Towel-Holder

1520-1525 (made)
Towel-Holder thumbnail 1
Towel-Holder thumbnail 2
+1
images
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 62A, Discover the Renaissance World
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

This unusual carving depicts the heads and shoulders of a fool and a grotesque older woman. The fool wears a distinctive cap with enlarged ears. The surface was once brightly painted, and both figures were depicted with brightly coloured clothes. The fool has his left arm around the woman's neck, with his hand on her breast. Images of unequal lovers were a popular subject at this time and these probably provided the inspiration for this carving. The fool's left hand and the woman's right are now missing. Originally these would have held a pole over which a towel would have been draped. An inventory of Thomas Cromwell's possessions in 1527 reveals that his parlour, adjoining the kitchen, contained 'An image of a fole to hold a towel, painted.'


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Carved oak
Brief Description
Towel-holder, painted and gilded oak, with two grotesque heads, from Northern Germany (Lower Rhine), ca. 1520-25
Physical Description
A carving which depicts the busts of a fool on the left, and an old woman on the right, both smiling with their heads inclined towards the centre. Below the two figures is a battlemented console. The fool wears a cap with attached enlarged ears and a buttoned dress. He has his left arm round the neck of the woman, and lays his hand on her bared sagging breast. She wears a wimple, her right arm rests on his shoulder, and her hand is cupped beneath his chin. The fool's right hand and her left hand are now missing but would originally have held a pole over which a towel would've been draped.



The group is carved from one piece of wood, although the old woman's left arm is carved separately; the back has been hollowed out. A hook is attached to the centre of the back. The surface is covered with several layers of paint.
Dimensions
  • Maximum depth: 19cm
  • Width: 47cm
  • Height: 55.9cm
Styles
Credit line
Given by Dr W. L. Hildburgh
Object history
Dr. W.L Hildburgh gave this piece to the Museum in 1952. He bought it from Sam Wolsey, who is said to have acquired it in Cheshire.

The surface is covered with several layers of paint. In 1998 cross-sections were taken; these give a broad idea of the original colour scheme: the face, hands, and the breast of the old woman were painted in natural flesh tones; the fools cap was painted green on the left side, and red on the right side, with a gilded border and crest; the right ear of his cap was red with a yellow inner surface, the left ear green; the buttoned dress was painted orange with red horizontal stripes on the chest and the sleeve of his left arm, while the dress and sleeve of the old woman was blue with red horizontal stripes; her wimple was probably painted red; the console was gilded at the top, and the moulded area was painted blue with two red stripes.



On acquisition the present group was classified as South German, early 16th century, and associated with the Moorish dancers by Erasmus Grasser (active 1474 to about 1526) in the Stadtmuseum at Munich. Departmental records suggested that it probably formed part of the decoration of a stage or theatre cart, or a roof boss for a secular building. However, the use of oak seems to point to an origin in Northern Germany, probably in the Lower Rhine area. Guido de Werd (1981, pp.33-56; 1992-93, pp. 39-50) published two other towel-holders, which he ascribed to the sculptor Arnt van Tricht, active in Kalkar about 1530-70 (Barbara Rommé in Exh. Aachen 1996-97, pp.27-33; pp. 262-67, nos 40-41). The one now in the Städtisches Museum Haus Koekkoek at Kleve, formerly on the London art market (Sotheby's London, 17 April 1980, lot 110) depicts a couple of lovers embracing each other in high relief, the man with a fool's cap. The other, on loan to the Museum Museum für Kunst und Gwerbe in Hamburg shows the Virgin with Christ Child and St Joseph.



Historical significance: It belongs to a small number of surviving towel-holders used in medieval households
Historical context
Jones notes (pp119-120) that an inventory of Thomas Cromwell's possessions taken in 1527 includes among items listed in the parlour adjoining the kitchen, 'An image of a fole to hold a towel, painted.' This example does not appear to have survived. It needn't have been English as it could easily have been imported.



The subject, representing Lust or Lechery, a composition based on the image of the Unequal Lovers - for example Quentin Massys's Old Man, Young Woman, and Fool of about 1522-23 in the National Gallery in Washington (Stewart 1977, p146, no.18)- was popular at this time, particularly in the Lower Rhineland and the Netherlands.



The distinctive and expressive facial features seen here recall the facial types of the drolerie-figures of the choir-stall of the former Franciscan church in Kleve, of 1474, by Arnt Beeldesnider. He was active in nearby Kalkar from about 1460 to 1484, when he moved to Zwolle, but still worked for the church of St Nickas in Kalkar. He died in 1492 (Meurer 1970, figs 22, 26, 27). This seems to support an origin for the present piece in the Lower Rhine. The simplified forms of the V&A's towel-holder suggest a date of around 1500-1525, earlier than the other two towel-holders.



A colour image of the towel holder in the collections of the Museum Kurhaus, Kleve described previously, featuring a fool embracing a women, attributed to Arnt van Tricht, Kalkar, 1530s, can be found as Colour Plate 9 between pages 38-39 of Malcolm Jones' The Secret Middle Ages. Here it used to illustrate discussion about the role of the fool in medieval society.
Subjects depicted
Summary
This unusual carving depicts the heads and shoulders of a fool and a grotesque older woman. The fool wears a distinctive cap with enlarged ears. The surface was once brightly painted, and both figures were depicted with brightly coloured clothes. The fool has his left arm around the woman's neck, with his hand on her breast. Images of unequal lovers were a popular subject at this time and these probably provided the inspiration for this carving. The fool's left hand and the woman's right are now missing. Originally these would have held a pole over which a towel would have been draped. An inventory of Thomas Cromwell's possessions in 1527 reveals that his parlour, adjoining the kitchen, contained 'An image of a fole to hold a towel, painted.'
Bibliographic References
  • de Werd, G. 'Een handroekrek door de Kalkarse beelhouwer Arnt van Tricht (c.1540)', in Antiek, 16, 1981, pp. 33-56
  • de Werd, G. 'Ein Handtuchhalter mit der Darstellung der Heiligen Familie des Kalkarer Bildhauers Arnt van Tricht, um 1540', in Jahrburch des Museums für Kunst und Gewerbe, 11/12, 1992, pp.39-50
  • Jones, Malcolm, The Secret Middle Ages - Discovering the Real Medieval World (Sutton, 2002) pp119-120
  • Jopek, Norbert, German Woodcarving 1430-1540: A Catalogue of the Collection in the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A Publications, London, 2002) pp 36-36
  • Meurer, H. Das Klever Chorgestühl und Arnt Beeldesnider (Düsselddorf, 1970) figs 22, 26, 27.
  • Rommé, Barbara. 'Holzsichtigkeit und Fassung: Zwei nebeneinander bestehende Phanomene in der Skulptur des ausgehenden Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit', in Exh. Aachen 1996-1997 Gegen den Strom: Meiesterwerke niederrheinischer Skulptur in Zeiten der Reformation 1500-1550 (Suermondt-Ludwig Museum Aachen, 1996) pp 27-33, pp 262-267.
  • Stewart, A. G. Unequal Lovers: A Study of Unequal Couples in Northern Art, (New York, 1977) p146
Collection
Accession Number
A.5-1952

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record createdApril 7, 2006
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