Elizabethan art expert to explore rare 16th century ‘pregnancy portrait’ in Chancellor’s Lecture

Mildred Cooke Cecil, later Lady Burghley.

Mildred Cooke Cecil, later Lady Burghley. - Credit: Courtesy of Robert Gascoyne Cecil, the 7th Marquess of Salisbury / Hatfield House.

An Elizabethan art expert will explore a rare 16th century 'pregnancy portrait' at the University of Hertfordshire’s annual Chancellor’s Lecture this Thursday.

Former Tate Britain curator Professor Karen Hearn will discuss a painting of a pregnant Mildred Cooke, wife of Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, at the online talk on June 3.

Visibly with child, the painting of Mildred Cooke is one of the earliest examples of an English ‘pregnancy portrait’. 

This type of painting was rare at the time, as pregnancies were not often shown in portraits prior to the 20th century. It was made by Flemish painter Hans Eworth around 1563, presumably in London.

Mildred Cooke Cecil, later Lady Burghley.

Mildred Cooke Cecil, later Lady Burghley. - Credit: Courtesy of Robert Gascoyne Cecil, the 7th Marquess of Salisbury / Hatfield House.

It has descended through the Cecil family and is now owned by Robert Gascoyne Cecil, the 7th Marquess of Salisbury and Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire.

Karen Hearn said: “The portrait of a clearly pregnant Mildred Cooke was made only five years after Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne, when everyone assumed the Queen herself would marry and have children of her own.

"Although historically many women spent much of their adult lives being pregnant, it has always been rare for portraits to depict a woman as visibly pregnant.

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"There are, however, a number of examples from Elizabethan and Jacobean Britain, and my talk will consider why this is the case.”

Mildred Cooke, Lady Cecil, was an English noblewoman and translator in the 16th century, known today for her library of works in Latin and Greek.

She married Sir William Cecil, subsequently 1st Baron Burghley and chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1545. They had six children together, only three of whom lived to adulthood.

Karen Hearn was the curator of 16th and 17th century British Art at Tate Britain in London from 1992 to 2012 and is now an Honorary Professor at University College London.

She also curated the Portraying Pregnancy exhibition at London’s Foundling Museum in 2020.

This year’s Chancellor’s Lecture at the Hatfield-based university forms part of the delayed 500th anniversary celebrations marking the birth of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

The 2021 Chancellor's Lecture, titled Mildred Cooke Cecil: Pregnancy Portrayed in Elizabethan England, will be delivered virtually by Karen Hearn at 7pm on Thursday, June 3 and is open to members of the public.

To book a free ticket, visit herts.ac.uk/about-us/events/2021/chancellors-lecture-2021


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