23 Mar 2021

Volunteer Views:
The Tommy & Grace of Aston Hall

The Artist

This pair of portraits is of a very handsome couple, Sir Thomas Holte (1571-1654) 1st Baronet of Aston Hall and Grace Bradbourne, wife of Thomas Holte. They caught my eye during my first volunteering shift at Aston Hall and have continued to intrigue me ever since. The paintings are attributed to Cornelius Johnson (1593-1661) who was an English portrait painter of Dutch or Flemish ancestry. Johnson painted many people in the emerging new English gentry, of which Holte was certainly a member. The painter worked in England from 1618 until the English Civil War (1642-51) when he moved to the Netherlands to escape the conflict.

The People

Thomas Holte was the original owner of Aston Hall, he commissioned the hall from designer and architect John Thorpe and it took 17 years to finish (1618-43). Thomas’ parents were Edward and Dorothy (Ferrers) Holte of Duddeston, Warwickshire, a wealthy, landowning family who earned a great fortune in the wool trade. In 1599, Thomas served as High Sheriff of Warwickshire, as several of his male family members had done before him, and in 1603 he received a knighthood from King James I. Later, in 1612, Thomas bought the title of baronet, King James I was selling these to raise funds to support his soldiers that were occupying Ireland and suppressing uprisings. Thomas felt a grander house was needed to reflect his wealth and elevated social status - hence he built Aston Hall. Grace Bradbourne was the daughter of William Bradbourne and Frances Priest, of Hough, Derbyshire, she had 15 children with Thomas, all but one predeceased their father. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find out much more about Grace.

The Paintings

It is clear to see from the portraits of Thomas and Grace that they had money, by the fact they had their portraits painted in the first place, but I do think these portraits seem rather understated. Considering Thomas’ closeness to the crown, it is somewhat surprising that they are wearing such dark colours, however the materials they are made of look rather fine. The detail of the clothing, particularly in Grace’s portrait, are beautifully subtle, the bows, ballooning sleeves, pleated ruffs and the dark hat make her look quite serious and quite able to get to work as a High Sheriff herself! From the detailing of the lace, to the shine of the satin on her clothing - it is stunningly captured. Cornelius Johnson, the artist, never received the recognition or status of contemporaries such as Anthony Van Dyck, but I think these paintings are a work of masterpiece.

 Two portraits: Sir Thomas Holte (1571-1654), 1st Baronet of Aston Hall (1600-1700) and Grace Bradbourne, wife of Thomas Holte (1627-1700). Both portraits by Cornelius Johnson

The Thomas and Grace of Small Heath

Another Brummie power couple (albeit fictional) which are namesakes of the Holtes, are Tommy and Grace Shelby (nee Burgess). They are key characters from the phenomenally popular TV show Peaky Blinders, a BBC production directed by Steven Knight based in our very own city of Birmingham. Although some may think the names are where the similarities end, Tommy does reach higher wealth and status as a gangster turned businessman, going on through a series of ventures to eventually win himself a seat in Parliament as a Labour candidate. To reflect his new status, he bought a large mansion house, filmed at Arley Hall in Cheshire.

Being the patriarch of his family, Tommy’s ruthless, single minded attitude may be likened to that of Thomas Holte, who is often recounted for his foul temper with stories of him locking up a daughter in the attic, disinheriting a son and reportedly threatening a neighbour with a meat cleaver. Several other similarities between the men could be drawn, including the fact they both lived through wars, Thomas Holte through the English Civil War, in which Aston Hall itself was bombarded by Parliamentary forces in 1643. Thomas Shelby’s character comes away from the Great War with psychological scars that we would now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Do you agree with some of the comparisons I have drawn? What do you think about the paintings of Sir Thomas and Grace? 

Thank you for reading and if you fancy exploring some more of my writing do check out my blog Museum Maverick.