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.