The paradoxical premise of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract

The Draughtsman's Contract, directed by Peter Greenaway.
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The central premise of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract is dependent on a specific 1694 law – but, strangely, it’s a law that doesn’t exist…

I set myself a perfectly simple task on an ordinary day during the 2020 lockdown; it was to write an article for a competition – my idea was a bit of a curveball, and I had no expectation to win, but I appreciated the impetus – on the subject of a favourite film of mine that I had never seen, The Draughtsman’s Contract.

More accurately, it was one of the pantheon of films which I had perhaps seen in part, but knew a bit about and so I decided that I liked it. First thing’s first, to be reasonable I finally watched the film in full. Having watched it, what I did next complicated matters.

I had to check a few things before I got on to writing the thing. In passing, I was reading an article on the Guardian website, just to make note of a few basic details. It was an edited excerpt from the DVD commentary by the film’s writer-director Peter Greenaway, from the BFI edition. In passing he explained the year in which the film is set, mentioning a law which had prompted him to choose this. Nothing in the film itself makes this clear, but in case I too mentioned it in passing I thought I should double-check the name of the law, to get the wording right. After this point, I never got on to writing the article.

I’ll briefly digress, for the benefit of those not familiar with his work, to describe fleetingly Mr Greenaway’s films and his general personal demeanour. The films are works of intense theatricality, often scatological or transgressive in parts, and deeply rooted in the tradition of European visual arts, specifically painting. Greenaway’s greatly cited contribution to British culture was to make the sexual revenge drama The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, which opens with Michael Gambon forcing an unfortunate man to be urinated on and smeared in excrement.


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Greenaway lost his initial novelty, in advertising terms at least, and became increasingly peripheral beyond the spheres of fanatics and connoisseurs after the release of Prospero’s Books, in which Shakespeare’s The Tempest was told in a visual spectacle frequently eschewing Shakespeare’s actual script. Near the start of Prospero’s Books, a child on a swing urinates like a water feature into a swimming pool. In The Draughtsman’s Contract, his first narrative feature film, a man painted as a living statue urinates into a pool like a water feature. Et cetera.

When Greenaway talks, he is slow and fluent, and sounds as though he knows exactly what he’s talking about. He frequently reverts to standard arguments or straight-faced shaggy-dog streams of consciousness regarding what we should all think about art and cinema, which he will couch with a jaded grin as he points out that he knows he’s being facetious.

On these latter points, his main argument is that films should be more bound to the rules followed by trained painters. One suspects he’s embarrassed he failed to make a living as a painter. His main argument about cinema is that it’s a dying or dead art form that failed when the majority of cinemagoers and filmmakers got distracted and stopped doing it correctly, including himself – by which he means they stopped following the rules of European painting.

And, to come to a head and to come back to where this digression meets the necessary point going forwards, Greenaway frequently makes films which form a running practical joke. When he speaks, he’s often saying something which has an element of truth, but is really intended as an intellectual joke. With that in mind, if he happened to be angry when we heard him and he wants us all to know he knows better than us, should we trust anything he says?

The law that sent me somewhat astray when I found Greenaway mentioning it was the Married Woman’s Property Act, which, it is asserted in the DVD commentary, was passed in 1694 when The Draughtsman’s Contract is set. I found the Married Woman’s Property Act 1964, almost mistakably the same, on Wikipedia. I found a series of other laws of similar names or ideas in the centuries that followed, but not 1694.

Perhaps he had marginally misspoken. Perhaps he recorded the DVD commentary with his facts coming from memory, without notes. I tried very hard to give the benefit of the doubt. The website,, lists all UK and English laws; I went through several decades either side, to no avail. Something was missing. Is it all a big joke?

Let’s go back, from the Guardian’s edited transcript, to the DVD commentary itself. There’s nothing in the actual film, no specific line of dialogue or title card, to specify 1694. At the time of release, this must have come through press releases and suchlike. What did Greenaway actually say, in full?

“I came up and developed this script, about a draughtsman [someone who makes very precise artistic depictions] – and we’re talking about the late 17th century, so this would have been possible – who was employed by country house owners, in England, to draw or paint their estates, their property, their houses and gardens.” This all sounds amenable. Nevertheless, it’s all a bit vague.

But, at this point Greenaway digs in. “So this is a story about a group of aristocrats, in the year 1694 (and that year is particularly significant), worrying, arguing, discussing questions about property, money, hereditary continuity. So it fit into that whole English house association which has now become a certain sort of industry.He specifies the year, and says it’s particularly significant. Why?

He continues again; the draughtsman “is employed by the wide of a country house owner to draw the country estate. 1694 is significant, I suppose, in English history for lots of reasons. It’s the year when the Bank of England is founded. It’s several years after the Battle of the Boyne, so the Dutch protestant aristocracy is now firmly in place in England. It’s a final and ultimate goodbye to all the Roman Catholic persuaded Stuart family. James II has just been thrown off the English throne – he makes a desperate, last-minute attempt to get England to turn to Roman Catholicism; it fails dismally, and the Dutch William III of England has married the English Queen Mary and now sits on the English throne.” All factually accurate.

The Draughtsman's Contract

But here is the clincher. “1694 also sees the introduction of a comparatively small law, but very significant for women, and very significant certainly for this film, when the Married Woman’s Property Act passes through the English Parliament. This finally means that women can inherit property legally, and have some control – though admittedly a limited control – over inheritance, their own children, and certainly property.” This is his explanation.

Am I missing something? People misspeak all the time, but I was being presented with the reason why the film was the way it is, a film about men and women’s rights over their own property. To reiterate, a narrative modelled around a supposed change which does not, in fact, exist. Because, it’s not even just that the particular name of the law doesn’t exist.

I tried to find the change he talks about, in case it happened under a different law. Much, much later, I found (from books including this one) the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870 being the first change. An academic article titled ‘Wives and household wealth: the impact of the 1870 British Married Women’s Property Act on wealth-holding and share of household resources’ by Mary Beth Combs says this unequivocally:

“From the early thirteenth century until 1870, English common law held that most of the property that a wife had owned as a feme sole came under the control of the husband at the time of marriage. Specifically a married woman’s ‘personal property vested in the husband absolutely, since there could be no estates in chattels, and therefore he could dispose of it absolutely.”

If this was the case until 1870 without change, there’s no reason to think that the characters in a film set in the 1600s would be suddenly becoming of any new power. Unless Greenaway is a time traveller as well as a failed painter, this series of laws as held in historical record is all we have to go on to talk about a change having occurred, and there are no other facts beyond this.

More plainly, what Greenaway describes was simply not true, and would not happen as he described until nearly 200 years after his film was set. Perhaps such a change happened in the culture and the aether. But it was not the case that an enterprising woman at the time his film was set very suddenly had more rights than previously.

He based the narrative of his film around it, so we aren’t just talking about the slip of the tongue that would be most likely. He must have fashioned his narrative knowing that there wasn’t a basis. Perhaps he simply wanted to set a film in the 1600s, but exactly why Peter Greenaway fashioned The Draughtsman’s Contract around a non-existent central concept may remain a mystery.

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