Nick’s momentous first visit to Stourwater, the redoubt of Sir Magnus Donners, is occasioned by his inclusion in a luncheon party there in the company of the Walpole-Wilsons. “The dining room was hung with sixteenth century tapestries. I supposed that they might be Gobelins from their general appearance, blue and crimson tints set against lemon yellow. They illustrated the Seven Deadly Sins. I found myself seated opposite Luxuria, a failing principally portrayed in terms of a winged and horned female figure, crowned with roses, holding between finger thumb one of her plump, naked breasts, while she gazed into a looking-glass, supported on one side by Cupid and on the other by a goat of unreliable aspect. The four-footed beast of the Apocalypse with his seven dragon-heads dragged her triumphal car, which was of great splendour. Hercules, bearing his clubs, stood by, somewhat gloomily watching this procession, his mind filled, no doubt, with disquieting recollections. In the background, the open doors of a pillared house revealed a four-poster bed, with hangings rising to an apex, under the canopy of which a coupe lay clenched in a priapic grapple. Among trees, to the right of the composition, further couples and groups, three or four of them at least, were similarly occupied in smaller houses and Oriental tents; or, in one case, simply on the ground.” [BM 199/190]
This richly symbolic art work is an invention of Powell’s, but one clearly based on actual models, if imperfectly so. Gobelin tapestries did not come into production until the seventeenth century, but Belgian tapestries were in full production in the sixteenth, when Nick supposes the Stourwater set originated. We believe that Cardinal Wolsey commissioned a set of Belgian tapestries depicting the Seven Deadly Sins for his residence at Hampton Court, but we have been unable to find an image of any of these, if indeed any survive. Because Wolsey’s palace became a possession of the Crown at his death, and has remained so since, it is possible that Powell viewed Wolsey’s tapestries as a visitor to Hampton Court Palace.
A tantalizing alternative is suggested by Cassidy Carpenter, a high-school-aged scholar at Andover in 2008, whose teacher posted his students’ essays on Dance in an online compendium. Carpenter argues that Powell’s Luxuria is modeled on The Triumph of Lust, a Belgian tapestry completed in 1533, based on a design by the Flemish painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550), himself the son of a tapestry weaver. Van Aelst’s tapestry does not match Nick’s description of Luxuria, but Carpenter makes a credible claim for its role as Powell’s inspiration.
Van Aelst was the mentor and father-in-law of Pieter Breugel the Elder. More information about the family is available on the DeMeijer family website, which reports that the Luxuria displayed in Madrid is “one of four surviving tapestries from a set purchased by Mary of Hungary in 1544.” The photos available of the tapestry provide little detail because of its size, but Carpenter has guided us to a more detailed reproduction in a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalogue (Campbell Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence Yale University Press 2002, p 412-3); she points out that the tapestry which Powell describes is much more risque that the Van Aelst version of Lust. We show only thumbnails below because the book is copyrighted; follow the link to the book to see more detail.
In Album, Lady Violet Powell leads our search for Luxuria away from tapestries to a painted table often attributed to Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516) that includes images of the Seven Sins
Incidentally, the Seven Deadly Sins in question are not a universally constant set, but since medieval times are typically identified as gluttony, sloth, greed, envy, wrath, pride, and lust. Luxuria is the Latin formulation for that last and most fascinating trait. All the others do star turns in Dance, but Luxuria certainly gets top billing.