Portraits Put to Use—and Misuse

Anthony van Dyck: Venetia, Lady Digby, on Her Deathbed, 1633
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Anthony van Dyck: Venetia, Lady Digby, on Her Deathbed, 1633

Venetia Digby hadn’t been feeling unwell. She had gone to bed behind velvet curtains, as on every other night, wearing a cap to keep her curls in place. It was May Day, 1633, and the girls of Clerkenwell were gathering to dance their ribbons around the maypole. Sir Kenelm Digby was listening to Thomas Hawkins discuss his translation of Horace’s Odes: “Whilst we are talking, envious time doth slide: This day’s thine own; the next may be denied.” Then there was the cry of the maid; the rush to the bedchamber; his wife, her hand to her face, as though just asleep. But it was an illusion, Digby wrote to his brother: “She had been dead for hours before.” His sorrow was overwhelming, excessive, unchristian. “I will not,” he said, “hold my grief for the world’s sake.”

Rumor spread that Venetia had been poisoned by her beauty tonic, viper wine, which kept her complexion “just that of the damask rose,” according to John Aubrey. The king ordered an autopsy for the third day; on the first Digby cut off her hair (“the softest that ever I sawe”), on the second he called for Anthony van Dyck to cast her hands and face and to paint her as she lay, not in the heavy sleep of death but living still. They rubbed her cheeks to bring back the “not yet settled” color and Van Dyck depicted her lying between the blue curtains, flushed and pink-lipped. Among all the depictions of sleeping Venuses, spied on by satyrs, gods, shepherds (and of course the viewer), Venetia’s portrait is of an everyday, married love, but one that was now tantalizingly beyond reach for Digby. Her face, on the verge of waking, is suspended there forever; the rose in her lap has cast all of its petals across the bedclothes.

This is one the stories Simon Schama tells in The Face of Britain, and he tells it with dash and far more detail. His BBC television show of the same name, broadcast in 2015, looked at a range of British portraits (the “British” isn’t as straightforward as it sounds), grouped loosely around themes of love, power, fame, and self-reflection, and The Face of Britain expands on the show.

The story of Venetia and Kenelm is one of love—their courtship had been long, dramatic, and scandalous—but it’s also one of fame, or infamy. Venetia’s reputation wasn’t secured by her death, and Digby responded to whispers of her impropriety by employing Van Dyck to paint her again. Instead of the private memorial, what Digby wanted now was a public statement. The second painting, large and allegorical, depicts Venetia as Prudence, her foot keeping down an unhappy Cupid while two-faced Deceit skulks in…

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