The somewhat brutal face and the arrogant pose of William West, 1st Lord Delawarr, reassures us that human nature has not changed much over the centuries.
This portrait hangs in the 1540 Gallery at Tate Britain on Millbank, London, near the Palace of Westminster. The aggressive pose is similar to that used by Hans Holbein in his portraits of the English tyrant Henry VIII and at one time this portrait was attributed to Holbein. These days, it is confessed that the artist is unknown and that the portrait was painted sometime later in the 16th Century.
The sitter has not actually been confirmed. But it is amusing to think that it may indeed have been the thoroughly unpleasant William West, since this portrait indicates that the sitter was perhaps not an altogether pleasant character. Born c.1519, William West was the nephew of the 9th Lord De La Warre, whom he tried to poison in order to gain his title and estates.
Despite much exquisite beauty in the Tudor period, these were turbulent and brutal times. Alongside the sublime music of Taverner, William Byrd and John Downland the period revelled in barbaric practices such as hanging, drawing and quartering. The magnificence and lavishness of the architecture (Christ Church Oxford for instance) sits ill beside the abject poverty and misery of the masses.
These days I try to be pretty methodical when I “do” art. I like to spend an hour or so in a single gallery and look at every painting in detail, read a little about each and then hone in for some more detailed research on those that particularly appeal to me. Any more than and my mind wanders. The Tate Gallery’s website is a fabulous resource and thanks to my smartphone I can do a little research while I am in situ. The technical details of the work involved in the attempt to date and verify artist and sitter are fascinating and well worth the effort to absorb.
But primarily, as ever, what interests me is the psychology, the “meaning”, the “why”. What does this painting tell me about human nature, about myself perhaps? Why do we humans behave as we do and what drives us?
Much of the world today is no better than it was in Tudor England. Vicious savages entirely the equal of Henry VIII (or worse) rule much of the third world. Brutal dictators in Africa and other man made hellholes, rip off their people and squirrel away their winnings in Swiss Bank accounts. Rivals are murdered and whole populations “ethnically cleansed”.
The Trumps of this world and the Corbyns are not altogether pleasant either..
Animals are brutal. We are animals. William West was an animal. Perhaps it is the fault of evolution. Perhaps we can not help ourselves but we have a duty to try.