Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Anne Bulwer (1631-1704) 1654

Gerard Soest (c.1600-81)

Portrait of Anne Bulwer (1631-1704), Gerard Soest
Oil on canvas
17th Century
42 x 34 inches 107 x 86 cm.
Rippon Hall, Hevingham, Norfolk, until 1937 W. Boswell, Norwich Private Collection, Austria
Prince Frederick Duleep-Singh, Portraits in Norfolk Houses, (1928), Vol. II, p. 242. Susan Wise (ed.), European Portraits 1600 - 1900 at the Art Institute of Chicago, (Chicago, 1978), p. 44.
Originally created to form one of a pair of portraits, Anne Bulwer (nee Marsham) sat to Soest in 1654 at the same date as her husband, Dr. Thomas Bulwer, whose portrait now hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago. Elegantly composed against a pastoral landscape, Mrs. Bulwer reclines her right arm against a rock while holding a prayer book in her left hand. Extending from her lap across to her right, the artist has draped a swath of blue silk, adeptly mirroring the varying hues of sky behind his subject. More conspicuously than his contemporary Lely, Soest's skilful and life-like portrait is typically filled with an emphatic richness in colour and texture which renders his style highly individual in the context of seventeenth century British portraiture.

As is often the case with women of previous centuries, there is little that history records of Anne Bulwer beyond that which relates to her husband. Born in 1631 to Robert Marsham of Stratton Strawless, Norfolk and his wife Anne Noblett, Anne was the eldest daughter of six children. The date at which she married Dr. Thomas Bulwer, a country doctor based in Buxton, Norfolk is unclear but she is noted as being his second wife, the first having died in 1643. The date which appears in the inscription on her husband's companion portrait suggests that their marriage may have occurred in 1654 or shortly before this date. Between both images there is much in the iconography to allude to the possibility that the pair was commissioned to commemorate the beginning of a marital union. The small book lying in Anne''s left hand appears to be a book of prayer, quite probably thumbed open to a passage on matrimony, while her husband in his portrait (currently in the Alexander A. McKay Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, U.S.A.) holds what could be a marriage contract. Soest has also filled his depiction of Anne Bulwer with fertile promise. Both her visibly well-rounded bosom and the verdant landscape stretching behind her hint at marital and maternal expectations. With their juxtaposition of composition and unusual three-quarter length dimensions, husband and wife were clearly designed to hang opposite one another.

Anne did not, alas produce any children. She did however act as stepmother to Thomas Bulwer's only son John, who was by the time of their marriage forging a successful career as a physician to the deaf. Anne outlived her husband by ten years, dying in 1704 at the age of seventy-three. Thomas Bulwer who lived to the unusually late age of eighty-two is commemorated for his philanthropy and medical contributions to his community by the verses on his tomb:

Thou Bulwer, hads't the largest Dole
To church, Priest, Poor, both Body and Soule.(1)

Other than Thomas Bulwer's altruistic inclinations, little can be concluded about his character or his relationship with his wife, though the existence of a pair of portraits which memorialises their marriage certainly indicates that his union with Anne Marsham was greatly valued.

Gerard Soest, who is believed to have arrived in England in the late 1640''s from Westphalia was largely influenced by the sensuousness of Van Dyck's courtly style and for a while competed with his fellow compatriot, Sir Peter Lely for commissions. Soest's mastery of the face was widely acclaimed even after his death. Horace Walpole remarked that his portraits were ''animated with truth and nature; round, bold, yet highly finished.''(2) Nowhere is Soest''s skill better demonstrated than in his matrimonial portraits. His particularly moving work of William, 3rd Lord Fairfax and his Wife painted a year after our portrait in 1655 is illustrative of his well-honed ability to portray a relationship on canvas.

Unfortunately, and to the detriment of his career, the artist''s ''ruff humour'' did not succeed in making him a particular favourite amongst female sitters or the court circle.(3) Vertue wrote that he would answer his door ''in any dirty dres'' and ''if his humor did not sute to paint when people came to sit for their pictures'' he would turn them away pretending to be the servant (4).

(1) P.F. Duleep Singh, Portraits in Norfolk Houses, (1928), Vol. II, p.240.
(2) I. Hecht, ''Portrait of Thomas Bulwer'', European Portraits 1600 - 1900 in the Art Institute of Chicago, (Chicago, 1978), p. 42.
(3) G. Vertue, ''Notebooks'', Walpole Society, Vol. V, p.45.
(4) Ibid.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.