Lady Drury’s Closet

Lady Drury’s "closet" was indeed a small room, but unlike the closets we know today, it was not used for storing clothing or any other unneeded objects out of sight. Instead, it was a place for this noble and learned lady to store her thoughts, ideas and philosophies in a most unique way. Though this small, remarkable room was created more than two centuries before the Regency began, it was still in place, in Lady Drury’s former country home, during our favorite decade. Perhaps it would make the ideal setting for a special scene or two in a Regency romance?

Lady Drury’s Closet through the Regency . . .

First, it is important to understand what a closet was to a lady in the seventeenth century. Most wives of men of the nobility were assigned a suite of rooms for their use, both in the family’s country house, and in some cases, were also given a similar suite in the family’s London house. That suite would typically include a bedchamber and a sitting room, though some ladies also had another small room as part of this suite. These extra rooms were usually quite small and were known as the lady’s closet. The closet often directly adjoined the lady’s bedchamber and it was considered her private room, a chamber into which she could retreat for complete privacy while she prayed, meditated, read or wrote letters. Most ladies’ closets had a lock on the door and the lady herself was usually the only one who held the key to that lock. Not even the servants had access to this room without the lady’s express permission, and usually, only under her personal supervision.

Most ladies’ closets of this period were furnished very sparingly, with a chair, a small table, and, sometimes, a small bookshelf. Though it was not yet usual at this time to put carpets on the floors of rooms, there were a few instances when a lady did have a carpet on the floor of her closet, rather than spread on the table. (Quite a luxury early in the century.) Most ladies chose to decorate their private closets with objects which were particularly meaningful to them. Since many ladies used their closets as a devotional retreat, paintings and prints with religious themes, a copy of the Bible, prayer or psalm books might all be found in these small rooms. Lady Anne Bacon Drury took that concept very much further.

Lady Anne Bacon Drury was the daughter of Sir Nicholas Bacon, and the wife of Sir Robert Drury, of Hawstead and Hardwick, in the county of Suffolk. As a member of the prominent Bacon family, unlike most girls of the era, Anne was very well educated during her early years. She had even learned Latin and studied many of the classical texts in that language. She continued to pursue her studies throughout her life. It is believed that she probably also educated her two children, both daughters. Sadly, she lost both of her daughters before they reached adulthood. Dorothy died at age four, and Elizabeth died at the age of fourteen. Lady Anne and her husband were friends and patrons of the cleric and poet John Donne, who dedicated two of his mediations to young Elizabeth, soon after her passing.

In 1592, when they were first married, Lady Anne and Sir Robert Drury, both still minors, took up residence at Redgrave Hall, the home of Anne’s family, since Sir Robert, a soldier, was frequently away from home. It was not until 1599, after Sir Robert had attained his majority, that the couple moved into Hawstead Place, the ancestral seat of the Drury family. By this time, Lady Anne had already given birth to both of her girls, and had buried little Dorothy, her eldest. So it was that when she took up the responsibilities of running her own home, she had been married for several years and was already a mother. Sir Robert continued to be absent from home, and from England, for long periods, as he pursued his career as a solider, diplomat and politician. There is some evidence that Lady Anne did travel occassionally, but she seems to have spent most of her time at Hawstead Place. It was here that she conceived and created her remarkable closet.

It is not known for certain when Lady Anne began the creation of her special closet at Hawstead Place. It may have been as early as 1606, while her surviving daughter, Elizabeth, was still alive. A project, perhaps, shared by mother and daughter. However, some scholars believe Lady Anne might not have begun work on the tiny room until 1610, as a way to deal with her grief over the unexpected death of her beloved teenage daughter in that year. It is known that Lady Anne and Sir Robert Drury traveled to the Continent in 1610, and it is possible she may have learned of, or even seen, one or two similar rooms during her travels.

Lady Anne Drury’s closet was a tiny cube room, being only seven feet square, which was situated just off her bedchamber. Nearly all of the wall space in this room was covered floor to ceiling with a series of over fifty small painted wooden panels which depict a wide array of unique images. It is now believed that Lady Drury painted these panels herself. Lady Anne was very close to her brother, Sir Nathaniel Bacon, who was considered one of the most talented amateur painters of his time. Lady Anne was also an accomplished painter and she may well have sought her brother’s artistic advice as she planned, designed and painted the scenes she intended to install in her private closet.

Along the top of the walls, Lady Anne placed a set of painted panels which carried inscriptions in Latin. A set of painted images was then arranged beneath each inscription. Though scholars do not all agree on the exact meanings of many of the images, they do believe that Lady Anne placed each set of small images beneath the inscriptions to which she felt they were related. It is likely that Lady Anne drew on emblem books, which were popular at that time, as the source of her images. Emblems, or allegorical illustrations, were pictures, usually accompanied by a short bit of text, or motto, intended to inspire viewers with some specific moral lesson. Perhaps it was only natural for a woman who came from a family steeped in humanism, nearly all of the images in Lady Drury’s closet are secular in nature, rather than religious.

One of the clues to scholars that this room is the work of Lady Anne herself is one of the most prominent of the Latin inscriptions in the closet, which actually breaks over two panels. This inscription reads: "NVNQVAM MINVS SOLA — QVAM CVM SOLA" It is an almost verbatim quote from Cicero, "Nunquam minus solus, quam cum solus." It translates to English as "Never less alone than when alone." The quote is taken from Cicero’s remarks on the tranquil solitude to be enjoyed at one’s country estate with one’s library for company, by which he consoled himself during his exile. Lady Anne, well versed in Latin, changed "solus" to "sola," the feminine form of the adjective, clearly showing this text referred to her and this small space, which she intended for her use alone.

Though Sir Robert Drury’s father had died in deeply in debt, by 1609, through careful management and some sound investments, Sir Robert was able to clear his father’s debts. He also enlarged his land holdings by the purchase of the Hardwick estate, rebuilding and refurbishing the manor house. [Author’s Note:   This is not the Hardwick Hall built for the famed Bess of Hardwick. That grand Elizabethan house is located in Derbyshire.] Sir Robert Drury’s Hardwick House was located in Suffolk, near Bury St. Edmunds. It is believed that Lady Anne and Sir Robert moved into their new home sometime in 1612, after their return from a second trip to the Continent. Sometime between 1612 and 1615, Sir Robert arranged to have his wife’s private closet dismantled and moved to Hardwick House, where it was reconstructed. As at Hawstead Place, Lady Drury’s closet was situated just off her bedchamber.

Sir Robert Drury died in 1615, with no heirs. Lady Anne did not remarry and continued to live in Hardwick House until her own death in 1624. About twenty-five years later, a member of the Drury family sold the Hardwick estate to a wealthy draper and former Sheriff of London, Sir Thomas Cullum. Though she was not an ancestor, the Cullum family maintained and cared for Lady Drury’s closet as part of their family home. The estate, and Hardwick House, were still part of the holdings of the Cullum family during the Regency. The head of the family during our favorite decade was Sir Thomas Gery Cullum, Baronet. Sir Thomas was a surgeon, botanist and scholar, as well as serving as a Deputy Lieutenant and an alderman in Suffolk. He was also a member of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society and the London Society of Antiquaries.

In 1784, the Reverend Sir John Cullum, wrote a history of Hawstead and Hardwick. Sadly, he died not long after the book was published and it did not see a wide circulation. However, in 1813, his brother, Sir Thomas Gery Cullum, corrected and annotated the text and had a second edition published. The History and Antiquities of Hawstead and Hardwick, in the County of Suffolk, was published in London by J. Nichols of Fleet Street. In Chapter III, on page 159, there begins a description of "the painted closet" which had been created by Lady Drury, with the speculation that it had been intended as an oratory, or private chapel. Though scholars today are certain that this room was intended as a lady’s private closet, such was not the case during the Regency. Despite the fact that most of the images in the room are secular, and the Latin inscriptions were taken from classic texts, not from religious sources, many during the Regency automatically assumed that the room was meant to be used solely for prayer and meditation.

The second edition of the The History and Antiquities of Hawstead and Hardwick, published in 1813, would have brought the details of Lady Drury’s closet to the attention of many people who may not have previously known of its existence. In that edition, Sir Thomas included all of the Latin inscriptions in the room as well as descriptions of the various painted emblems and any mottos which might have accompanied them. This edition also includes two pages of illustrations depicting some of the more curious of the emblems found in Lady Drury’s closet.

The Hardwick estate would remain in the Cullum family until 1924, when the last member of the family died without heirs and the estate became the property of the Crown. Sadly, the house itself was dismantled for building materials a few years later, and nothing of it remains today. Fortunately, Lady Drury’s closet managed to survive. It was purchased by the Ipswich Corporation Museums and was re-installed in Christchurch Mansion, a lovely Tudor building which now serves as a museum. If you should ever get to Ipswich, in Suffolk, do take the time to visit Christchurch Mansion and see Lady Drury’s remarkable closet for yourself.

Though Lady Drury’s closet was created at least two centuries before the Regency began, it was still in place at Hardwick House, in Suffolk, during that period. Sir Thomas Gery Cullum was both a scholar and a man active in his local community and in London, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he invited people to his home from time to time. In all probability, he would have shown Lady Drury’s closet to those who might have been interested. With his political connections, he may well have held house parties at Hardwick House to which a wide number of people, including characters in a Regency romance, might be invited. Or, it is possible that a character has read the second edition of the The History and Antiquities of Hawstead and Hardwick and is already familiar with Lady Drury’s closet? Will he, or she, approach Sir Thomas in the hope of being allowed to see the closet, perhaps even to study it? It could be that a less-knowledgeable visitor might equate Lady Drury’s closet with a Regency lady’s print room, which were fashionable at that time. How will the scholarly character handle such comments? Dear Regency Authors, might Lady Drury’s tiny closet find a place in one of your upcoming romances?

Author’s Note:   For those who would like to learn much more detail about Lady Drury’s remarkable closet, I heartily recommend The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury, by H. L. Meakin. It is an eye-opening look into the life of an educated English lady of the early seventeenth century.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to Lady Drury’s Closet

  1. Christchurch Mansion is in spitting distance of where I live, and I always loved the painted panel room. It has been fairly recently cleaned and restored to its former glory, and was something of an inspiration to me for an earlier painted panel room in my Robin and Felicia mystery books. I was taking photographs in there only 2 weeks ago as it happens! I’ll email them to you, Kat, and if you want to post them, feel free.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am wicked jealous that you are so close that you can visit Lady Drury’s closet at will. It must be amazing to be able to see it in person. I am glad to know it has been restored and is being well maintained.

      Though I appreciate the offer of photographs, as you may have noticed, I don’t do images here. The issues around rights are more than I have the time or inclination to take on. Even though you took the photographs, the painted closet belongs to the Ipswich Museum and I would need their permission to post them.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • That’s a different take on photos from a museum! museums are very happy for people to use photographs, so long as they are properly captioned and the museum mentioned. I’ve checked before with Christchurch Mansion and they looked at me like I was insane to even ask, and said they would be grateful if the Mansion was mentioned. However, you have them for your own perusal.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Museums in the UK are clearly more generous than many in the US.

          =^..^=

          • anything that brings in visitors who might donate! Christchurch Mansion is free to visit, remaining so after a hot debate in local council. There’s a Jeroboam for putting donations in. I was going to use it for a post on wall decorations but the late medieval rooms were being refurbished so I shall have to wait for the wall paintings. there’s some nice Georgian wallpaper

  2. the symbols are, indeed, quite mysterious. I’ve heard the theory put forward that each wall represents a continent. Not sure myself.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The sequence and meanings of the various panels are much more complex than simple representations of the continents, according to Heather Meakin’s book on Lady Drury’s closet. I think you would really enjoy that book. I do hope you can get a copy in your local library. If they do not have one, they should order one immediately, since the closet is in their neighborhood.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. elfahearn says:

    How remarkable. Thanks for alerting me to this remarkable little room.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My pleasure! The fact that the room was still in Hardwick House during the Regency, and that it was mentioned in detail in the book on Hawstead and Hardwick in 1813 gave me the idea that it could play a part in any number of Regency romances.

      =^..^=

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