On Saturday 16th October, myself and a group of like-minded friends gathered at Stanley Palace in Chester to recreate some typical images from mid 17th Century life.
When I worked at a Medieval castle, we occasionally used the impressive location as a backdrop to take some photos of ourselves in period clothing. The property boasted a fabulous Servants’ Hall. It was dark and grubby, but oh so atmospheric. 400 hundred year old pewter plates lined the walls, with built in wooden benches and long tables below. We were still able to light the fire in the large, but unadorned fireplace, the smoke adding to the murk. Light flooded in through the large leaded window opposite. It had the feeling of a low life tavern or ale house. It was the perfect setting to try to recreate the spirit of 17th Century Dutch genre paintings, especially those entitled ‘A Merry Company’.
The Dutch Golden Age
During the mid 1600s, whilst wealthy patrons in France, Italy and Spain commissioned scenes of religious devotions, crucifixions and martyrdoms, our friends in the Netherlands took great delight in painting and owning reflections of everyday life. Many fine artists worked during what has become known as the ‘Dutch Golden Age’. The most famous being Rembrandt and Vermeer but included talented painters such as brothers Frans and Dirck Hals, Jan Steen, and Peter de Hooch.
There’s an unpretentiousness about Dutch paintings from this time. In England, aristocratic sitters wanted their likeness captured wearing gorgeously fashionable clothing and looking ever so snooty. Our Dutch cousins, however, were more than happy to smile and even laugh, raising a glass and sharing a wink with the viewer. Settings are often intimate, domestic interiors of - admittedly well to do – homes. Everyday activities are frequently depicted – drinking, smoking, making music, playing cards, receiving letters, even doing housework.
‘A Merry Company’ was a common theme – depicting a group of people having a good time. Usually, the ‘models’ are arranged around a central table, some seated, some standing and engaged in a variety of activities. Outlooks also differ. Some sitters seem to be aware of the viewer, and are consciously posing, whilst others are oblivious, unaware of being watched.
During the 1620s the ‘company’ appear genteel, well dressed and act good naturedly towards each other. But as we move to the middle of the century, everything becomes rowdier. Sitters are often drunk, fights might break out, hats and clothing are askew - there’s flirting and general bad behaviour.
Guard room scenes were also popular, depicting military men in buff jerkins, sometimes armour, with the addition of flags and drums as part of the décor.
I’d left employment at the castle several years ago, so had to find a new, suitable venue. Luckily, I live in the north west of England, not too far away from the historic city of Chester. On the outskirts of the city centre is a large, typically (for Chester) black and white building – Stanley Palace. Built in 1591, the interiors have been little changed since then. The building is now used as an events space and it is possible to hire the palace for meetings, functions etc.
Stanley Palace is owned by the local council and managed by a board of voluntary trustees. The trustees I met when I went for a look round to assess the site’s suitability for the shoot were very interested in my project, and very supportive in what I was trying to achieve.
I initially booked Stanley Palace for Oct 2020, thinking that most of the lockdowns and restrictions due to the Covid outbreak would be lifted. But the virus had other ideas and we had to postpone for a later date. Early in 2021, once the government had announced their ‘road map’ to get the country going again, I contacted Stanley Palace to rebook the date. The next hurdle was finding a date when all my models and photographer were available. With the country now back open for business (mostly) as usual, my little photo shoot had to compete with birthdays, family holidays, work commitments and re-enactment events. We finally found a date in October which was acceptable to all parties, including the venue.
I had a handful of willing friends with decent 17th Century kit. Now we needed an excellent photographer. Luckily, my brother-in-law Kevin is a very talented photographer, and has his own business KD Photography, which specialises in pet and landscape photography. When I approached Kevin with my proposal, he jumped at the chance to get involved, and gain some experience beyond his comfort zone.
Last Minute Panic
As usually always happens, I had a massive ‘to do’ list the week before the occasion. I’d committed to making hubby Pete a new full suit of 17th Century clothing. Although I had machine stitched seams where I could, there was a tremendous amount of hand sewing to be completed. The suit fastened with over 20 silk thread wrapped buttons, which all needed covering by hand (each button took an hour to execute). I even made a new set of matching collar and cuffs edged with handmade needle lace, and new hand knitted hose and garters. I decided to try and make an imitation table carpet. I’d found some wonderfully bright fabric in a suitable pattern, I only needed to hem the raw edges and add gold fringe, but even this took me an entire afternoon.
The night before the shoot I still had tablecloths to iron, shoe roses to make and my own clothes to find. I had intended to have a run through of hair and makeup, but I had to leave this and hope for the best on the morrow. There was a mini crisis when the much anticipated suit had a collar which was a bit too big and not stiff enough. This made the new needle lace collar lie funny, and the other half wasn’t happy. The suit’s new owner also complained that it was ‘baggy’, but if you lose two stone in weight since being measured and having the pattern drafted, that might happen. So, emergency buttonholes were stitched, and an acceptable alternative collar was found. I finally got to bed at 12.30am.
The Photo Shoot – finally!
After four hours sleep, I was up bright and early to start getting ready. We were packed and in the car by the planned departure time of 8:30am, we had no problem finding a car parking space in the public car park across the road from Stanley Palace and we accessed the building without setting the alarm off at nine thirty.
It was a long but enjoyable day. I’ve never organised such an event before and there was a thought at the back of my mind that we might not get any photos of usable quality at the end of it all. Well – I will let the images speak for themselves. I think everyone was extremely pleased with what we had created.
A huge debt of thanks goes to my 'models' - Paul, Phil, John, Pete, Freddie, Izzy and Kit - who put up with over a year of rambling emails and general bossiness from me. You can see more of the photos here.
Please let me know if you like the images. Do you think we achieved what we set out to do?