Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Meet One of My Parishioners...

...well, she would have been was I curate of this parish 500 years ago. Her name is Cecily Heron, the youngest daughter of St Thomas More and the wife of Giles Heron. The couple married at Willesden (my previous parish!) on 29 September 1525 - Giles had become a ward of More's after the death of his father (Sir John Heron). They lived mostly at Shacklewell Hall (for any Hackney readers, that was around the area of present day Seal Street, not far from the Ridley Road Market).

Heron was intimately involved in More's household and it was during one of the future martyr's visits to Shacklewell that they were alleged to have had a treasonable conversation. Giles was eventually hanged for treason on 4 August 1540 - a bumper day in the bloody history of Tyburn gallows. Heron died alongside the Carthusian martyr, Blessed Thomas Johnson, and Robert Bird (layman), Lawrence Cook (Carmelite Prior of Doncaster), Thomas Epson (Benedictine) and probably William Bird (Rector of Fittleton and Vicar of Bradford, Wiltshire). Heron's cause was considered a hundred years ago but passed over (praetermissi) due to the lack of evidence.

I mention this little sidelight on Hackney's past because yesterday afternoon I went to the Holbein in England exhibition at Tate Britain. It finishes on Sunday, so I thought I'd better see it. I get rather impatient in crowded exhibitions, especially ones like this where many of the items are small and you have to slowly follow a long line of art lovers to catch even a glimpse of a Holbein masterpiece. So I concentrated on a few choice items and rushed through the less interesting rooms (eg Hanseatic Commissions and Designs for Goldsmiths).

Luckily what was (for me) the jewel in the crown could be found in Room 1 - a series of magnificent drawings of St Thomas More's family, made in preparation for a group painting that eventually ended up in what is now the Czech Republic and was lost in a fire that devastated the summer palace of the bishop of Olm├╝tz in 1752. The drawing of Cecily Heron at the top of this post breathes life into this historical figure. She has vividly been caught as she glances away - and it is clear from her dress that she is pregnant. I like what the Guardian's Jonathan Jones wrote about Holbein's celebrated drawing of the saint:

Thomas More is in front of you, as close as if you were looking in the bathroom mirror. Dots of black stubble dirty his chin. There's a little wrinkling at the corner of his eye, perhaps proof of yet another night's reading and writing: he wrote that the only time he got for literature was what he could steal from sleep. But he looks away from the artist through clear blue eyes, wearing the brown fur robe and wide black hat of a powerful man about town, someone who needs to leave in a moment to meet the king. This is a portrait of someone with barely the time to pose, at once mildly impatient, tolerant and - which is what makes this such a disarming image - a little bit self-mocking. The suppressed smile on his face finds the idea of posing pleasantly ridiculous.

Walking around the exhibition was like seeing the dead come back to life. One of Holbein's later paintings even has the inscription: 'add but the voice and you would wonder if his father or the painter created him'. And this was a little unnerving because, as we all know, the iconic figure that dominates the show - 'Bluff King Hal' (Henry VIII) - was responsible for imprisoning or executing so many of Holbein's sitters and destroying the peace of More's family group.

To see all the More family portraits, click here.

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