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William Segar's Portrait: A Noblewoman

Portrait of a woman wearing a huge lace ruff and an elaborately embroidered and beaded dress.  The dress has huge sleeves.  In her had she is holding a flea fur.  Her face is very pale and her hair is drawn back from her face.
'Noblewoman' Oil Painting by William Segar, 1590

This magnificently dressed woman, painted in the 1590s, has so far resisted identification.  Although we do not know her identity, the painting holds many clues about her status and lifestyle. 

The painting does bear some resemblance to portraits of Queen Elizabeth I from the same period and this in itself highlights how wealthy the sitter must have been.  Other indicators to wealth include the jewellery and head dress, encrusted with gold and pearls. Pearls were high fashion during the sixteenth century. They could be worn singly or in strands,or could be clustered in twos and fours and combined with goldwork to create elaborate billiments (bands of jewels sewn along the neckline or sleeves), necklaces or girdles (a type of belt). They were also often sewn to clothing singly, set in decorative goldwork settings, or used to decorate hairstyles as seen in our noble lady's portrait.  Pearls were also thought to be a symbol of purity whilst gloves were an emblem for elegance.


Close up of the dress, showing an elaborate pattern of pearls and gold thread embroidery.
'A Noblewoman' William Segar, c.1590 (detail)

The clothing worn by the sitter is also very ornate and her dress would have taken many yards of fabric to make.  Fashions were influenced by the European nations of Spain and Portugal. The upper classes wore fantastically elaborate clothing made from sumptuous, richly coloured and highly decorated fabrics.  Our sitter also has a large ruff made from lace stiffened with starch. 


At the height of their appeal, ruffs could be over a foot (30cm) wide, making eating and drinking rather a challenge!


Perhaps the most intriguing object in the painting is the small fur the sitter is holding in her hand.  This is known as a 'flea fur' and in theory it was designed to attract fleas from the wearer. 

Close up of the flea fur, showind a dark brown piece of fur with bejewelled areas in teh shape of an animals head and paws.
'A Noblewoman' by William Segar, c.1590 (detail)

In reality, the fur was probably more decorative than useful - the fleas prefering warm human blood!  Depictions of flea furs in paintings are exceptionally rare.