Have you ever looked at a portrait and felt uncomfortable? As if, almost, you were not meant to be standing there, watching?

A week ago it would never have occurred to me to ask the question. But after a walk in the Tate on New Year’s Eve, I would have to say that standing in front of one portrait, one felt almost an eavesdropper.

It is a portrait of an intensely private moment: that of a mother in bed with her new-born child.

Except that there are not one, but two mothers propped up in bed against the pillows. Each is virtually identical to the other. And on their laps as they rest are two virtually identical children.

It is a portrait. Obviously one is not going to be in one’s nightie if one has paid an artist to do a sitting. But they are precisely and properly dressed, to the point of the huge ornate ruffs which surround their necks. Their children are swaddled in the most striking scarlet.

Arresting is not the word: unnerving is closer. This oil-on-wood portrait depicts The Cholmondley Ladies (pronounced Chumley). It was painted between 1600-1610 by someone in the British School of painters at the time. And in the bottom left hand corner is an inscription:

“Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family,

Who were born the same day,

Married the same day,

And brought to Bed [gave birth] the same day”.

Despite the helpful hints, posterity has managed to lose all trace of who these self-contained young mothers are.

The artist has laboured to differentiate the two with intricate details: one mother has brown eyes, the other blue; the facial shapes and expressions, are differing enough to lend the picture an eerie credibility; pattern and elaboration are varied.

But the story remains: two very similar women with the same name, born and married on the same day, staring out at us across four hundred years from a bedroom long ago.

The picture raises a thousand questions which learned academics have tried to answer, but to little avail. No one knows who these Cholmondley ladies are, yet no-one can avoid their gaze.

The painting was known to be in the collection of Thomas Cholmondeley, the third son of Sir Hugh, who died in 1601, and Lady Mary Cholmondeley, who was an ancestor of the last Lord Delamere of Vale Royal, Cheshire.

A gentleman called George Ormerod wrote a History of Cheshire, which was published in 1882. He notes ‘In the passage leading to the sleeping rooms … an ancient painting of two ladies, said to be born and married on the same day, represented with children in their arms’.

So they gazed at him, too, then.

While one feels as if one is eavesdropping on this private scene, those eyes – with their quality of following one everywhere – they make one feel a little surveyed oneself.

Surveillance has been all the rage for hundreds of year here, in this island hotbed of intrigue.

Henry VIII could not be everywhere, but history records he liked to know what was going on. And he was not subtle about letting his subjects know that the head of the English church’s ears were everywhere, all-hearing, all perceiving.

In the great hall at his great palace of Hampton Court, a rail travels around the top of the wall. And leaning over the rail are carved figures, for all the world like listeners to the conversations down below.

And their name? They are known as Eaves Droppers.

The eaves of a house are the closest one can come before one steps inside the house. They are the perfect location for someone who should not really be there at all, to hear things to their advantage.

And this was such an accepted truth that Anglo-Saxon law punished those who stood in the eavesdrop with a fine.

Eavesdropping always makes for a good yarn, its artifice employed in plot after plot over the centuries. That unseen observer can glean so much even though, strictly, they shouldn’t be there at all.

I love the way Moliere treats it in his story of the insufferable Tartuffe. The play follows the frustrations of a family whose head, Orgon – and his mother – are held in the sway of Tartuffe: a charlatan bent on exploitation.

But Orgon and the predictably strident Madame Pernelle will not hear sense: they are utterly captivated by Tartuffe.

The answer, it seems, is simple: surveillance.

Orgon’s son Damis will hide in the cupboard while Tartuffe reveals his true, and improper, infatuation for the lady of the house. Once he has incriminated himself, voila! Tartuffe will be discredited and all returns to normal.

But, especially with that sophisticate Moliere, things are rarely that simple, and Damis jumps out of the cupboard too soon. There is insufficient evidence to convict the waistrel, and the plot romps on unabated.

Eavesdropping has reached new heights here in England in the last forty years.

The first fly-on-the-wall documentary here in the UK was The Family: launched in 1974 it followed the fortunes of the Wilkins family of Reading. Funnily enough, Phil lived next door to them as a student, later, after all the fuss had died down.

The country watched amazed as the minutiae of the life of an ordinary family held Britain spellbound. A new TV format was born.

This year will be the first for ten years in which ‘Big Brother’ will not be on our screens. For three months each year, a group of people were invited to live in the Big Brother house, isolated from the world and filmed remorselessly by television cameras.

Its ratings were sky-high in the early years. They filmed bust-ups, get-togethers, hatreds and bigotry, kindnesses and small tolerances. Like The Trueman Show, the details of real life were so much more salacious than any fiction.

But should we have been there, watching? Many of the participants were attracted by the amount of public attention they would attract. But we are all consenting adults: we consented to watch, they to be watched.

Why, then, just like that portrait from long ago – why do I feel I simply shouldn’t be watching?

Our life is our own. Surveillance can be a historical piece of trivia, or a means of entertaining a nation. But the consent of those being observed – that’s a pretty important requisite.

I wonder if this is what we should be filling our waking hours with, the surveillance of the tiny details of other’s lives?

And more importantly: how safe are the tiny details of my life?

Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: Being where I shouldn’t be.

23 thoughts on “Eavesdrop

  1. Having seen a video of someone who realises the surbeillance cameras in his town can see right into his flat, and the revenge he plans and executes I guess you are too much watched.

    We wonder about them, did they stare to intimidate the artist, possibly commissioned by their husbands for something that should have been private?

    Would they have been in the same house to have their babies, and then you wonder why?

    1. Yours are some of the best questions I have heard, Sidey, and we’ve been discussing this a lot before it got to the blog. Of course, their husbands wouyld have commissioned the painting, not having just had a baby themselves. How hard to squeeze oneself into formal clothes after childbirth. Makes one wince to think about it.

  2. “not meant to be there watching” “felt almost an eaves dropper” Many years ago I had these very same ideas when looking at self portraits of Van Gogh. To see the paintings devolved from high classic tohat seemingly primitive splashing of colors with a blush. I felt I was eavesdropping into his inner most pain, torture and disintegration of mental processes. Then I felt as though he was revealing himself, crying out, screaming “Do you see? Do you see? Look how I am tortured. Look how I am dying.” If you have never seen these time comparison paintings look them up. It is like a 4 years photo collage of our American presidents showing them age each year which appears like 20 years in just four years.

    1. That sounds amazing, and I have always had the same feeling with Van Gogh’s work. The beauty of his work is balanced on a knife edge between ecstasy and pain. So raw. I’ll look them up, Carl, thanks.

  3. The painting of the two women is fascinating, and I can imagine your feeling ill-at-ease observing them … they are quite bizarre. A slight difference in expression is all that separates the two. Odd.
    Between bloggers and CCTV cameras, I don’t think any of our thoughts or actions are safe from observation!
    Sunshine xx

      1. It’s an open world all right, Sunshine. not a million miles away from Orwell’s telescreen. And thank goodness they’ve given Big Brother the axe!!

  4. Most thought-provoking, thanks Kate – I was also thinking those two ladies recovered their waists real quickly after childbirth…

    I fully agree about Big Brother!

    We wonder about them, did they stare to intimidate the artist, possibly commissioned by their husbands for something that should have been private?

    I think the answer lies in the event being newsworthy: twins, married on the same day and having babies on the same day. The painter was a paparazzi, commissioned by the tabloids of the day.

  6. what a very strange painting! but surely a little eavesdropping is not all bad. one of my blogfriends has this quotation at the top of her blog, and it does capture some of the charm of reading blogs, not to mention the charm of evening walks just as the light fades and you get quick glimpses into other people’s windows:

    There is an extraordinary charm in other people’s domesticities. Every lighted house, seen from the road, is magical: every pram or lawn-mower in someone else’s garden: all smells or stirs of cookery from the windows of alien kitchens.

    C.S. Lewis, Time and Tide, 16 June 1945

  7. A very interesting painting with an interesting history as well. It was rather fun for me to stare back and find the subtle differences. There really are quite a few, aren’t there? and then all the similarities. The process of actually painting them must have been quite interesting. Wouldn’t it make a great novel in the same vein as The Girl With the Pearl Earring?

    It is this bit of eavesdropping, brought about by Eaves Droppers that has me most interested, however. I didn’t know. I do now. What fun can be had with just one word. The only eaves droppers we have around here at the moment are icicles, that serve their own purpose in magnifying all who come to the door.

    Oh, what a great post, Kate. Now, I’ll cast off and eavesdrop on a few other blogs before getting down to some work that needs to be done for the morrow.

      1. Go right ahead, Penny 🙂 There are better pictures on the web somewhere, I just can’t find them yet… and sometime soon I’ll pop along and take some to pass along. Enjoy.

  8. Wonderful post.

    Enjoyed the history behind eaves droppers, and these lovely ladies and their bundles of joy. Different necklaces, different bodices, and identical posturing.

    As for Big Brother . . . it’s best if we don’t watch. 🙂

  9. As we wondered around the National Gallery in London the other day, with a very limited time scale my Cyclo and I discussed the idea of hiring a guide next time, with a few other friends and asking to be taken around a specific group of paintings, to hear the experts take on each, to add another perspective onto our own specific perception.
    This painting is very interesting…. so stylised, so formal, so strange, that it would be so very interesting to hear the expert view.

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