‘Oh, to make boards speak! There is a task’: understanding the iconography of the applied paintings at Bolsover Castle

Crosby Stevens


Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire is decorated with more than sixty applied paintings, most of which date to c.1620. Their iconography has long been a puzzle. This paper takes a new approach by comparing the pictures with their print sources, and by considering how the decoration related to the use of the building for entertainments. It notes that Sir William Cavendish (later 1st Duke of Newcastle) could have sought advice from Ben Jonson when he visited Bolsover during his walk to Scotland in 1618, shortly before the decoration was commissioned. It argues that the paintings may include a depiction of a stage set, as well as portraits of Jonson, Cavendish, and his first wife Elizabeth (née Bassett). Poetic meanings in the schemes show the influence of Jonson. New links between the paintings and the text of Jonson’s Love’s Welcome at Bolsover of 1634 are revealed, and it emerges that the Star Chamber on the first floor was probably the location of its performance. There may be hitherto unrecognized site-specific material in Jonson’s later plays and works by Cavendish and his daughters which supports this interpretation of the paintings.

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