Agecroft Hall: Discover 17th Century England in Richmond
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George Poulett 

AH1967.0125

Unknown Artist

   The nearly life-size portrait of George Poulett, dated 1593, hangs on the east wall of Agecroft Hall’s Great Parlor. Painted by an unknown artist, the portrait gives viewers a glimpse of 16th century fashion and sport. The peregrine falcon perched on Poulett’s hand represents both a popular activity of the time as well as Poulett’s wealthy upper-class status.

 
   As illustrated in the photograph above, this is a full-length portrait of a young man holding a falcon in his left hand. Not visible in this photograph, above his right shoulder, to the viewer’s left, the artist has painted the year, 1593, and above the sitter’s left shoulder, the artist has painted the sitter’s age, 26.  In the very bottom left corner of the portrait, faded from time and almost obscured by the portrait’s frame, is a small inscription: “George Poulett 2 Son of/ Amas Poulett”—very helpful in identifying this somewhat obscure late 16th century gentleman!


   George Poulett (his last name also meaning ‘chicken’) came from a wealthy family with connections to both English and French aristocracy. His father, Sir Amas Poulett, Governor of Jersey from 1575 until his death in 1588, was made a knight by Queen Elizabeth I in 1576, was the Ambassador to Paris from 1576 to 1579. A staunch anti-Catholic, Sir Amas was made the jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots, a position he held from 1585 until her execution in 1587. George Poulett, born in 1565, was the third of six children, and also the third male child, so he was not to become the family heir. Little is known about Poulett’s life, other than he came to be owner of a village in Somerset through his wife. 


   A portrait was commissioned from an artist at a great expense for the sitter. The sitter wanted to be displayed at his absolute best, wearing his finest clothing and accessories, showing viewers just how wealthy he was, a point proven over and over again by hair and clothing, both at the height of fashion, and accessories, always sumptuous and expensive. In his portrait Poulett wears a large, multi-layered, white neck ruff. Ruffs were at the height of fashion for Poulett’s social class. A ruff required time consuming maintenance, both to keep it clean and bright as well as starched so it stood out in its full glory; a servant would have to be available to care for the accessory. Poulett’s large ruff implies he and his family could afford enough servants that one would be able to devote time to the care and upkeep of Poulett’s wardrobe.


   Catching the attention of many viewers are Poulett’s knee-high pink stockings, also called hose. Silk stockings were popular with males in early modern England. These came in a variety of colors and were usually held up with decorative ribbons above the knee. King James I can be found wearing hose in his full-length portraits, including one in which he is wearing pink stockings (1).  


   His outfit is almost boring in comparison to his ruff and stockings. He wears a brown and black striped outfit with modest black shoes and holds a black, wide-brimmed hat. The one part of this simple outfit that screams wealth is the bombast sleeves. Stuffed with cotton, wool, or even horsehair to create the large, puffy arms, one would not expect this gentleman to be doing any laboring tasks about the manor house in an outfit with such fussy arms (2).  


   In Poulett’s left hand, he holds a large peregrine falcon, a symbol of a costly and chivalrous sport (3).   During the late 16th century, falconry, hunting with birds of prey, was a sport practiced by royalty and the landed gentry. The sport, still practiced today, was a long standing tradition in England, dating back to at least the 6th century (4).  Buying and training falcons took money, practicing the sport took time; both time and money were luxuries the laboring classes could not afford. The sport “wasn’t [seen as] merely an amusement; it was a fierce articulation of social and political power; a deadly serious pastime considered among the finest of all earthy pursuits (5).”  Falcons are found in many other portraits, including portraits of King James I and a 1533 Hans Holbein portrait, Robert Cheseman, held in the collection of the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands (6). 


   The 1593 full-length portrait of George Poulett is a valuable asset to Agecroft Hall’s collection. In this one painting, wealth and social class shine through, depicting a young man of the same social class as the Daunteseys of Agecroft Hall. With his carefully chosen dress and accoutrements, the Poulett portrait tells viewers much about his life and his wealth.


Notes:
1. Norris, Herbert. Tudor Costume and Fashion. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 1997. P. 530.
2. Ashelford, Jane. A Visual History of Costume: the Sixteenth Century. Great Britain: B.T. Bashford, Ltd. 1983. P. 142.
3. Batschmann, Olkar and Pascal Griener. Hans Holbein. London: Reaktion Books, Ltd. 1997. P. 181.
4. "Historical Background of Falconry." Prepared with assistance from Kim Mauch. Appendix C—Falconry Regulations, California. <https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=82661> Accessed 29 April 2015.
5. “History of Falconry.” International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey. <http://www.iaf.org/HistoryFalconry3.php> Accessed 29 April 2015.
6. Hans Holbein's Robert Cheseman portrait can be found here. 

 

Prepared by Libby Howlett, Manager of Collections with research assistance from Josh Kline, Assistant Curator.