Small, but mighty
The tiny embroidered volumes created by Edinburgh artist Esther Inglis led the way for female British artists, finds Bendor Grosvenor
“The pages, written exquisitely by hand, are as fresh as when the king read it over 400 years ago
Edinburgh is blessed with impressive places to see great art. The National Gallery is filled with Titians and Raphaels, while the National Portrait Gallery, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, has more Raeburns than it knows what to do with. But to see the work of one of the most astonishing women artists to have ever worked in Scotland you need to take the lift to level 15 of the National Library of Scotland, just off the Royal Mile, and wash your hands.
The Library has a collection of illustrated manuscripts by Esther Inglis, Britain’s first female professional artist. Born in London or Dieppe in 1574, but living most of her life in Edinburgh, Inglis specialised in ornately decorated books of calligraphy, often contained within embroidered covers. The name we know her by today, Inglis, is the Scotticised version of English, but in fact she often wrote L’anglois, reflecting the fact that her parents first settled in England as religious refugees – protestant Huguenots – from France.
The Library’s most important work by Inglis is a miniature book of psalms presented to King James VI & I in 1615. No more than three inches long, the cover – red velvet and a Phoenix embroidered in silver thread – is a little frayed. But the pages, each one written exquisitely by hand and without error, are as fresh and crisp as when the king himself read it over 400 years ago.
The frontispiece is decorated with a floral border. Inglis specialised in flowers, one of the few subjects women were encouraged to paint. The next page, like most of her works, contains a miniature self-portrait, and these are the first of their kind in British art. The final illustration shows
King David, but looking quite like King James, with his beard and ermine robe. This was no accident, since James – keen as he was on the theory of Divine Right – was often framed by himself and others as a modern day David.
The book’s dedication to James reveals the significance of Inglis’ relationship with the king. A stereotype of Scottish history is that James VI wasn’t especially interested in art. It is true, the earliest reference we have of his interest in painting relates to the struggles of another artist to get him to sit for a portrait. James’ indifference to formal painting echoes the vigour with which religious reformers in Scotland destroyed – or ‘dung doon’ – almost every item of religious art in the country during the formative years of his reign.
But James was arguably more cultured than any of his royal predecessors, including even the English Tudors. Just as the Scottish Kirk gave primacy to ‘the word’ over religious images, so too did James. His devotions spread beyond the Bible, to literature and poetry (he was quite a good poet), and through these to art.
It was thanks to his interest in literature that James helped launch Esther Inglis’ career. In 1599 the king sent one of his agents,
Bartholomew Kello, to London to help conduct secret negotiations over succeeding to Elizabeth I’s throne. Kello was Inglis’ husband, and also presented the Queen with one of Esther’s small books of psalms. That book is now in the Bodleian Library, and contains more than 160 pages of varying types of calligraphy, sometimes with letters only a millimetre high, each page illustrated with flowers and other decorative motifs. The frontispiece contains a self-portrait showing Inglis writing. We don’t know why James chose this gift, but it is tempting to think he was engaging in an act of diplomatic feminism; in Scotland, as in England, women can succeed.
It might seem surprising that Inglis could enjoy such a career in late 16th-century Scotland, suffused as it was with the misogynistic rhetoric of John Knox and his Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, not to mention James VI’S own predilection for burning imagined witches. But we should credit James for helping to create an environment which allowed Inglis to flourish. He developed Scotland’s longstanding political and cultural links with continental Europe, and awarded her father, as a Huguenot refugee, a pension of £100 a year. And just as important to Inglis was James’ tolerance of different faiths (his Queen, Anne of Denmark, was a practicing Catholic). In Scotland, Huguenots could practice their own religion, which included the then enlightened view that
women must be educated – the multilingual Inglis was home-schooled by her father Nicholas Langlois, the Master of Edinburgh’s French School, and mother Marie Presot, a scribe and calligrapher. The skills taught by her parents led to work which transcended the traditional boundaries of text, visual and textile art forms, and which were to give Inglis a unique place in European and Scottish Renaissance culture.
James appears to have been so struck by Inglis’ skills that he wrote a sonnet about her, in fact, specifically about the book of psalms now in the National Library of Scotland. James’ poetry has been little studied, but I came across his sonnet no.34, in which he refers to a phoenix, as seen on the book’s cover, and King David – ‘thy harper’. The sonnet marvels at the varied artistic skills of its anonymous subject; ‘What heaven doth furnish thee such learned skill/what heavenlie fire inspires thy furious sprite/what soule bereaves thou for to painte at will/thy trauells greate, what booke giues floures most sweete…’
We don’t know if Inglis knew of this royal praise. We can be more certain she heard of Elizabeth I’s enthusiasm for her 1599 book of psalms; ‘verie acceptable’ said the Queen to Bartholomew Kello, Inglis’ husband. Nonetheless, Kello was irked that Elizabeth refused to give him any money for it, and it seems no amount of regal enthusiasm helped Inglis make her fortune; she died, in Leith in 1624, in debt.
Today, Inglis’ fragile work isn’t as well known as it should be. But I recommend seeing it for yourself; holding her book of psalms in your hands, as any visitor to the National Library of Scotland can, feels like stepping back in time, a direct connection to a pioneering Scottish artist and her king. Just make sure you have clean, dry hands (not white gloves, like they do on the telly) and with luck it’ll last for another 400 years.