Copying the Masters

Posted: September 29th 2020

by Katherine Hardwick

Recently, I ventured out of Norfolk in order to pay a visit to the National Gallery in London. The impetus of this trip was to see their current exhibition Titian: Love, Death, Desire, but after completing the exhibition, I spent some time in their other galleries taking advantage of the social distancing guidelines to spend some quality time with old favourites, and to discover new pieces.

One piece I was pleasantly surprised to find was this work by Guido Reni, Susannah and the Elders (1620-5). The reason I was intrigued to find it was that there is a copy of the work in the collection at Holkham, painted by Jane Coke (1777-1863).

Jane Coke was the eldest daughter of Thomas William Coke ‘of Norfolk’ and his first wife, Jane Dutton. She was a talented painter, and as a child her mother encouraged this; Thomas Gainsborough acted as her tutor during his trips to Holkham in order to paint her father. Historically, there were a number of paintings by Jane adorning the walls of Holkham, almost all copies after renowned artists, including Gainsborough himself. Thomas William displayed them in prominent positions; in the published guides of 1817 and 1838, works by Jane were listed on display in the South Dining Room, South Drawing Room, and in Lady Leicester’s Bedroom. The work in the Drawing Room – described as a ‘copy of Belisarius’ – was clearly highly prized by her father, as the guide explicitly mentioned that it was painted when she was only 15 years old, and that is was hung opposite Van Dyck’s Duc d’Arenberg.

It appears that all of Thomas William’s three daughters had artistic talent, though the most recognised today was Jane’s younger sister Anne Coke. Anne later married Viscount Anson, and their family home at Shugborough Hall still contains some of her paintings.

Jane married Charles Nevison Howard, Viscount Andover in 1796, although tragedy overtook the young couple when he died in a shooting accident at Holkham four years later. Jane married again in 1806, this time to Admiral Sir Henry Digby; the marriage produced four children, including the fascinating Lady Jane Digby. Click here to read more about Jane Digby.

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