Enrico Baj

Lady Barbara Villiers Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland
Signed on lower centre
Pencil, ink and gouache on paper
57.2 x 47.8 cm

In this remarkable work on paper by the renowned Italian artist and writer Enrico Baj, the image of Lady Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland, a 17th century courtesan and one of King Charles’s mistresses, is given an extraordinarily surrealist treatment through the use of textile motifs and shading.

The use of pencil on paper has taken the role of the loom as Baj weaves the character of this portrait with density and complexity to represent personification; while subverting the idea of the portrait in much the same way that Guiseppe Arcimboldo did in the 16th century, when he created imaginative portraits, or heads, made entirely of objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish and books. A material exchange has taken place within the medium and the delicate and fragile qualities of textile have come to represent the woman herself without the actual use of textile.

The portrait is, in effect, a deconstruction of the classical approach to portraiture and serves as strong criticism of the traditional tropes used in painting and drawing to represent the self. The flattened torso is shaded with great effect to reflect the textural palpability and density of wool, while the contours of the body as well as the chest are rendered with an ornamental braided cord usually reserved for uniforms of more formal attire. The female breasts are stylised through the coiling of this material, and these are placed beneath two rosettes on the upper chest.

Further emphasizing the parody of the portrait is the use of a tassel with several strands of cord that go on to form the neck as they coil in unison and flow upwards to compose the lower part of the face and culminate in the nose. The rest of Lady Palmers countenance is formed by the traditional gathering of material in a tassel, and the spray of individual filaments, better known as the skirt, form the hair.

Subverting the portrait of an aristocrat, however scandalous, would have greatly appealed to Baj, who was close to the surrealist and dada movements, and was later associated with CoBrA. On one hand, his work emphasises the joyful experience of painting with diverse materials; however, it also provides a social commentary and strong criticism of the contemporary world. In the 1970s, Baj would also produce collage portraits of notable women, in which he used diverse materials such as trim, wood and embroidered velvet to create the images.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland, became King Charles’s mistress in 1660, while still married to Palmer, and while Charles was still in exile at The Hague. As a reward for her services, the King created her husband Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine in 1661. In many contemporary accounts, she is referred to as “Lady Castlemaine.” Of her six children, five were acknowledged by Charles as his, including Charles.


Provenance: Studio Marconi, Milan.


Le Dame di casa Baj, Studio Marconi, Milan, May 1975, ill. cat. n. 3

Le Dame di casa Baj, Studio Marconi, Milan, May 1975.

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