These hitherto unpublished portraits are of a type rarely seen in early English art. The four Ffolliott brothers, portrayed together in 1603, are painted by a regional English and are amongst the earliest examples of a new type of portrait commissioning in England.

Children are rarely seen in early English art. Unless they were of royal status, or being touted for marriage to a foreign family, children were not deemed important enough to be painted. While Edward VI is an obvious example of an important child whose portrait was widely replicated, the complete absence of any similar portrait of his sister, Princess Mary, shows just how unusual it was to commission individual portrayals of children.

Children do feature in some early family group portraits, however. The magnificent group portrait of William Brooke and his family by the Master of the Countess of Warwick (1567) contains no less than six children, while Marcus Gheeraerts’ portrait of Anne, Lady Pope with her...

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These hitherto unpublished portraits are of a type rarely seen in early English art. The four Ffolliott brothers, portrayed together in 1603, are painted by a regional English and are amongst the earliest examples of a new type of portrait commissioning in England.

Children are rarely seen in early English art. Unless they were of royal status, or being touted for marriage to a foreign family, children were not deemed important enough to be painted. While Edward VI is an obvious example of an important child whose portrait was widely replicated, the complete absence of any similar portrait of his sister, Princess Mary, shows just how unusual it was to commission individual portrayals of children.

Children do feature in some early family group portraits, however. The magnificent group portrait of William Brooke and his family by the Master of the Countess of Warwick (1567) contains no less than six children, while Marcus Gheeraerts’ portrait of Anne, Lady Pope with her children shows three at full-length. And yet, these last two examples, while obviously familial, are essentially demonstrations of the more traditional purpose of portraiture – conspicuous consumption.

The Ffolliott boys’ portraits, on the other hand, are far simpler celebrations of family and childhood. Their dress is deliberately uniform, and each picture is free from any display of heraldry or status. In addition, the portraits contain very conscious reminders of the passage from childhood to adulthood. Henry, the youngest, holds a rattle, while Aylmer, the eldest, holds a prayer book. The range of maturity is also shown by their expressions, for whereas Aylmer appears serious, Henry wears the hint of a smile. Such characterisation is extremely unusual, even in later seventeenth century portraiture. It is evident that the artist changed the positioning of the two eldest boys during the painting process, and the original placement of their shoulders and lace collars is now visible due to the upper paint layers becoming more transparent over time. These amendments were perhaps made in order to emphasise their broader physique and to distinguish them more clearly from their younger brothers.

The Ffolliott children were the sons of Sir John Ffolliott of Pirton Court, who was knighted in 1603. We can perhaps assume from this date that this knighthood was in recognition of some service granted the new king, James I, who succeeded to the throne in that year. It may be that these portraits were painted in celebration of this event. Sir John married Barbara Aylmer (d.1631), daughter of the Bishop of London, John Aylmer, one time tutor to the young Lady Jane Grey. In addition to the four brothers shown here, Sir John and Barbara had eight other children, one of whom, Edward, became the priest of Hampton parish in Virginia. Intriguingly, x-ray analysis has revealed that the portraits of the two youngest boys are painted on top of earlier portraits of young girls. It is not known whether the girls were also from the Fffolliott family or if the panels were simply recycled by the artist due to an unpaid commission.

Little is known of the lives of the Ffolliott brothers, whose identities are tentatively inscribed on the reverse of each panel by a later hand – presumably a family member. The family’s sale of Picton Court in 1624 may suggest a financial decline. The eldest brother, Aylmer, married Barbara Smallbroke, of Blakesley Hall, a house that still stands today near Birmingham. John Ffolliott appears to have died young. Francis became vicar of Berkswell in Warwickshire.

Although the identity of the artist is at present unknown, several recorded portraits can be attributed to their hand, including portraits of a young girl (1589) and a young boy (1606). A further portrait of a finely dressed lady, painted in 1607, bears stylistic similarities with the aforementioned works and the Ffolliott boys and may also be by the same hand. 

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500 Years of British Art