This Auckland Art Historian Is Preserving Centuries-Old Royal Beauty Secrets
Janetta Mackay talks to an art historian unlocking royal beauty secrets about why pictures of women speak louder than words across the centuries
There’s nothing like a royal bride to set off a flurry of appearance-centred tittle tattle. Across the ages, right up to Meghan Markle and her beauty sparkle, new arrivals have been obsessively analysed and often aped.
How they look and what they wear becomes a matter of public discourse, but as to what this means, few people have interpreted the historic signals as much as Dr Erin Griffey. The associate professor of Art History at the University of Auckland says women across time have felt compelled to beautify themselves.
A pleasing appearance was central to a woman’s value and power, representing their purity and fertility. “It was seen as a mirror of moral goodness and good health.”
Wearing obvious makeup was once denounced as despicable, whereas beautifying by way of appearance-enhancing skincare was acceptable. Her research is revealing just how common this was and also some striking parallels with ingredients and self-care trends today.
The sort of organic, holistic approach espoused by the Duchess of Sussex is nothing new. “They believed what you put into your body had a direct result on how you look. The idea that the outside reflects the inside is a view that goes back to antiquity.”
Erin is internationally recognised in her field, specialising in early modern portraiture and court culture. From studying the lives of elite women, including the Tudor and Stuart queens, she has broadened her fascination with period detail to amassing a stockpile of beauty recipes, dating from the Renaissance to the mid 17th century.
Aside from dangerous metals, ground animal bones and a bit of viper’s blood, these recipes have a lot in common with natural beauty formulas of today. Powdered rice, oatmeal, honey, spices and oils were all regularly used substances on skin. Pearlescent highlighters and plant-based hair dyes are nothing new either.
Freckles aside, Meghan’s look of glowing, natural health and lustrous hair was the aim of every high-born woman. But the stakes were higher than tabloid appraisal. For a noble woman looking to marry well, a flattering portrait could help seal the deal. “Beauty was not skin deep for the Tudors and Stuarts…”
Their tips and tricks were shared by both word-of-mouth and in books of household advice. Disguising greying hair was discreetly acceptable. Royal physicians had recipes for dealing with skin blemishes. Beauty recipe booklets were sold in apothecaries and in some cases ran to 10 or 15 editions, indicating that advice was filtering to the growing middle classes.
Erin has identified more than 400 recipes, 100 for hair alone, and says another reason she thinks they were in widespread use was many did not contain specific measures. This suggested users were familiar making mixtures. Ingredients ranged from rare imported spices to everyday household items, such as egg yolks for hair conditioning and lemon juice for lightening. Vegetable juices were used to colour hair as well as pulps to thicken it. Both women and men were concerned about “hair fall” and keeping their hands soft, with recipes mostly ungendered.
An exception is over complexion, with fairness prized by high-born women as a sign they did not labour outdoors, whereas a man could be tanned. Some recipes were for tonics, to be drunk rather than applied.
American-born Erin says she grew up with a fascination for royalty, but it was her time in London as a graduate student at the Courtauld Institute of Art that drove her academic interest. Since 2002 she has taught and researched from her base in Auckland, and has written several books, including On Display: Henrietta Maria and the Materials of Magnificence at the Stuart Court (Yale University Press, 2015).
The French princess who married Charles I in 1625 at the age of 15 was “the ultimate sort of cross-cultural Queen,” notes Erin. Henrietta Maria arrived in England laden with finery and continental ways. She was the subject of a number of portraits, notably by Anthony Van Dyck, that show her in ringlets.
While artistic licence might impart a rosy flush to lips and cheeks in portraiture of the time, Erin says this shouldn’t automatically be read as use of makeup. Cosmetic foolery was frowned upon with moralists denouncing it as a mask of true beauty.
The social stigma meant makeup recipes weren’t seen among those for skin and hair care. “It’s a million-dollar question if women were using [makeup] … my own instincts is that they were.” But the word cosmetics was decades away from use in England and officially any beautifying was “an act of restoration of the skin’s natural beauty and radiance”.
But what of Elizabeth I? “We know about Elizabeth that she was very keen to stage manage her official appearance,” says Erin. So that white face we see her wearing in so many film retellings of her life might not have been all lead paint to cover the smallpox she suffered in 1562, but perhaps a celestial glow she insisted artists impart upon her Royal personage.
“I’m not saying she didn’t do it [wear makeup], but it was a taboo subject and the evidence isn’t there.” One damning contemporary account by a Jesuit priest, who would not have got near her, should be treated as unreliable. “And we shouldn’t necessarily trust the portraits.”
As to the historic recipes, Erin is working with university colleagues from the chemistry department, including Dr Ruth Cink, to assess these. She hopes a book will result.
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