‘M Zouch’

Tate Magazine, Autumn 2006

Chalk on paper 296 x 212 mm
Royal Collection, Windsor

I stand very still. He is kind, Master Holbein, but I feel awkward under his keen eye. I cannot look him in the face, which is as well, since he asks us not to gaze directly at him as he works. He is strange, with his short hair and stubble. He talks little and his accent is hard to understand. He works with his left hand, which is not the common way. And now I just wait and wait, until he is finished. I breathe in and keep my shoulders back. My thoughts turn inward, and float. No one can call me to find a book, to walk in the garden, to come to table or to talk to the King, who likes to sit among us. I can be anyone, not plain Mary Zouch, lady-in-waiting.

This morning I plucked my eyebrows and made my parting straight and smoothed my hair. In the mirror I see oval within oval, my face like a smooth brown egg, the cap’s rim with its embroidery and arch behind. My gold necklace echoes my fair hair and the threads in my cap. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Master Holbein take a chalk the colour of peach blossom, and another of yellow for the gold.

He has painted the new Queen, my mistress - Jane Seymour as was - rich in red and gold thread, and has created a great cup for her and many jewels. At court we admire clever jewels. I look modest, with my black velvet dress tight across my breast, but my brooch speaks of romance. It shows the gallant Perseus saving Andromeda, chained to her rock where the sea-monster waits. Many might want to be rescued, too, from this court of great riches and great danger, yet to me it is a refuge. After my mother died, my father married again, but his new wife was cruel, and I wept. And when I reached fifteen I begged my cousin Lord Arundel to take me from our manor at Harrington, in the county of Northampton, and find me a place in the royal service. Now all is well. The Queen has given me jewelled borders for my dress – and she is with child, and may give the King a boy, and he will rejoice and I will wait upon them until I grow old.

No, no. Everyone knows that the pale and pious Queen Jane forbids her women to wear those fashionable caps. She makes them wear the old gabled head-dress with the wings folded back, so tight around the brow that foreigners cannot tell if we are blonde or dark. This is not Mary at all. It is I, Anne Gainsford, who wear the capucine that Anne Boleyn brought back from France. It is I who wear the heavy brooch, which is not Perseus and Andromeda but Fortune on a weather vane whirled by the winds of fate. And oh I have been whirled about, for I served Queen Anne, with her beauty and fiery wit and insolent anger, and I spoke against her at the end, telling of her games with Thomas Wyatt, courtier-poet and married man. Now she has gone under the axe. Now I am to marry George Zouche, a Gentleman Pensioner of the King, and that is why I hold a carnation for marriage, and look down to the side where my husband’s portrait will hang beside mine. I will be Mistress Zouche – ‘M Zouch’ - mistress of my household, mistress of my life.

So speaks the portrait, in two voices. Mary Zouch attended Jane Seymour’s funeral when she died after childbirth in 1537, and five years later she was granted an annuity of ten pounds ‘in consideration of her service to the King and the late Queen Jane’. Anne Gainsford married and had many children. Both were the servants of dead queens. The beautiful drawing carries a warning. It is tempting to spin stories, to find the individual life behind a sketch as vivid as this, so expressive of the new, humanist sense of the self. Yet certainty can be overturned by a detail. I was sure that this was Mary until, in another context, I found Jane Seymour’s ruling about caps. But who is to say that Mary did not put one on with glee after Jane died? It almost hurts to remain uncertain, but the only truths we can bring away are those we find within the work itself, in its making and in our own particular sense of the artist’s vision.

The drawing has its own story. Holbein kept it in his studio until he died of the plague, aged 45, in 1543. The image of ‘M Zouch’, as she was labelled in the time of Edward VI, was then bound with eighty-four others into a ‘Great Booke’, which wandered from hand to hand - from the Earl of Pembroke to Edward VI, then to the family of Arundel and finally back to Charles II. For a century the book lay locked away, until Caroline of Anspach, George II’s queen, roaming the corridors of Kensington Palace on a dull February day in 1727, noticed an old bureau and asked for it to be opened. And there they were, a whole sleeping court: knights and barons and squires, ladies in waiting, bishops and soldiers, poets and wits. Caroline framed her fellow countryman’s sketches and hung them in her favourite home, Richmond Lodge. But as times changed, so did royal tastes. Back went the Tudor court into the dark, entombed in the print-room designed by Prince Albert room at Windsor. And there rests our heroine still, encased within great glazed cabinets and stout castle walls. Mary or Anne, still waiting.


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