'In a way I couldn’t have imagined, a deathbed can have beauty and meaning alongside the worst'

Venetia, Lady Digby, on her Deathbed, 1633, 29in by 32in, by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Bridgeman Images.

Basil Comely says:
‘My mother, Barbara, died four months ago. In a way I couldn’t have imagined, a deathbed can have beauty and meaning alongside the worst. Venetia was painted dead, but van Dyck seems to capture her as she nears her last. She looks beautiful, she looks knowing–so did my mother. She wears her jewellery–so did my mother. Venetia is young, my mother was old, but clouds lifted. And if you avoid the horrors of a hospital death, there’s a timelessness of pillow and coverlet. She would like this picture. A wonderful memento mori. And now, in a way, so is this page.’

Basil Comely is head of London Arts at the BBC. His new series Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past begins at 9pm, March 7, on BBC4.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘John Aubrey’s Brief Lives is the main source for the scarlet reputation of the beautiful Venetia Digby (1600–33). The child of the daughter and co-heiress of the Duke of Northumberland, she became, he claims, a teenage courtesan and had two children as ‘concubine’ of the 4th Earl of Dorset, who left her an annuity of £500. In 1624, she married Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–65), courtier, diplomat, intermittent Catholic and amateur scientist. He was smitten and determined to restore her reputation: ‘A wise man, and lusty, could make an honest woman out of a brothel house.’

The married Venetia ‘carried herself blamelessly yet (they say) he was jealous of her’. This may explain the suspicion that he killed her, although it seems more likely her unexpected death came from taking one of his experimental potions, supposedly a beauty treatment concocted from viper’s blood. Digby was a patron of van Dyck, who provided this idealised memento mori of her two-day-old corpse. The slightly open ‘far-seeing’ eye is a genre convention; pearls, rouge and the withered rose are obvious ornaments.

Digby kept the picture by his bed, ‘the only companion I now have’. When she died, van Dyck was still at work on her full length portrait, now in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). She holds a live serpent (grim irony, as things transpired) symbolising wisdom and he clothes her partly in black to acknowledge her demise. Also in the NPG are two paintings of the piggy-faced Digby (one by van Dyck), who became ‘the most accomplished cavalier’ in the Civil War.’

This article was first published in Country Life, February 27, 2013