Honoring a Beloved Spouse – Venetia Stanley at The Dulwich Picture Gallery

My clever and imaginative friend Julian (see the last two posts) suggested that I visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery when I was in the vicinity of the Horniman Musuem.  He said it was an easy walk between the two and it was lovely.  I passed a church fair, some men playing soccer and even a horse stable.

The first thing I learned about the Dulwich was how to pronounce it – the “w” is silent, so you say “dull – itch”.  The second thing I learned was that the Dulwich Picture Gallery is the oldest public art museum in England.  The story of its creation is wonderful:

Late in the eighteenth century, two men, Noël Desenfans (a French guy) and Francis Bourgeois (a much younger Swiss guy) were partners in a London art dealership.  They lived together with Noel’s wealthy Welsh wife, Margaret Morris, in a house, where according to the Dulwich website,  “they entertained with a well-heeled informality”.  Hmmm.

Noel and Francis got their big break in 1790 when the King of Poland asked them to amass an art collection fit to be the national collection of his country.

King Stanislaw II August Poniatowski - Image Liberated from Wikipedia

They worked to gather a collection of old masters and five years later they had acquired a spectacular collection of paintings and sculptures.  Ironically, by then, the nation of Poland didn’t exist – it  had been taken over and carved up by other countries.  The King abdicated and fled to Russia penniless.  The partners tried to flog the art collection to other countries and individuals, but there were no takers.

So, the partners sold off some of the best stuff and used the proceeds to buy even more art.  When Desenfans died, Bourgeois became the sole owner of the art and tried to find a suitable repository for it.  He approached the British Museum and its trustees were snotty to him.  He claimed they were “arbitrary and aristocratic”.  So, in his will Bourgeois  left the collection to Dulwich College on the condition that the art be publicly displayed.  The Dulwich Picture Gallery was founded after he died in 1811.  Bourgeois, Desanfans and his wife are all buried in the Mausoleum attached to the museum. Hmmm.

Here’s a photo I took of the outside of the Dulwich Picture Gallery

The Gallery is crammed with great art. Until pretty recently its security system has sucked and according to Wikipedia,  it has been the target of several art heists.  In fact,this Rembrant portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III has been stolen (and recovered) FOUR times – it’s in the Guiness Book of Records!

Image Liberated from Wikipedia

There was one piece I especially loved at the Dulwich,  a portrait painted by a very famous Flemish -born artist named Anthony Van Dyke.  The subject is a decedent named Venetia Stanley, as she lay on her deathbed, two days after she mysteriously expired  in 1633.

Venetia Stanley on Her Deathbed

Venetia had a short and interesting life, but the life of her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby could be subject of an epic motion picture,  I wish I knew how to write a screenplay…..

Sir Kenelm Digby was born in  1603 to a noble, but  not so wealthy family.  Digby was brilliant, but perhaps touched with a bit of the bi-polar.   He attended Oxford, but never graduated.  Over the course of his life thereafter he became involved in seemingly everything.  For a while he was  a pirate (or “privateer” the fancy word) and his ship would attack and plunder non-English ships. At another point in his life he was England’s head of  lighthouses.  He also wrote a whole bunch of books on various topics (including two books on philosophy and a cookbook).  Digby was also an inventor – he owned a glassworks and he designed the modern wine bottle that we still use today.  My favorite of Digby’s  many and varied pursuits was his investigation into Powder of Sympathy. (He believed that an injured person could be healed by rubbing a special powder pn the object that injured them).

Digby fell in and out of favor with the English  government.  Sometimes he got arrested, sometimes he had to flee the country, sometimes he changed his religion but then other times he changed it back – he even killed a man in a duel  and brawled with a sword in the streets of Madrid.   Digby was acquainted with many of the famous intellectuals of his age, including  Pierre de Fermat, the mathematician and  Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher.

So now back to the Venetia chapter of his life…

When Digby was in his early twenties, he became absolutely smitten with a beautiful young woman named Venetia  Stanley.   Venetia had been born into a not- so- important noble family of some wealth.  She left home and moved to London by herself when she was a teenager. Imagine what bravery that must have taken  in the 1600’s – she was gutsy.   Then again,  Venetia was extremely beautiful and clever. She became an infamous party girl.  She had a really racy reputation.

Venetia as a Girl, Possibly

Despite her reputation (or on account of it – who knows?) Venetia and Digby fell in love and entered into a super-secret marriage (because neither set of parents would have approved). Digby kept a juicy  journal of their courtship and marriage and eventually his memoirs were  published as a novel with the naughty bits expurgated.  They had four sons.  And then seven or eight years into their marriage, Venetia was found to have suspiciously “died in her sleep”.   She was only 33. There was an autopsy performed (which was rare back then) and the physicians reported she had “but very little brain”.  Some suspected that Digby poisoned her or that she committed suicide. Neither theory was ever proven.

Digby was distraught after Venetia died. He must have  really wanted to remember her, because he had artisans make plaster casts of her face, hands and feet.  He  also asked his friend, Anthony Van Dyke, to paint Venetia on her deathbed.  Van Dyke “drew her on the second day after her death “.

Digby mourned Venetia dramatically. He gave her a spectacular night-time  funeral and commissioned a grand monument for her grave. He dressed all in black and ceased cutting his hair .  He wrote a book called in Praise of Venetia and he obsessed over the deathbed portrait.  He wrote: “It standeth all day over against my chair and table…and all night when I go to my bedside, and by the faint light of candle, me thinks I see her dead indeed…

Did he top her?  Did he drive her to take her own life? Was he truly in mourning or was his melancholy guilt-driven?  We may never know.

In any case, the painting is hauntingly gorgeous, befitting a great beauty.

Digby lived to love again and  he had many more adventures.  He died “of stone” and was buried next to Venetia many years later (sometime between 1665 and 1668 – I’ve read three different dates for his death so take your pick).



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