Westminster Palace: Analysis of the 1844 Trial of Strafford Painting (Part 1)

My apologies if I seemed to have gone “offline” for a few weeks. It’s taken quite a bit of sorting to be sure nothing got lost from the trip to the UK. I also took time for a badly needed camping and mountain biking trip to Moab (which in turn cost me a bit more time to heal from a crash I had on one of those truly fabulous trails)!

I’ve been keen to share the presentation I gave at Westminster, but struggled mightily to get it into a single article. Having failed that, this will be the first of three in which I will take you through the analysis I shared with the Office of the Curator of the Parliamentary Art Collection last month. This analysis regards the “Trial of Strafford” painting that hangs in the House of Lords side of the parliamentary complex at Westminster, London.

The research itself was challenging and surprisingly open-ended:  analyze the relevant historical records of the trial of Thomas Wentworth for treason at Westminster Hall in 1641. From this, build up a list of the known participants and attendees of the trial, and find a set of portraiture each of them.  Finally reverse-engineer Thomas Wentworth’s 1844 painting depicting the trial, and see how many of the individuals depicted in it can be identified with relative confidence. If Thomas Woolnoth really had attempted a historically accurate depiction, much of this should fall into place (since we would have been working from a similar historical set of evidence). Honestly, when I started, I didn’t really know if it was going to work out….

Of course, you already know that it did – much more than I could ever have reasonably expected!  But in the last weeks before my trip, I had another critical challenge to overcome: how to present the overwhelming volume of detail in a meaningful and insight-yielding way?  In a process of equal parts collaboration and boxing match, my argumentative, opinionated and talented friend (and graphic artist) Rhonda Martinek and I struggled through a number of iterations to find an elegant solution to this problem.  Our motivation  for going to such trouble is difficult to explain, except to say that we were charmed by the graciously offered challenge, and inspired by the unusual opportunity to make a meaningful contribution.  Certainly, we had no intention of taking anything other than our best work to Westminster!

The best proof we had indeed found that elegant solution lay in how smoothly the presentation went, and the thickening air of appreciation in the room as I made my way through it.  Slide by slide, I paid attention to faces of my audience, looking for signs of an unanswered question or skeptical consideration.  I noted small nods as I checked my way through my process and the considerations I had to address.  As I explained the specific merits and limitations of each identification (and the rationale by which I had assigned a confidence rating), it was to general body language of concurrence and rising interest.  The most fun, of course, were cocked heads and smiles as I explained each of the discoveries the study had yielded.

One of the most powerful moments of the trip occurred when I reached the end of the analysis phase of the presentation. I thanked everyone for their time, explained what the next part of the presentation would be, and paused to allow some of the attendees an opportunity to leave (as my host, Dr. Ford, had indicated would likely be necessary). But, no one made any motion to collect their phones and stand. Glances were exchanged, and brief smiles before attention was returned to me.  All that was said was, “Please proceed”.

At that moment, all the long hours of nights and weekends spent doing that study were worth it. So, thanks Rhonda, for the long hours you also put into the format and beautiful graphics it was my privilege to present. They definitely carried the day!

And now, please allow me to share the presentation with you.

 

“Structural” Analysis of the Painting

The 9-foot wide 1844 painting by Thomas Woolnoth is dramatic and complex.  But that’s only where it starts. As my analysis progressed, I grew increasingly impressed by the level of research the painter clearly did – and without the aid of the internet I used to replicate that work 174 years later!

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Of course, there was no footage or photographs of the trial in 1641, so any attempt to reproduce the scene would have been a work of speculation if it weren’t for the extraordinary annotated 1641 engraving of the trial by Wenceslaus Hollar. This engraving is in itself a singular contribution to the historical record.

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My first task was to deconstruct Hollar’s engraving, which I did by carefully marking the individuals and groups tagged with identifying letters in the engraving.  I also dug into records of the trial to compile a comprehensive a list of people involved.  I was able to find records of every individual called out (by name or title) in the Hollar engraving.  Of course, Woolnoth’s 1844 painting included many people from the historical record that Hollar did not.

Regarding where the trial was held, the picture below shows modern Westminster Hall.  In 1641, the stairs and “porch” area at the far end of this picture did not exist. Rather, thee was a solid wall with a large window similar to the one visible in the picture.  As can be seen in the Hollar engraving, a temporary walled off area had been created along the back wall.  This space provided rooms allowing the royals to observe the trial from behind screened windows (so their presence would not disrupt the trial).

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Westminster Hall, venue of the 1641 Trial of Strafford. In 1641, there were no stairs, only a back wall occupied by a giant window, similar to the one seen here.

Once I had called out all the individuals and groups Hollar had tagged, the logic of the seating arrangement of the trial began to emerge.  The next slide presents this derived seating arrangement laid over the engraving.

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Now that I understood the logic of the seating arrangement, my question was whether the scene depicted in the 1844 painting by Woolnoth had followed it.  So, I began correlating features so that I could overlay the Woolnoth scene with the same seating arrangement boundaries.   As soon as I started overlaying these reference lines, the sometimes subtle differences in attire of the various groups began to stand out. It became clear that only had Woolnoth based his scene on the seating arrangements documented by Hollar, but he had also leveraged subtleties of attire to distinguish members of the various groups from one another.  I had the rising sense there was very little that was random or unintentional about the minute details in this painting!

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Inspired by the existing “online exhibition” information supporting the “Trial of Strafford” painting (which uses outlines of key persons in the painted scene as shown below), I used colored outlines to clearly differentiate among the different groups as I studied the scene.

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The original online exhibition’s informational “key” to identified individuals in the painting. I retained these numbers in my own analysis, using letters to denote additional depicted individuals I identified for study.

This is where Rhonda got ambitious, and produced a scene in which she took this further – shading those same groups by colors matched to their role in the trial. As you can see below, this was a very powerful effect, dramatically improving the ability to visualize the arrangement of the trial participants. This was a central slide in the presentation, as the legend it includes lists all the tagged individuals and their identifications.

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Analysis of Individuals

Once I finished the layout analysis, I turned to studying the individuals.  The first was the man presiding over the trial, Thomas Howard, the Lord High Steward.  If this name sounds familiar, it should – the rightmost of the three included examples of portraiture of Thomas Howard, Lord Arundel, was portrait #723 from the 1866 First Special Exhibition of National Portraits. It hung adjacent to #724 – the lost portrait of Sir Richard Lane.

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The individual analysis slides were the most difficult format to decide upon. If you take a moment to study this slide, you will see there is a great deal of information shown, including:

  • (lower left) a “context” inset from the Woolnoth scene showing the figure being identified and part of the scene around them
  • (lower right) background on the named individual, and comments regarding the factors contributing to the match confidence
  • (upper left) a confidence key showing the relative certainty of the identification.  Multiple points of agreement were required to earn a “high” confidence rating
  • a “mug shot” of the figure being identified from the painting
  • corresponding “mug shots” from several key portraits of the individual named (to allow comparisons of the likeness)
  • (upper right) an inset of the individual (or group) from the Hollar scene.

The next single figure was the 11-year old Prince of Wales (the future King Charles II). Prince Charles was the only royal to openly observe the trial, and occupied a seat at the right hand of the empty chair of the king. In Lord John Campbell’s account of Richard Lane’s role in the trial, the young prince is said to have occasionally nodded to his Attorney General (Richard Lane), who would have been standing near the defendant at the other end of the floor.

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Visualizations of Groups Within the Painting

One of Rhonda’s most powerful contributions was the creation of color-isolated scenes of the trial.  She did this by shading the entire scene in the color assigned a given group, except for the members of that group.  As you can see from this header slide of the “judges area”, this significantly declutters the scene, allowing details among that group to rise more quickly to observation. I will provide the analysis of the depicted judges in a subsequent article.

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Although the charges against Thomas Wentworth were brought by the House of Commons, he was being tried by the “peers” (the House of Lords), not just the senior judges in the center of the scene.  These members were seated in two ranks along the sides of the floor, and also in several ranks across the back of the floor (in front of the defendant). In the end, they would vote on his innocence or guilt as a court body during the impeachment proceedings, and as a legislative body when those charges failed and a bill of attainder was taken up instead.  Taking my cue from Hollar, I have labelled this group the “Nobility”.  An analysis of these depicted nobility (and officers of state) will follow in a subsequent article.TOS-pics21

The trial clerks were positioned in the middle of the trial of necessity. They were charged with capturing a record of the proceedings, and so had to be able to hear and quickly confer with principals to resolve accuracy questions without interfering with the trial.  None of the “clarkes” of the trial seem to have been named in the surviving historical record.

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Thomas Wentworth (Lord Strafford) was conveyed by boat from the Tower of London to the trial every day by his guards.  During the proceedings, they were stationed near their charge, so they could ensure the prisoner did not escape, nor fall victim to any attack. This level of caution was warranted, as an attempt to free the prisoner was dramatically attempted on the orders of the frustrated King Charles I during the attainder phase of the ordeal.  Many historians argue that this attempt to thwart the course of lawful procedure likely doomed Lord Strafford by truncating sympathies for him, and underscoring the present danger of an unchecked monarchy drifting steadily into tyranny.

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Like Hollar, only one of the guards in the Woolnoth scene is a recognizable depiction: the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Balfour. As a testament to the accuracy of the detail in the original Hollar engraving, you can see that even Hollar’s engraving accurately captured details of the actual person.

This was one of my small coups – in the existing information about the 1844 Woolnoth painting, it was mentioned that no portrait of Sir William Balfour (the historical Lieutenant of the Tower at the time of the trial) could be found.   Fortunately (with a little digging), I was able to locate one!  Satisfyingly, the man depicted in both the 1641 engraving and the 1844 painting strongly match Sir William Balfour’s portrait (which you can see in the National Portrait Galleries in London (his portrait is #NPG D7255).

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The “Trial Managers” were the prosecution team assigned to charge Thomas Wentworth with treason.  The Senior MP driving the trial was John Pym, while the team responsible for the heavy lifting of securing the conviction was a team of more junior MPs whose names and roles are well captured in the historical record. Interestingly, the man who led this team of Trial Managers was Bulstrode Whitelocke.  Bulstrode is the man historical biographer Lord John Campbell describes as an “intimate friend” of Richard Lane at Middle Temple.  In the trial, Richard Lane was the one most directly opposed to Bulstrode Whitelocke, since he was the lead counsellor heading the team of four assisting with Lord Strafford’s defense.  We will go into the analysis of the depicted Trial Managers in a subsequent article.

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The last identified group within the Woolnoth painting is that of the defense. Although it appears all nine of the Trial Managers are depicted, only Lord Strafford’s Secretary, Phillip Mainwaring was depicted with him.  Nearby, of course, is the figure I have identified as the intentionally depicted Sir Richard Lane.  As to why the other three counsellors for the defense are not depicted, I can only speculate it is because Woolnoth ran into the same difficulty I did, and was unable to find the existence of any portrait of the other three men.  The detailed analysis of the members of the defense will appear in a subsequent article.

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There was another, quite interesting attendee of the trial in Woolnoth’s depiction I wanted to share.  At the highest rank of the galleries of observers appears an unusual figure painted into the scene so skillfully that he goes nearly unnoticed at the center of an unexplained pool of light in an otherwise darkened gallery!   Notice that he casts a shadow no one near him seems to cast. Notice also that his “shadow” is infused with colors from his attire, much as if the figure were translucent, like colored glass.  This depicted figure is cleary intentional, but his identification is a mystery I have not yet been able to solve.

It appears to be the depiction of an apparition – and could be the spirit of a significant figure whose presence imparts a statement on the dire event.  My own theory is that the artist has managed to include a depiction of himself metaphorically peering into the event from the future. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate a portrait of Thomas Woolnoth to test this theory…

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The final slide of the package is where (over her objection) I included an acknowledgement of the contributions made by Rhonda Martinek to this presentation. It would have been far less effective without her assistance.  The slide showcases some of the other artwork Rhonda has created in support of this project.  The black and white image is the logo of Richard Lane’s arms I used on commemorative mugs I had created to celebrate the discovery of a photograph of the Lost Portrait of Richard Lane.  Rhonda extracted the adjacent elaborate panel featuring those arms from a photograph of the upper windows of Middle Temple Hall. Rhonda removed the window structure to reveal the unencumbered original image.  And the figure on the far right is an iconized version of Richard Lane taken from his depiction in the 1844 Trial of Strafford painting. This knightly depiction will be used as the new logo of this Quest!

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——

Your comments and corrections are gladly welcomed.  I admire great writing, but have little choice but to approach this task as one of grinding a workable edge onto a rough blade – with my thanks for your generosity of spirit and firm critique in the meantime! 

-Greg Sherwood

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