This grand painting was commissioned by Lady Anne Clifford to mark her achievements and celebrate her prominent family, particularly its women. Made in 1646 during the English civil war, it is a rare celebration of the life of a woman of the period. It holds within it the story of Anne’s fight for her rights, and her talents as a writer who captured history from a woman’s perspective.
The huge work across three canvases is believed to be by Jan van Belcamp. It features Anne three times. The central panel places her mother at the centre, pregnant with Anne, with her husband and two young sons, both of whom died in childhood. To the left is Anne aged 15, surrounded by objects illustrating her education and vast accomplishments. Following the death of her father, Anne, his sole heir, had expected to inherit her family’s five castles and vast estates across Cumbria and Yorkshire.
Instead her father left his estates to his brother, Anne’s uncle, and his son – Anne’s cousin. In a battle that spanned four decades, she fought for her right to inherit. The right-hand canvas is a celebration of her finally taking possession of her long-awaited inheritance at the age of 56, when this work was made.
At the end of the civil war Anne travelled north to reclaim her estates, finding the castles ravaged by time and conflict. She became high sheriff of Westmorland (Cumbria) and rebuilt churches and castles and built alms-houses for the elderly.
Anne is today remembered as a protofeminist who fought for her right to own and govern land at a time when everything she had was not hers by law, but her husband’s. She kept prolific diaries that give an insight into the life of women at court in early 17th-century England, and was an extensive letter writer and important patron of the arts.