Esther Inglis: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

In this blog Kate Anderson, Senior Curator of Portraiture, Pre-1700, focuses on a painting of the sixteenth-century writer and illustrator Esther Inglis in the National Galleries of Scotland collection. Inglis is celebrated for her accomplished and exquisitely illustrated manuscripts, which include tiny self-portraits – the earliest known self-portraits to be made by a female artist working in Britain.

Unknown Esther Inglis, 1569 - 1624. Calligrapher and miniaturist 1595

Who is Esther Inglis?

Who is this woman staring out from this portrait? Her direct gaze, suspended in time, meets ours. Painted over four hundred years ago by an unidentified artist, this is a rare surviving portrait of the Franco-Scottish calligrapher, artisan, and writer Esther Inglis (about 1569–1624).

Inglis spent most of her career living and working in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Edinburgh and became known for her tiny, jewel-like manuscripts which combined highly accomplished calligraphy with exquisite illustrations in ink and watercolour.

French-born Inglis initially came to London as an infant with her parents who were Huguenots (French Protestants) - the family had fled religious persecution in France. By the 1570s they had settled in Edinburgh and her father, Nicholas Langlois (anglicised to ‘Inglis’), was Master of the French School in the city from around 1574—1611. Her mother Marie Presot was a scribe and taught handwriting at the school, and it was from her that Inglis learnt the formal art of handwriting. While Inglis was brought up in and educated in Scotland she retained a strong sense of her cultural identity and acknowledged her French heritage when signing her work.

Esther Inglis (1571-1624), Cinquante octonaires sur la va [sic] vanité et inconstance du monde dediez à Monsieur le Prince pour ses estrennes de l'an 1607 / escrit et illuminé par moy Esther Inglis., (Fifty Octonaires of the vanity and inconstancy of this world: dedicated to Monsieur, The Prince, A New Year’s gift in the year 1607/ written and illustrated by me, Esther Inglis) 1607, RCIN 1047001, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Esther Inglis (1571-1624) Argumenta psalmorum Davidis. (The arguments of the Psalms of David), 1608, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.94
Esther Inglis, [Ecclesiastes] Le Livre de l'Ecclesiaste ensemble les Lamentations de Ieremie, (The Book of Ecclesiastes together with The Lamentations of Jeremiah), 1602, National Library of Scotland, MS.20498 title page

She went on to become an exceptionally skilled calligrapher (calligraphy is the design and execution of decorative handwriting), illustrator and embroiderer. Her manuscripts vary from religious texts and psalms to secular (non-religious) works - which Inglis transcribed - to designs for emblems (symbolic pictures) and heraldic arms. She often dedicated her manuscripts to members of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court, and high-ranking European protestants. Often presented as gifts in diplomatic exchange, it is believed that Inglis's early works may have been used to support the negotiations leading up to James VI’s accession to the English throne.

Inglis was multilingual and wrote in Latin, Scots and French. From 1599 her manuscripts, which are miniature in scale, also include tiny self-portraits which promoted her authorship and talent. These images are the earliest known self-portraits by a female artist working in Britain.

Esther Inglis (1571-1624), Cinquante octonaires[...] 1607, RCIN 1047001, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Her intricate illustrations often feature animals, flowers and fruit, and Inglis may have used emblem books (books of symbolic pictures often accompanied by mottoes, morals or poems) as a source of inspiration for her designs. Inglis was multitalented and she also embroidered her bound manuscripts, using precious metal threads and seed pearls (tiny natural pearls less than 2mm in size) on velvet. Her works transcend the traditional boundaries of text, visual and textile art forms, and as such she occupies a unique place in European and Scottish renaissance culture.

Today around sixty of her surviving works are recorded in public and private collections across the world. Some of the most decorative and accomplished works can be found in the National Library of Scotland, the Royal Collection Trust and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Unknown Esther Inglis, 1569 - 1624. Calligrapher and miniaturist 1595

The Portrait

This portrait of Inglis is unique in the National Galleries of Scotland collection as it is the only portrait of a female sitter who is neither a royal nor a noblewoman from this period. It was painted by an unidentified artist in the year 1595 when Inglis was about 25 years old. The following year she married Bartholmew Kello, a government clerk, making it likely that this painting was created as a betrothal portrait.

The artist has included a number of symbols in the painting which give us clues about the purpose and meaning of the portrait. For example, in the top left of the portrait there are two entwined and rather animated flowers, a carnation and honeysuckle. Carnations were tokens of love and symbolised constancy, while the honeysuckle symbolised love and devotion. The inclusion of these two flowers in the painting strengthens the idea that the portrait was painted in the lead up to her wedding.

Inglis is shown holding a small red book, perhaps to signify her profession. If we look closely, we see the book is adorned with tooled gold decoration including fleurs de lys at the corners. The fleurs de lys may hint at Inglis’s French connection, or perhaps allude a royal link – the fleur de lys features prominently in the coats of arms of the monarchs of France, Scotland and England at this date.

The striking clothing and accessories Inglis wears are typical of the type of garments worn by women from the merchant and artisan class in the Jacobean period. For the portrait she is painted wearing her finest clothes – a black gown with full sleeves, a large figure of eight ruff and an intricately embroidered stomacher pinned to the front of her bodice.

The stomacher is particularly eye-catching, with the designs of the intricate black embroidery (known as blackwork) taking the form of flowers and foliage. There is a large rose at the centre of the panel, a carnation, rose hip, marigold and acorns, which symbolise abundance and fertility. The floral motifs mirror the types of flowers Inglis chose to illustrate her texts with, which suggests she may have embroidered the stomacher herself.

Her distinctive tall-crowned black hat was known as a copotain hat and was a fashionable style worn in Scotland and England by both men and women from the 1590s to the mid-seventeenth century. Her jewellery, while quite simple, gives us insight into the type of jewels worn in Scotland in the late sixteenth century. Strings of small black and white seed pearls hang close around her neck, and on her left hand she wears three gold rings. The fanciest ring, worn on her index finger, is a combination of filigree goldwork with a small red stone at the centre, probably a ruby or red garnet – these gemstones symbolise love, passion and fidelity.

Following James VI’s accession to the English throne in 1603, Inglis, Kello and their children moved to England hoping to retain the couple's employment at court and to further Inglis’s royal patronage. They lived in Essex, where Kello was Rector of a local parish. In 1615 the family returned to Scotland and took up residence in Edinburgh again. Despite her talent and prestigious clients, by her death Inglis had accrued significant debts. She died in Leith on 30 August 1624.

Want to learn more? 

The portrait of Esther Inglis can be seen at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery as part of our Reformation to Revolution display

Extra reading: 

3 May 2022