Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Baby aged fifteen weeks, holding a Wooden Feeding Bottle, 1593 

16th Century English School 

Portrait of a Baby aged fifteen weeks, holding a Wooden Feeding Bottle, 1593, 16th Century English School
Oil on Panel
16th Century
23 1/2 x 18in (59.7 x 45.7cm)
Edward Mars Elmhirst (1915-1957); Sheila Elmhirst (1920-1927), by whom sold; Sotheby's, London, 14 May 1967, lot 65; Private collection, UK
E. Elmhirst, Feeding Bottles through the Ages, Country Life, 18 November 1954, p. 1777 The Nursing Mirror, 26 March 1954, p. 1678 S. Kevill-Davies, Yesterday's Children: The Antiques and History of Childcare, (Suffolk, 1991), p.41, ill.
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This affectionate portrait is a rare example of Elizabethan full-length child portraiture, and is the earliest recorded likeness of a child with their feeding bottle.

Portraits of young children from the sixteenth century are exceedingly rare, unless, of course, they were of royal status or being touted for marriage. When children do appear in portraits, they are often shown within a larger family group, as seen in portrait of the Countess of Leicester with her children, painted in 1596 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561/2-1636)(1), and were rarely portrayed on their own. When young children were portrayed individually, they were seldom shown full-length, as seen here, and were often more conspicuously dressed in lavish clothing, reflecting the affluence of their parents and their future prosperity.

The identity of the subject in this portrait, whose age is stated as fifteen weeks, is currently unknown, and we cannot be sure of their gender. In the late-sixteenth century dresses were worn by both sexes, and it was only after reaching a certain age (normally between 2 and 8 years), that a boy would be ‘breeched’ (dressed in breeches or trousers), and would enter the next stage of his development towards manhood. The style and quality of the clothing seen here suggests the child was from an affluent middle-class background; the white dress is decorated with intricate black-work designs, and the cuffs and shoulder sections are edged with elaborate fine lace work. The cap is also made of fine lace detailed around the edges, and the greenish brown dress gives an added level of sumptuousness.

Props were frequently used in child portraits in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to symbolise the passage from childhood to adulthood, perhaps the most common being coral teething sticks or rattles. The treen feeding bottle seen in the present work, however, does not refer to any specific period of development in the child’s life, and is curiously unprecedented in iconography of the period.

Feeding bottles were certainly not a symbol of wealth or prosperity, and were used when a mother was too ill to breastfeed or had passed away and a wet nurse could not be found or afforded. Although sixteenth century commentaries on feeding bottles are scarce, we know that by the eighteenth century their pitfalls were acknowledged; a survey of The Dublin Foundling Hospital found that 99.6% of babies hand-raised between 1775 and 1796 sadly died.(2)

The bottles themselves were made of wood or pressed leather, and were probably developed in the Low Countries or Italy.(3) The large globular base and small opening at the top made them extremely difficult to keep clean, and combined with the poor quality of milk and lack of refrigeration, were responsible for many infant fatalities.

The present work was painted on a single oak panel, which is highly unusual for this period - portraits were typically painted on three vertical panels joined together with glue and imported from the Baltic regions. The oak panel was almost certainly sourced in England, and the rough saw marks visible on the reverse suggest it was probably obtained from a provincial supplier.

The identity of the artist of this portrait is currently unknown, although a considerable number of works can be attributed, on a stylistic basis, to their hand.(4) The first attempt to group together these works was made by Sir Roy Strong in an article published in the Burlington Magazine in 1963(5), and was later expanded upon in his seminal monograph The English Icon published in 1969, in which eleven works were illustrated.(6) The artist was given the interim identification of ‘Unknown Follower of Custodis’ by Strong, who observed a number of stylistic similarities with the work of painter Heironimo Custodis (active 1589-1598). Although minor parallels can indeed be noted, this connection to Custodis is now generally considered misleading, and a more appropriate identification is now under consideration.

(1) In the collection at Penshurst Place, Kent.
(2) S. Kevill-Davies, Yesterday’s Children, The Antiques and History of Childcare, (Suffolk, 1991), p.40
(3) E. Elmhirst, Feeding Bottles through the Ages, Country Life, 18 November 1954, p. 1777
(4) We are grateful to Edward Town, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Yale Center for British Art, for his assistance when cataloguing this work
(5) R. Strong, ‘Elizabethan Painting: An Approach through Inscriptions - II: Hieronimo Custodis’, in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 105, No. 720, (March 1963), p. 104
(6) R. Strong, The English Icon, (London, 1969), p.207
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