece as: ‘My own picture upon copper, in little and in seculo’. He uses the same description for a second small cabinet portrait, commissioned at Rome in 1650. A superficial reading of this description, focusing on the phrase ‘My own picture’, might suggest an egotistic similarity with the modern digital self-portrait or ‘selfie’, but the last two words, ‘in seculo’, possibly reveal Bargrave’s real feelings about the painting. The phrase self-consciously draws attention to the fact that, though an ordained clergyman since 1639, Bargrave is out in the world and represented in secular clothing; the image is an uncomfortable reminder of his experience as a royalist exile from England.

The similarity of the men’s attire provides a sense of the three as a group, the two figures on either side of Bargrave being fellow travellers: his nephew, John Raymond (probably the figure on the left), and a Kent neighbour, Alexander Chapman, to whom he acted as tutor and travel guide, a role adopted whilst in exile. As the men lingered in Siena on their outward journey to improve their language skills, Bargrave commissioned a local artist, Matteo Bolognini, to paint the portrait.

Bolognini’s soft, delicate style draws out the flowing curls of the men’s royalist hairstyles and Bargrave’s ‘Van Dyck’ beard is reminiscent of contemporary images of King Charles I. The three men wear loose black doublets over billowing white shirts which drift, in fashionable style, through the slits in the sleeves of the two younger men, and all have the soft, square collars of 1640s fashion, fastened at the neck with identical tasselled ties. At their wrists, the shirts show deep cuffs (double on the two young men) turned back over the sleeves of the doublet, indicative of a desire to display a certain level of wealth despite Bargrave’s exiled status. The leather baldrics (shoulder belts) are a reminder of the need for travellers to carry – and be prepared to use – a weapon for self-protection. The decorated metal buckle on Bargrave’s baldric implies an element of seniority and, though a clergyman escaping battle in England, his extant diaries show that he was not afraid to defend himself. Both the clothing and the presence of his companions are, therefore, reminders of the distressing reasons for his being in Europe at this time.

As a symbol of shared companionship during their travels through Europe, the three men jointly grasp and support the map, revealing it to the viewer as a map of Italy. The gaze and bowed heads of the two young men are directed downwards towards the map in studious fashion; Bargrave’s head is also bowed as he pedagogically points to Siena, highlighting the location where the painting was made. Bargrave’s eyes are visible, though his faraway gaze is somewhat wistful and undirected, not looking at the viewer, his companions, or the map, suggesting that his thoughts are elsewhere.

The map, probably one of Bargrave’s several ‘Large and lesser Mapps of Italy’ is simply represented but clearly shows Italy, Rome (their ultimate destination), and the major rivers of Europe. However, what is almost lost in the shadowy corner of the map is the English coast and Bargrave’s home county of Kent. Reinforcing the reason for Bargrave’s journey, this darkened area of the map is a significant and symbolic expression of the shadow of civil war spread across England.

Jauntily hung on a nail in the background of the image is Bargrave’s family coat of arms, obtained for the family by Bargrave’s father in 1611. The design, including an upright sword and three gold coins or ‘bezants’, is probably representative of his military service. In this period, a family coat of arms served something like a calling card while in Europe – other travellers, particularly ambassadors like Sir Philip Sidney and Bargrave’s relative, Sir Henry Wotton, are known to have travelled with ‘tablets’ bearing their arms for display at the places in which they stayed. On at least one occasion – by a French language master at Bourges – Bargrave was asked to make an entry in a ‘visitors book’ where he drew an elegant and complex image of his coat of arms, recording a duplicate of the entry in his diary. Beyond the shield’s practical use, it also represents a material and thought-provoking connection with home, a further echo of England and the family networks which Bargrave had had to leave behind him whilst in exile.

Fundamentally, although this image is a portrait – a physical representation – of Bargrave, it is intentionally very different in scale and purpose from grand portraits commissioned to adorn the walls of large country houses. Its size reflects its intended use and Bargrave’s approach to the inherent practicalities of travelling. It is notable that the vast majority of his carefully gathered curiosity collection consists of objects no bigger than a hand. However, this picture also encompasses the important themes of Bargrave’s life: home and family, his travels and collection, and his religious beliefs and occupation. The first two themes are conspicuously present in the painting in the person of his nephew, the coat of arms and the travel map. The third element – religion – is conspicuously absent, and yet it is this absence which Bargrave emphasized when he wrote his descriptive ‘in seculo’ note. The painting showcases Bargrave’s presence in Italy, draws attention to his role as a tutor, and deliberately portrays him in secular clothing; in this way, Bargrave’s ‘own picture’ is raised from a simple portrait to serve as a permanent poignant reminder of his many years living in Europe as a royalist exile.

Avril Leach: MEMS, University of Kent

Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further reading

Stephen Bann, Under the Sign: John Bargrave as Collector, Traveler, and Witness (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994)

Michael G. Brennan, ‘The Exile of Two Kentish Royalists during the English Civil War’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 120 (2000), 77-106

The Bargrave Collection website:

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