An exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum (Norfolk) of more than 200 pieces created between 2000 BC and 2013 that mark ‘the cultural impact of birds upon mankind’ includes a portrait of special significance to stained-glass historians. The painting shows an apparently anonymous woman cradling a squirrel in her lap with a starling perched on a branch just behind her right shoulder [Fig. 1].
The portrait was executed c.1526–28 by Hans Holbein (1497–1543) and is being lent to the exhibition by the National Gallery in London. Although the portrait is traditionally known as ‘Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling’, the identity of the sitter was finally established in 2004 thanks to the detective-like efforts of CVMA (GB) author, David King, who used visual clues in the glazing at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in East Harling (Norfolk) to solve the mystery. David recognized that the coat of arms of the Lovell family in the stained glass of the church included crouched squirrels like those in Holbein’s painting, and that the image of a starling was almost certainly a pun on East Harling, commonly spelt ‘Estharling’ in the fifteenth century [Fig. 2]. He therefore proposed that the portrait depicted Anne Lovell, the wife of Francis Lovell, a wealthy landowner, and suggested that it was probably commissioned by him as a way of asserting the family’s rising status in the eyes of King Henry VIII’s court after he had inherited the estate at East Harling. It is also conceivable that the portrait was once part of a pair of husband and wife paintings. The sitter in the National Gallery painting is unlikely to have posed with either the squirrel or the starling: Holbein probably made separate studies of them in drawings.
‘The Wonder of Birds’ runs at Norwich Castle Museum from 24 May to 14 September. East Harling Church contains the most important collection of fifteenth-century glass by Norwich glass-painters outside that city. Most of it has been gathered into the east chancel window, which now contains the remains of a number of windows, but fourteen other windows also contain lesser remains of medieval glass. For more information on the church, visit the CVMA (GB)’s digital publication of East Harling, and browse the CVMA Picture Archive.
D. J. King, ‘Who was Holbein’s Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling?’, Apollo, clix, 2004, pp. 42–49