Completed Dress and Textiles, North West England: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 16th and 17th C 33 Further information on this couple by Souch is sought, in particular their dress

Topic: Subject or sitter

Does anyone have any further information on the couple and their dress?

Jade Audrey King, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. There were many helpful contributions on the couple’s dress and the inscriptions, as well as on marriage portraits of the time. It was discovered that this painting was sold at Sotheby’s, New York on 14 July 1981, lot 128, as English School, Early 17th C, ‘Portrait of a Lady and Gentleman’, and that heavy overpainting accounts for the differences in the faces between the sale catalogue images and Art UK.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing it for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

Is this a wedding portrait? What is the symbolism of the tulip and the book?

Matching up details of the cut, fabric and collars etc for both the man and the woman, to dated portraits and surviving garments, I would suggest that this portrait dates from about 1637-40- see attachments:

1: Catherine Luca, Lady Pye, Henry Giles, 1639, NT Bradenham Manor
2: Doublet Place of origin- England, Britain (made) Date- 1635-1640
Glazed linen, embroidered with linen thread Museum number- 177-1900
3: V and A DOUBLET AND BREECHES c 1635 NO 3478 19052

Al Brown,

Isn't this rather a strange example of a marriage portrait, if it is one?

The man is generally on left (the proper right as in a marriage service) - see the link below for Hals's pair of portraits which also show the woman presenting a flower - and, further, she appears to be taking HIS hand.

Provided this is before 1637, when the tulipmania crash happened, the flower here could be a sign of wealth? That would suggest a Dutch connection though; am not sure whether the flower had any particular significance in England at this date.

Also, there are a couple of portraits by Honthorst showing women with similarly, geometric collars. And am sure I have seen others.

Dave Evans,

The ribbon like inscription is not legible on the image posted but there is another to the left of the male figure's head which appears to say 'AETATIS 37' (although this too is not particularly clear). There doesn't appear to be a corresponding inscription for the woman.

I'm also doubtful as to whether it's a marriage portrait, might it be a brother and sister that are depicted, perhaps even twins?

Bendor Grosvenor,

We need a close up of the inscription, and any provenance and previous identification please. thanks.

Andrea Kollmann,

The jpg provided on the welcome page of Art Detective has a better resolution than the one provided here. The right inscription seems to read: AETA(tis) SVAE 37 (the “tis” in upper case letters).
The left inscription is still difficult to read but could mean Mors 1561 Fragrat (and then something unreadable). Together with the flower, fragat (to emit a smell, esp. a sweet smell) could be a further clue.
The Wikipedia entry for John Souch mentions that this painting is signed 'J.S. Fec.1640'. So if the left inscription really says 1561, might this be a commemorative painting? The pendant attached to the woman’s belt looks interesting, too. Like a pocket watch.

3 attachments
Osmund Bullock,

Well done for finding the higher-res part-image - though it does seem barmy that it's better there than the one here!

I think the 'Mors' reading is good, though it could equally be 'More'. I'm less sure about the '1561' and the 'fragrat' (an odd mix of upper and lower case, if so). But 'fragrat' does get used in posthumous contexts, as in 'fragrat post funera virtus' (virtue smells sweet after death). As ever, we are left hoping for a better quality image.

Notwithstanding that, I think a commemorative portrait is a good idea. It is interesting that the man's background is darker than the woman's, with a clear, straight division between the two: this reminds me of a funeral hatchment. On a hatchment, when the arms of husband and wife are 'impaled' (i.e. the shield is divided down the middle, and their two coats are shown side-by-side), it was the convention to have a black or dark background to the dead person's half. Could this be saying the same thing? I'm not too familiar with C17th conventions, but her dress (and particularly her head covering) look like they could be half-mourning - while his dress does not. And an open prayer book is certainly often (though not always) associated with death - see another thread here:

A memorial portrait would make sense, too, of the unusual arrangement of the couple.

If the picture is indeed dated 1640, we might be looking for a man who lived c1602/3-c1639/40.

R. Stephens,

On the inscription top centre I also think that there is no date. It would be great to have a good sharp image of it as that would perhaps clear up all doubt about its contents. For the time being, though, I'd say that the first word is either "More" or "Mare" (ie latin for 'sea'). I'd say the next word begins with the letter "s" and has perhaps 3 or 4 letters. There may or may not be a two-letter word following it (it could simply be a blemish), before the beginning of a longer word containing at least 6 letters, the end of which seems to me to be "arat" or "arnt" or some such thing, and 5th letter from the end of which could be a 'p'. There may or may not be a further word, perhaps "in." It is not even clear which language this inscription is written in. But to try to make sense of it, maybe it begins "Mare sol et..." ['The sea, the sun and...'] That could all be mistaken, though, and a decent image is required. For example, although I've proposed "Mare" not "More", the 2nd letter looks more like 'o' than 'a'. The final markings could simply be a decorative flourish, or could be a short word.

All that aside, it is worth noting that the woman has a ring on her left thumb, and another on the 4th finger of her right hand. This may lend support to the idea that she has a deceased husband (whether or not it is the man depicted). The closed oval locket tied by a ribbon to her clothing would, I'd say, house a miniature portrait.

I like the idea of the division of the brown background providing distinct zones that represent the living and the dead (& Souch was trained by the main arms painter of the North West). However, it is probably simply a somewhat plain representation of a domestic corner space, which was painted with no special attention paid to it.

I don't think this is a portrait where one sitter was dead at the time of painting and the other alive. I think that point would have been made in a more obvious way. Here, the man and woman look like they are both in rude health, they are in physical contact, and have no recourse to props (such as a skull etc) that might indicate that a fundamental separation existed between them. If the man is dead, would we not expect the woman to be in prayer, and not the other way round?

I have contacted a jewellery historian and someone who has studied regional portraiture of the earlier 17th century a lot, especially painters based in Chester specifically. Let's see if they can help out with this.

PS apologies if this message appears twice, my laptop froze as I was submitting it, so did it a 2nd time.

R. Stephens,

My contact (who did Souch's DNB entry) suggests the Grosvenor Museum contact Julian Treuherz, whom Peter Boughton at the Grosvenor Museum knows. He suspects you have already done this, though. If so, could you please let us know what Julian said?

R. Stephens,

Some further information on this picture, from Julian Treuherz's Burlington article (vol 139 no.1130 (May 1997), 'New light on John Souch of Chester').

This picture is described thus in his appendix of Souch's paintings (it's no.5 in the list):

Double portrait of an unknown couple, 1640
Oil on canvas 40 by 49 3/4 ins (101.6 by 126.4 cm.) Signed (top centre): 'J S fec 1640' also inscribed (top left[sic]): 'AETA SUAE 37' and (on cartouche, top centre): 'Mors solo separet'
Grosvenor Museum, Chester, inv. no.1927 150
Probably a marriage portrait. The woman holds a tulip and a watch hangs from her waist. The picture has been heavily restored. See 'National Art-Collections Fund Review' [1983], pp.127-88.[sic]

The motto certainly strongly suggests a marriage portrait, "death alone separates" has echoes of the wedding ceremony's "Those whom God has joined together, only death can seperate".

Osmund Bullock,

Well, this is interesting. If accurately transcribed (and Richard being the transcriber, I don't doubt it for a second), Julian Treuherz's version of the inscriptions makes me wonder if he actually saw the picture himself. He oddly describes the 'AETA SUAE 37' as top left, and apparently missed the superscribed "tis" above "AETA" completely - unless later conservation has revealed more than was visible when he looked?

But it doesn't give me complete confidence in his reading of the inscription on the scroll, particularly as there is an error - I don't know whose - in the grammar of the Latin text he reports: it should be 'Mors sola' rather than 'solo'. And is it in fact 'separet' or is it 'separat'? It's an important difference: 'separet', the present subjunctive tense, would mean something like "May only death separate (us)" - with the "us" ('nos' in Latin) understood, or conceivably once written where the flourish now lies after a botched restoration. So appropriate to a wedding portrait and/or two living partners.

If, however, it really reads 'separat', the present indicative tense, then the meaning and its implication rather change. In English "Death alone separates" would still express the same basic sentiment; but in Latin the present indicative tends to imply a simpler actuality of the moment, and "Mors sola separat (nos)" should perhaps be translated more like "Only death separates (us)" or even "(We are) only separated by death". And that could (possibly) mean that death HAS separated them, but we're not going to let a little thing like death get in the way of our bond - rather as two transatlantic lovers today might say, "We are only separated by an ocean".

I am not at all adamant about this, not least because my once-goodish Latin is rusty. But it is perhaps worth bearing in mind - and I would still like to see a better quality close-up of the scroll!

P.S. I think the wedding ceremony's phrase is "Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder", though of course "till death us do part" carries the same message.

R. Stephens,

I can't speak for Julian Treuherz, obviously, but as he was a curator in NW England for decades, and as Souch's entire oeuvre stretches only to a dozen-odd works, I would be amazed if he did not know this picture very well. And after all, which of us has studied it closely in the flesh?

At Manchester, where he was based, they have the portrait of Sir Thomas Aston and his dying wife, which must have triggered his interest.

Just as a complete aside, Art Detective is evolving into quite an interesting example of the growing reliance on digital media for the study of art history. For we contributors here, the (digital) image is the thing - the new reality, almost. There is an entirely other reality, of physical pictures hanging on real walls, with which we are rather less concerned. Much the same thing is happening with primary and secondary sources - if they are not online, it's almost as if they do not exist. Students will rely more heavily on an internet search than on a visit to a library.

R. Stephens,

My jewellery historian writes:

"It commemorates their marriage, hence the pose of right hands clasped in love and trust, emphasised by the plain gold wedding ring, worn as was customary on the thumb. We know that this was so because the Puritans wanted to abolish wedding rings, claiming that they "were only married to a thumb". (Samuel Butler, Hudibras, Part III, Canto 2, 301-3: "That tool of matrimony a ring/With which the unsanctified bridegroom / Is married to a thumb" . Do you think I could reproduce it for the catalogue of an exhibition of rings to be held at the Cloisters next year in NYC?"

On the last point, do you think someone from the museum could please contact me privately on how to arrange for this? Wouldn't it be a great result if the painting could be illustrated in the Met's catalogue.

Jade Audrey King,

Thanks Richard. I have sent the Grosvenor Museum contact your details, and asked if they would be so kind as to get in touch.

R. Stephens,

I asked the jewellery historian about the other ring, on the woman's right hand, and this was the reply:

"the little ring on the other hand seems just decorative, unless we can see an inscription or symbol we cannot deduce any significance. The broad band on the thumb so emphatically displayed really does tie up with the hand in hand pose of the couple"

Julian Treuherz,

As my name has been mentioned I thought I should probably own up and say that yes, I saw the painting, and yes, I seem to have got the position of the inscription wrong. What I do remember about seeing this painting in the flesh is that poor restoration and overpainting has made it into a very disappointing, even unattractive example of Souch's work. The careful and neat modelling and observation of fine detail such as lace, hair and embroidery such as is seen in the Tate and Manchester paintings is lacking, and the fabrics seem dead, without th sheen that Souch usually emphasized. I think it is apposite to mention this in view of Richard's point about hi res digital images being the new reality. No substitute for looking at the real thing, although it would have been better if I had been able to see this in studio conditions, and also under ultra violet, instead of on the wall in the Grosvenor.
If your jewellery historian wants to see more examples of rings I suggest the Manchester picture is worth looking at. Souch was very meticulous about jewellery and costume details.

Osmund Bullock,

Good to hear from you, Julian, and thank you for that very full and clear description of the painting in the flesh. My post above that mentions you, I realise on re-reading, sounds really rather rude. My apologies, I didn't mean it like just sort of came out wrong in tone. Mea culpa. One of the many occasions when I've wished there was an 'edit' facility here.

Rita Lamb,

If it's a wedding portrait with unusual features (woman on 'wrong' side, she firmly clasping his left hand while his right holds a prayer book), might it be a second marriage - for him? Might it even be Sir Thomas Aston and his second bride Anne Willoughby? DNB gives 1637 as the date for this wedding but Wikipedia quotes Kimber's Baronetage as giving 1639, which is closer to the picture's alleged date. (His heir Sir Willoughby Aston was born in 1640.)

According to DNB Aston's children by his first wife, Magdalene, all died in infancy, which perhaps made a second marriage necessary. He seems not to have forgotten Magdalene however as his elder daughter by his second wife was also called Magdalene, presumably in the first wife's honour.(DNB)

Perhaps this is a celebratory second-marriage portrait, but with features intended to show mourning and regret for the lost prior partner. The ring the man's wearing at his band strings may for all I know be a fashion statement, but also might possibly be a keepsake. And the motto might be more than an expression of this couple's mutual commitment: it may be a reminder to onlookers that death has dissolved earlier marriage ties.

I've no opinion on whether the man here resembles the Thomas Aston of the Manchester portrait. Sadly, most portraits from this era look similar to me.

S. Elin Jones,

I realise that this quite an old discussion
but does the Museum have any more information with regards to it's provenance or history please?
Was this painting sold to the Museum as a 'John Souch' painting?

Jacinto Regalado,

The picture was "purchased from Lane Fine Art with the assistance of the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, the National Art Collections Fund and the Duke of Westminster, 1982."

S. Elin Jones,

There is a painting that was sold at Sotheby's, New York in 1981 in the following sale:

Old Master Paintings
Madison Avenue Galleries
Tuesday July 14th, 1981
Lot 128

Sold as:
English School, Early 17th Century
128 Portrait of a Lady and Gentleman
Indistinctly signed in monogram and inscribed with the sitters age
Oil on Canvas- 35 3/4" x 48 1/2", 91cm x 124cm

The Grosvenor Museum Painting:
Portrait of an Unknown Couple
John Souch

Although Title and Artist are different, It looks like the same painting as the one in the Grosvenor Museum. There are some very small details that appear to be exactly the same. Could this be the same painting?

I'd really like to know if there is anything on the back of the painting or whether it has been relined.

Is it at all possible that the information of buyer or seller could be sourced from Sotheby's?

As you can see from the photograph the face of the Lady has had some significant changes. If this is the same painting then much of the overpaint on the face of the Lady may not even be forty years old. Would she have been changed for restorative purposes or simply for aesthetic reasons? Could what we see in the black and white photograph still be underneath (if it is the same painting)?

Comparing the two, there is about 10 cm difference in size. The Art Fund website also seems to record it being bought as a Souch, but not until 1983. This being said, the Museum accession number is 1982.72

Btw...Thanks for the response Mr Regalado and Mr Brown.

6 attachments
Jacinto Regalado,

There appears to have been the "restoration" equivalent of plastic surgery on the lady's face, and while the result may be more "youthful," it is also more artificial and mask-like, and entails a considerable loss of character. Regrettable.

Osmund Bullock,

This is indeed very odd - well done, E. Jones, for spotting it. There seems little doubt that ours is the same painting sold at Sotheby's New York in 1981, though there is a size discrepancy: since '81 it seems to have increased in height by 3½ or 4 inches (91 > 100.2 or 101.6 cm - the latter is Julian Treuherz's figure), and looking at the images this has mainly been gained at the bottom. Perhaps some of the original canvas had been tucked round a later undersized stretcher, and a new, larger one was made to allow it to be restored to view.

As to the mysterious changes to the woman's face by the time the painting was sold to Grosvenor, one would expect that any restoration work done by/for any reputable dealer in the last 40 years would have sought to preserve, uncover or occasionally recreate a sitter's original appearance (where lost, but known from a copy, say). But if so, we must believe that the sitter originally had these more appealing and youthful features, but for some reason they had later been painted over by the older, uglier ones seen in the Sotheby's image. Just possible, I suppose (though I can't imagine why)...but Ockham's razor suggests the reverse process is more likely.

Sadly you will not get either buyer or seller's names out of Sotheby's for another 12 years (assuming they have the same 50-year rule as Christie's). But Lane Fine Art are very much still in business, and might perhaps be prepared to elucidate: Let us hope that they acquired it - as is - from a middleman with a bad restorer in the USA.

Christopher Foley has confirmed that the composite image posted by E. Jones is one and the same painting. It had layers of overpainting and was restored by a member of the Association of British Picture Restorers.

Would anyone like to comment further? It is two years since Elin Jones's excellent discovery (14/10/2019) that this picture was most likely sold at Sotheby's, New York in 1981, which Christopher Foley confirmed.

If no significant additions appear in the next few days, then perhaps Lou or Bendor could propose closing it please?

Marcie Doran,

I have created two composites based in part on Rita Lamb’s post of 22/02/2015 20:30 in which she compares ‘our’ work to the John Souch painting ‘Sir Thomas Aston At The Deathbed Of His Wife’. R. Stephens had also mentioned this work in his post of 23/10/2014 07:08.

The first composite shows the man in ‘our’ work and the man in the deathbed portrait (flipped). Is it possible that Rita Lamb is correct and the sitters are the same man - Sir Thomas Aston? There are many similarities, including nose and mouth. I cannot explain the differences in hair colour.

The second composite shows the woman in ‘our’ work and the woman who sits in the right foreground of the deathbed portrait (flipped). Rita Lamb suggested that the woman in ‘our’ portrait could be Anne Willoughby. Is it possible that both of these women are Anne Willoughby? Notice the similar eyes, the similar location of two of the bows and the similar white bodices. Looking again at the full image of both works, one can see that both women are wearing a ring on the fourth finger of one of their hands (remember that I flipped the second image). I cannot explain the differences in hair colour.

Julian Treuherz,

I don’t think the two men are the same as the angle of Sir Thomas's eyes differ from the other man. And I don't think it is possible to make a meaningful comparison between the two women given that one of them has been heavily restored as revealed in previous posts.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

I would like to propose that this discussion on this fascinating John Souch portrait from Grosvenor Museum which started in August 2014 and has been so well and thoroughly aired, should now be closed.