LONDON - As we take for granted our radiator-warmed, well-insulated buildings, it is difficult to imagine just how cold life would have been in the dwellings of the past. For millennia, humans have used animal skins as clothing and protection from the bitter weather. During the winter months, travelling even short distances by carriage or exposed to the elements on foot or horseback, meant that “catching your death of cold” was not merely an expression, but a real danger. 

Within this context, animal skins seem less of an extravagance and more a basic necessity. Before the 1970s, fur was not a contentious choice and animal rights were virtually unheard of. For men and women alike, wearing fur was quite simply the most effective way to keep safe and warm. For artists, fur would have presented a terrifically satisfying challenge to paint, attempting to replicate its varied surface and capture the play of light on a million lustrous hairs. It was perhaps the desire to achieve this feat that led to such naturalistic representations of fur in art. 


fendi_ambrosius_benson_1(Left) A look by Fendi from the Fall 2014 collection.
(Right) Ambrosius Benson, Portrait of Anne Stafford, circa 1535.

Unlike today’s fur outerwear, in pre-modern times, clothing would have been lined with the furry side facing inward. This allowed the wearer to gain the full insulating effect of the animal skin, trapping the body’s own heat within the garment. In 15th- and 16th-century Europe, furriers worked separately from other tailors in their own specialised workshops (and, like tailoring, furriery was a strictly male profession). Once completed by a tailor, dresses, cloaks, doublets and coats were brought to the furrier to be expertly lined or edged with pelts. An example of this is the lynx coat worn by Gian Girolamo Albani in Giovanni Battista Moroni’s portrait from circa 1568–70. The irregular spots in the fur are characteristic of lynx, and since Moroni painted his subjects from life, we get a realistic sense of the sumptuous texture and density of the pelt. The fur folds over into a broad collar and trim, but you can also see from the tufts peeping out from the cuffs and decorative slashes at the shoulder, that it is in fact lining the entire garment.  

Anguisola_Moroni_2(Left) Sofonisba Anguissola, Infanta Catalina Micaela The Lady with the Ermine, circa 1950.
(Right) Giovanni Battista Moroni, Gian Girolamo Albani, circa 1570.

Different furs were admired for various properties; the coats of certain marten species were prized for their softness and sheen, a great example of which you can see used for Lady Anne Stafford’s shawl in the portrait by Ambrosius Benson from about 1535. Benson is an absolute master at pelt painting; look at the way the fur is dark where it is pushed together in a crease and pale as the hairs spread out on the rolled edge of the fold. The Spring 2015 runway shows saw fur-painting mastery of a different variety when Gilles Mendel of J. Mendel collaborated with contemporary artist Enoc Perez on its line for the season. The resulting collection offered clothes with patterns based on Perez’s depictions of building façades. A memorable fur jacket was streaked with intermittent flashes of black and acid green that look like strokes of wet paint.

Rewind to the 16th century, when the black and white look could be achieved with lynx. While its long length meant lynx was incredibly warm, it was the colour and natural pattern of fur that made it so desirable. The rather coquettish sitter in Sofonisba Anguissola’s The Lady with the Ermine (thought to be Catalina Micaela of Austria, daughter of King Philip II of Spain) is decked out in lynx. She is wearing a fur-lined, floor-length hooded over-cloak called amanto, the type I imagine myself wearing in those Doctor Zhivago fantasies when stuck waiting for the bus at the centre of a polar vortex. It is rather unusual to find a lady sitting for a portrait in such a heavy, outdoor garb and some scholars suggest that Anguissola deliberately painted the duchess in this ensemble as an ingenious way to cover the smallpox scars that marred her face.

_MON0016A fur from J. Mendel’s Spring
2015 collection.

Most coveted of all furs was without doubt sable. The pelt came from a sleek, dark marten and was greatly valued for its depth of colour and for its incomparable softness. It also possessed the unique quality of remaining smooth even when stroked against the grain. 

In Italy, from the late 15th to the mid-16th century, a fashion emerged among the wealthiest of women for sables with jewelled heads. The entire animal, complete with feet and tail, was worn as an accessory. The marten’s head was re-created in gold and peppered with jewels, then attached by a chain to a decorative belt, called a girdle. The sable could be worn around the shoulders or thrown casually over one arm. 

Today, despite the availability of many faux variations and high-tech, heat-retaining alternatives, as well as an active animal rights movement, fur continues to be worn. Arguably unnecessary in most climates, fur for many people has come to signify luxury and excess – perhaps the very qualities that make it appealing to fashion designers. Fur could be found in countless Autumn/Winter 2014 collections, including Fendi, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Salvatore Ferragamo. Some are suitable for day, like Fendi’s caramel-coloured, short-sleeved zip-up jacket, while Dennis Basso’s plush fox stoles are best thrown over a super-glam evening gown.  

Occasion-specific fur is nothing new of course. Ermine, the most majestic of furs, is still today associated most closely with Royals and is Queen Elizabeth II’s go-to for stately ceremonies in Britain. The fur comes from a fashion-conscious breed of stoat, which exchanges its dark brown summer coat for a white one in the Autumn/Winter season. Only the tip of the tail stays black and those are stitched in at intervals to provide the spotted effect. 

If you look carefully at King George III’s coronation robes in Allan Ramsay’s portrait of circa 1765, the artist painted the fur with such meticulous realism, that you can see how the white fur dips slightly in the area surrounding each spot. The closer together the spots, the more tails required and the more extravagant the resulting cloth. It seems safe to say that George III was making something of a statement with his getup for the coronation, sparing no expense – nor stoat for that matter –in its making. Over his caped coat, which is itself trimmed in ermine, he wears a voluminous cloak entirely lined with pelts. The cloak cascades over the table beside him and continues down the step and right out of frame – its broad sweep a not-so-subtle metaphor perhaps for the vast scope of the British Empire at the moment he took the throne. A copy of the portrait was commissioned by the prominent Penn family in the American colonies, but the delivery was abruptly cancelled when the winds of revolution began to blow. No fur cape, however grand, can protect a monarch from the cold realities of war and politics. 

Jonquil O’Reilly is an Old Master Paintings specialist at Sotheby’s New York.