At the Museum of Marco Polo we are on a quest to understand the ways in which women’s lives connect with the history of museums.
Which is why it is that on a day when I have so many things I should be doing in London I am standing in Christchurch Museum in Ipswich, gazing in baffled wonder at the Painted Closet of Lady Drury.
If you ever wanted to prove that the past is strange, this would be your evidence – a tiny closet, closely painted with mysterious symbols, where Lady Drury, recently bereaved of her only child, a 14-year-old daughter called Elizabeth, sits and and prays alone in her country house.
It is the year 1610, and her hot-tempered husband Robert is away as usual at war or on business. Lady Drury comes from a humanist family where the girls are as highly educated as the boys. One grandmother is the daughter of Edward VI’s tutor and can speak four languages fluently. One of her uncles is the philosopher Francis Bacon. She herself is highly educated and deeply serious. For they are not only a humanist family, they are also a Puritan family, and the symbols in her Closet have been painted at the instigation of her personal chaplain, the puritan Joseph Hall, who believes that he has found a way to allow Puritan women to meditate without looking on sinful images. The symbols are beautiful but strange and hard to interpret – the sun, the moon, flying monsters, men that look like wizards in long robes and tall hats – and the Latin titles that accompany them are saturated with self-punishment and self-denial to a degree that is painful to read. Trust is never assured. I have hope and I have perished. There is no rest for me here.
This is not the 18th century made familiar to us by Jane Austen. Nor is it the 16th century where Hilary Mantel is our guide. It is the strange 17th century, filled with puritans, witches and revolutionaries. Sometimes this is how the past comes at us, ice-cold and startling.
And whilst you can re-write words to make them less strange, you can’t re-write an object. It is what it is, in all its strangeness.
If you had told me that Lady Drury believed in unicorns and fairies (which actually she probably did – people tended to in those days) the past could not seem much stranger.
And here is my problem. Because now I am curious to know more, to know if there are any other Painted Closets, to imagine where Lady Drury lived, and to understand what it felt like to be her, but when I ask around the Museum no one can tell me. There’s a leaflet in the bookshop, a graphic panel in the room, and a nice woman behind the desk who apologises for her ignorance and suggests that I contact the curator – although, as she says, the curator is rushed off her feet and unlikely to be able to answer my questions any time soon-ish.
All this of course is down to the cuts. Five years ago, at the height of UK museum-making, it was fashionable to complain that objects were being over-interpreted, that objects should be allowed to speak for themselves, but under-interpretation is far more infuriating.
It occurs to me that I have been in half a dozen museum bookshops out of London in the last few weeks, and that (with the honourable exception of Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields) not one of them has had a single book that takes you deeper into a subject.
The problem is that when you don’t explain things it doesn’t make visitors curious to know more; it makes them more likely to walk away quicker.
All of which is why it is that on the train back to London (past the green-black trees and burnt-yellow fields of Suffolk in high summer) I am hunched over Google on my mobile phone, trying to discover more about the strange and lonely life of Lady Drury. It is Google that tells me that Lady Drury comes from a humanist family that rated women’s education.
By the time I get to London I have also remembered a novel by Robert Graves, called ‘Wife to Mr Milton’ which I read one summer when I was sixteen and had absolutely nothing else to do. It’s a story about 17th century Puritanism and I remember that I dropped it in shock at the idea that people could willingly embrace such a harsh and unforgiving doctrine. But for lack of any other interpretation I decide that this novel will probably take me as close as I can to understanding the strange and mysterious world of Lady Drury.
There is one postscript to all this. Lady Drury also commissioned the poet John Donne to write a poem to her daughter, which he called ‘An Anatomy of the World, wherein, by occasion of the untimely Death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and decay of the whole World is represented.’
If I were Lady Drury I would be more consoled by Donne’s poem than by Joseph Hall’s meditation techniques. But I am not Lady Drury of course – and the past is very mysterious.
The image at the top of the page is from the Painted Closet. You can find it in Christchurch Museum in Ipswich, about 20 minutes walk from the station.
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