Thursday, November 22, 2012

"Deluded by his hypocrisies:" Lady Mary Radclyffe Stanhope Gell (and her shoes)

Possibly worn by Lady Mary Radclyffe Stanhope Gell (d. 1653), these late 17th century shoes are in the collection of the Northampton Shoe Museum.  I long to see these shoes. Without question, they are lovely: blue velvet with lavish silver gilt thread, the embroidery comprising a naturalistic foliate pattern. The contrast between the dark hues of the background and the luminescent quality of the silver thread must indeed be striking - even more so when first completed. They feature the high, elegant heel and narrow toe fashionable during the latter quarter of the 17th century. Ribbons would have tied the lachets across the tongue to secure the shoe, thereby providing another opportunity to capture an onlookers gaze.

As feminine as Lady Mary's shoes may appear to our contemporary eye, a quick look at men's shoes of the time reveals their "masculine" antecedents. Coming out of the French Court of Louis XIV and popular in England following the Restoration of Charles II, men placed high value in their footwear which featured similar luxurious treatment found in women's shoes: gold and silver threads, silk brocades and damask, over sized bows and ribbons and jeweled or paste buckle closures. Men of "standing" wanted to show off their shapely legs and stylish, graceful feet not only through footwear, but also with luxurious hose. This represents quite a change over the centuries - as many women will select high heels over flats to draw attention to legs and derriere. Although by the early 18th century, women were less enamoured of wearing shoes modeled on men's style, the masculine terminology associated with cordwaining persisted.


While Lady Mary's shoes are indeed stunning,  the war ravaged history of the Parliamentarians, Cromwell and ultimately, the Restoration of Charles II (1660) swirling around them is extremely intriguing. Indeed, as layers of historical fact and fiction surrounding Lady Mary's life are peeled back, they could easily constitute a historical  novella.


Lady Mary Stanhope (nee Radclyffe) reportedly died in April 1653 near Covent Garden, London.  If this is in fact the case, this pushes the date the shoes were worn to prior to the current date posited of c. 1660. Lady Mary and Sir John Stanhope (d. May 29, 1638) were married and lived in Elvaston Castle or manor, in Derbyshire. Constructed by Sir John's father in 1633, today it is a 200-acre country park. Lady Mary and Sir John had one son, also named John.

Following her husband's death in 1638 she remarried - this time to his enemy, Sir John Gell (1593-1671). Gell is remembered, among other politically motivated events, for his irascible and unyielding temper and for his ceaseless harassment of Stanhope. Stanhope came under Gell's various attacks while he was Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1634 and was exacting "the obnoxious tax of ship money" on behalf of the "King's arbitrary measures" (Hutchinson, 101)  It is reported that at one point, Gell actually starved out Stanhope's cattle.  Not surprisingly, the union between Lady Mary and Sir John Gell was brief and they separated after just over a year. Clearly, Gell was intent on destroying all he could of the deceased Stanhope - "abducting" his wife or "deluding her with hypocrisies." It is even noted by some historians that he defaced Sir John's effigy in Elvaston Chapel. A complex political figure, Gell also spent time in the Tower of London.

1. Women's shoes, possibly worn by Lady Mary Stanhope, last half of 17th century. Courtesy, Northampton Shoe Museum, # 1994.279

2. Detail, Portrait of Louis XIV, 1701, Hyacinthe Rigaud. Courtesy, Musee de Louvre

3. Men's French silk shoes, c. 1690-1700. Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, #06.1344a

4. Portrait of Mary Radclyffe, William Larkin, c. 1610-1613. Courtesy, Berger Collection, Denver Museum of Art.

This striking portrait by Larkin is described on the Berger Collection web site: William Larkin painted some of the most fashionable figures of the Jacobean period. Among them was Mary Radclyffe, the wife of Sir John Stanhope of Elvaston, who rose to prominence as a courtier during the reign of James I. Mary's costume helps us date this portrait quite accurately. Her low-cut dress, closed ruff, simple pearl jewelry, black silk string ties, and feathered hair were all the rage in the first decade of the seventeenth century; but in 1613 the style fell rapidly from fashion. The painting must therefore have been painted just before that date. Behind Larkin's subject are two elaborately draped curtains. He used this device so often that until he was definitively identified in the twentieth century, he was known simply as the "curtain master."

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