Lady Anne Clifford: Portraits of a 17th-Century Feminist

Rachel Witte 11 August 2020 min Read

During the early modern period of European history (ca. 1500-1800), women’s freedoms varied significantly based on their location and local laws. Regulations concerning religion, estates, wills, sex, and politics deeply impacted their daily lives. Lady Anne Clifford’s relentless pursuit of her own success has not gone unnoticed by historians. This is a story about a woman told by her portraits made by artists at various stages in her life as she fought for rights automatically granted to male heirs.

Lady Anne Clifford

In the Winter of 1590, Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676) was born to a prominent Elizabethan family. She was the only surviving child of George Clifford, the 3rd Earl of Cumberland. Upon her father’s death, the teenage Anne believed she would inherit his vast property holdings. However, despite being legally entitled to oversee them, she faced obstacles, likely because she was a woman.

Robert White, Lady Anne Clifford
Robert White, Anne, Countess of Pembroke (Lady Anne Clifford), 1603, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

Educated in Matters of the World

In her diary, the educated Anne Clifford refers to the “Turks,” suggesting she was aware of the freedoms enjoyed by women in the Ottoman Empire, which contrasted sharply with the lives of women in England. Inheritance laws in Christian Western Europe were complex and restrictive for women. Lady Anne Clifford fought to claim what many believed she did not deserve as a woman. Her opponents included male family members and, according to her diaries, King James I of England.

Fighting the Patriarchy: Lady Anne Clifford and Her Doubters

Upon her father’s death, the lands were transferred to his brother and subsequent male heirs. Her mother, Margaret, aided in petitioning the King and courts for the lands. After many years of battling for inheritance laws to be amended, Margaret passed the baton to Lady Anne’s husband, Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset (m. 1609–1624). Sackville was tired of these efforts after his young wife refused to accept monetary compensation in exchange for dropping the issue entirely. Ultimately, Lady Anne wanted all of the several estates owned previously by her father.

William Larkin, Anne Countess of Pembroke (Lady Anne Clifford), ca. 1618, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

Larger Portraits

Below she is depicted seated next to her second husband, Philip Herbert: the 4th Earl of Pembroke and 1st Earl of Montgomery. The painting by Anthony van Dyck was a massive undertaking (330 x 510 cm or 11 x 17 feet).

Anthony van Dyck, group portrait, Philip Herbert
Anthony van Dyck, Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke with His Family, ca. 1635, Tate, London, UK.

Furthermore, the commissioning of a larger and more elaborate triptych highlights her struggle to reclaim her birthright. The left panel depicts her as a young girl at the time of her father’s death. The right panel shows her as an older woman, twice married and accomplished in other ways. The central panel features her parents and two elder brothers, all deceased by that point. Art historians have determined that the portrait on the right was the only one painted from life, and it appears to have influenced a later portrait attributed to John Bracken.

The Great Picture, Jan van Belcamp, Anne Clifford
Jan van Belcamp, The Great Picture, ca. 1646, Lake Land Arts, Abbot Hall Gallery, Cambria, UK.

The two portraits below, both attributed to John Bracken, depict Clifford in her later years; the latter is a painting completed just before she passed in 1676.

John Bracken, portrait, Lady Anne Clifford
John Bracken, Lady Anne Clifford, 1670, Abbot Hall Gallery, Cumbria, UK.

John Bracken, Lady Anne Clifford, late portrait
Attr. John Bracken, Lady Anne Clifford, ca. 1675, Lake Land Arts, Abbot Hall Gallery, Cambria, UK.

Outliving Male Heirs: Playing the Long Game

In the end, her legal battles proved unsuccessful. In 1646, she finally inherited the properties after all the male heirs had passed. Anne spent her later years restoring castles, building homes for poor widows, and restoring churches. With the inheritance, she also gained the title of High Sheriff of Westmorland County.

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