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Zoomable Image of Portrait of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520/1-1598)

Portrait of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520/1-1598)

English School, after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger 1590s

Portrait of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520/1-1598)

English School, after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger 1590s

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Price:

Price on request

Materials:

Oil on Panel

Dimensions:

30 ¾ x 24 3/8 in (78 x 62 cm)

Provenance:

The Capel Cure family (whose wax seal is affixed to the reverse); Christie’s, London, 17 November 1989, lot 135; Private collection, UK.

The foundation of the Cecil dynasty was laid by David Cecil, a minor member of the gentry who joined Henry Tudor on his march through Wales in 1485. The family’s influence gradually grew at court, and resulted in the young William Cecil, after education at Cambridge University, being appointed as private secretary to Protector Somerset during the reign of Edward VI...

William Cecil was one of the most successful political figures of the Tudor age, and served as Elizabeth I’s chief councillor for most of her reign. His influence continued after his death in the person of his younger son, Robert, who succeeded his father as the monarch’s principal advisor into the reign of James I. Cecil was thus the progenitor of one of the most powerful families in England, one of whom, Robert, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, became Prime Minister three times. Their legacy can still be seen today in the impressive estates at Hatfield and Burghley...

The foundation of the Cecil dynasty was laid by David Cecil, a minor member of the gentry who joined Henry Tudor on his march through Wales in 1485. The family’s influence gradually grew at court, and resulted in the young William Cecil, after education at Cambridge University, being appointed as private secretary to Protector Somerset during the reign of Edward VI. In an early display of the political dexterity that allowed him to survive the Tudor age unscathed, Cecil escaped the fallout from Somerset’s fall (save a brief period in the Tower) and swiftly gained the confidence of his successor, the Duke of Northumberland: he was knighted in 1551 and joined the Privy Council. In 1553 he further managed to evade recrimination for his part in the disastrous attempt to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne. Cecil had, albeit unwillingly, signed Edward’s ‘Devise’ for the succession to exclude the Catholic Mary Tudor, but, after realizing the inevitability of Mary’s succession, he swiftly plotted to bring down Northumberland and the Greys.

As an active Protestant, Cecil played no official role in Mary’s reign, preferring to join instead the household of the young Princess Elizabeth. Thus began the closest relationship of confidence and trust that has ever existed between an English monarch and their advisor. The new Queen appointed Cecil as her Secretary of State on the first day of her reign in 1558, placing him at the heart of her government. Almost every letter of consequence, both foreign and domestic, crossed his desk, which, combined with the adept control of his royal mistress, gave Cecil considerable influence over English affairs.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was the development of a ‘British’ foreign policy, which helped pave the way for the union of England and Scotland on Elizabeth’s death. Cecil was amongst the first to realize that the religious changes sweeping across Europe in the mid sixteenth century added a new dimension to the old geopolitical and dynastic rivalries, and could be turned to England’s advantage. He therefore sought to ally himself with, for example, Protestants in the Netherlands and Huguenots in La Rochelle, as a means of destabilizing the hostile Catholic regimes of Spain and France. His similar support for the Protestant cause in Scotland led in part to the eventual deposition of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who, alongside the Armada, presented the greatest threat to Elizabeth’s reign. And it was arguably Cecil’s staunch support for the Protestant Regent in Scotland, the Earl of Moray, that ensured Mary’s son, James VI, was brought up a Protestant, thus smoothing the way for James’ succession to the English throne in 1603.


Cecil’s powerful position allowed him to wield significant patronage. His ability to influence everything from positions at court to grants of land in part explains the high demand for his portrait. It would have been typical for a family to display their patron’s portrait, such as the present example, alongside a portrait of Elizabeth and possibly themselves as a means of conspicuously displaying their status

The present work derives from a portrait of Cecil thought to have been in circulation from the mid-1580s. The identity of the artist who painted the original portrait is at present unknown, however, a number of versions have been attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561/2-1639).

In this portrait Cecil is shown wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter. Membership to the order, which was reputedly founded by King Edward III, was limited to just twenty-five knights not including the sovereign. It was one of the most prestigious chivalric orders in Europe and each member was awarded a set of magnificent scarlet robes and a gold chain. They were also permitted to use the motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ around their coat of arms, a privilege flaunted in the upper left of this portrait.

Recent research suggests this work was once part of set of portraits in the collection of the Capel Cure family depicting Garter knights. Other portraits thought to be from this set include those depicting Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (Yale Center for British Art, B1975.1.7); Ambrose Dudley, 3rd Earl of Warwick (formerly with Philip Mould & Co.), and Sir Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex (formerly with Philip Mould & Co.) The portraits of Ambrose and Robert Dudley both have original 18th century wax seals affixed the reverse bearing the arms of the Capel Cure family. Although our portrait does not have the wax seal (the reverse of the panel was shaved and ‘cradled’ in the mid-20th century), it is framed in exactly the same auricular style frame as seen around the portrait of Ambrose Dudley. It was no doubt the Capel Cure family who commissioned the matching frames for the entire set, which perhaps hung in a grand corridor or stately room.

Each of the portraits from the set are also of the same size and share a number of obvious compositional and stylistic affinities, which suggests they were painted in the same workshop. Each subject, for example, is shown with the same style of inscription in the upper right corner with their coat of arms encircled by the Garter motto on the upper left. The strong highlighting on the robes is also a consistency observed across all the portraits as is the silvery white tones of each of the subject’s hands.

Furthermore, the fact that both these works bear the same Cure family wax seal on the reverse confirms they were both at one time part of the same collection[1]and almost certainly hung together, possibly as part of a larger set of portraits of Garter knights.[2]



[1] Given the absence of family records, it is difficult to ascertain for certain when the portraits of the Dudley brothers entered or left the collection of the Cure family, however the apparent age of the wax seals suggests they were together by the eighteenth century.

[2] We are grateful to John Tunesi of Beacon Genealogical and Heraldic Research and Hugo Capel-Cure for their assistance in identifying the wax seal as that used by the Cure family. We are also grateful to Edward Town, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Yale Center for British Art, for his assistance with the research for this catalogue note.

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