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This oil on metal portrait dating to the first half of the 17th century portrays a female sitter of high-status wearing fur-trimmed attire. Migrant Dutch and Flemish artists settling in Britain during the early seventeenth century were clearly in demand to produce finely painted, small portraits with the same detailed techniques as the portrait miniatures painted in watercolour on vellum. The blue background of the portrait here is almost certainly a nod to the portrait miniatures painted by an earlier generation of ‘limners’ who used the distinctive, copper-based azurite pigment.

Very few artists working in this technique can be named, despite the high quality of their work, but Cornelius Johnson, who was born in London in 1593, painted many portraits on this small scale alongside his large oils. Johnson appears to have trained in the Northern Netherlands but was back working in London from 1619. The current portrait displays many connections to his painting technique – and may even have...

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This oil on metal portrait dating to the first half of the 17th century portrays a female sitter of high-status wearing fur-trimmed attire. Migrant Dutch and Flemish artists settling in Britain during the early seventeenth century were clearly in demand to produce finely painted, small portraits with the same detailed techniques as the portrait miniatures painted in watercolour on vellum. The blue background of the portrait here is almost certainly a nod to the portrait miniatures painted by an earlier generation of ‘limners’ who used the distinctive, copper-based azurite pigment.

Very few artists working in this technique can be named, despite the high quality of their work, but Cornelius Johnson, who was born in London in 1593, painted many portraits on this small scale alongside his large oils. Johnson appears to have trained in the Northern Netherlands but was back working in London from 1619. The current portrait displays many connections to his painting technique – and may even have been by a young artist trained in Johnson’s studio. Another English-born artist working in the 1650s who also painted on metal was Joan Carlile, whose idiosyncratic style is only just being recognised in the small body of works so far attributable to her hand.

Clothing in the seventeenth century was highly codified and regulated. The present sitter’s appearance suggests a high ranking, wealthy woman. The white satin bodice, which was likely to be attached to a white satin skirt, would have been difficult to keep clean and was therefore only worn by women whose status afforded a life of leisure.[1] The fur trim on the sitter’s cloak or jacket is like that seen in the slightly later paintings by the Dutch masters, including those by Johan Vermeer or Gerard Dou. There is a hair ornament pinned to the side of her head made of pearls and silver, which would have trembled and sparkled as she moved.[2] Although much is unknown about this portrait the addition of an elaborate enamel frame, the turquoise and white reflecting the tones in the portrait itself, suggests that it was once a prized possession.

[1] A similar gown can be seen in Joan Carlile’s portrait of an unknown woman, now at Tate Britain (T14495).

[2] Margaret Cavendish wears a parallel hair ornament in the double portrait of her and her husband by Gonzales Coques at Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie.

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500 Years of British Art