Our now-traditional Easter Squirrel for 2007 is Han Holbein the Younger's portrait, ca. 1527, of
A Squirrel with a Starling and Lady A Lady with a Squirrel and Starling. As in 2006, the featured work depicts a Squirrel Enchained, although this one seems a bit more contented with his lot than last year's sad wee beastie.
This painting usually hangs in London's National Gallery, but I first stumbled upon it online earlier this year when it was on loan for the big Holbein show at Tate Britain. (The Tate has been dropping its "H"es lately, having moved straight on from Holbein to Hogarth, with Hockney forthcoming.)
Unlike most Holbein portraits, the human subject of this one is not named, and there has been a good deal of perplexity over the years as to who this squirrelophilic woman might be. A plausible theory was finally offered in 2004, when
a research associate at the University of East Anglia - David J. King - saw a photograph of the portrait in a catalogue to which he was contributing.
He recognised the squirrel as the emblem of the Lovell family who lived in East Harling in Norfolk and was able to refer back to other uses of squirrels in the stained glass windows and the tombs in their parish church of St Peter and St Paul. From there, a likely connection was suggested to Anne Lovell, the wife of the owner of the nearby Lovell estates. At the time, the name of the bird and the town of East Harling had a similar pronunciation further implying that the starling was a clever visual pun.
The National Gallery assumes that Mrs. Lovell, if that is who she is, did not sit for her portrait with either the squirrel or the starling present. Following the established artistic practice of his day, Holbein painted the two animals separately before Photoshopping them in to the final composition.
- Researcher David King's own account of his curatorial sleuthing leading to the identity of the sitter is available here.
- The Squirrel portrait first came to the National Gallery in 1992, and turns out to have been purchased in part with funds donated by J. Paul Getty. As I discovered during last Sunday's visit, Mr. Getty's own establishment is currently playing host to another fine Holbein, the 1543 Portrait of Robert Cheseman and his falcon. That portrait usually hangs in the MauritsHuis in The Hague, where it keeps very impressive company -- Girl with a Pearl Earring, anyone? -- among the top 10 works in the collection. It comes to the Getty direct from its own prior loan to the Tate exhibition.
The portrait of Mr. Cheseman contains no squirrels. It is to be hoped that his falcon didn't, either.