Exploration is one of the defining characteristics of the Elizabethan age, and it is therefore surprising that so few painted portraits of explorers survive. The present work, painted in oils on paper and dated 1594, was recently discovered in France, and shows a young explorer proudly standing on the foreshore of a beach, with rocks encrusted with gold at his feet.

Although it has not been possible to identify the subject of this work with certainty, it may possibly depict Sir Robert Dudley, the illegitimate son of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who led an expedition to the West Indies in 1594. Although lacking experience, Dudley, who evidently inherited his father’s confidence, recruited 275 sailors and set sail on 6 November 1594. His initial attempt was scuppered by a storm, but his second departure was more successful, and by December he was in Tenerife where he succeeded in capturing two Spanish ships which he renamed Intent and Regard. Dudley’s...

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Exploration is one of the defining characteristics of the Elizabethan age, and it is therefore surprising that so few painted portraits of explorers survive. The present work, painted in oils on paper and dated 1594, was recently discovered in France, and shows a young explorer proudly standing on the foreshore of a beach, with rocks encrusted with gold at his feet.

Although it has not been possible to identify the subject of this work with certainty, it may possibly depict Sir Robert Dudley, the illegitimate son of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who led an expedition to the West Indies in 1594. Although lacking experience, Dudley, who evidently inherited his father’s confidence, recruited 275 sailors and set sail on 6 November 1594. His initial attempt was scuppered by a storm, but his second departure was more successful, and by December he was in Tenerife where he succeeded in capturing two Spanish ships which he renamed Intent and Regard. Dudley’s fleet then sailed to Trinidad and anchored at Cedros Bay at the end of January 1595. It was there that he discovered an island which he named Dudleiana and claimed for the English crown. Following a failed attempt to find gold, the fleet sailed north where it captured a Spanish merchant vessel. However, with provisions dwindling, further progression was limited and Dudley decided to sail home, arriving in St Ives, Cornwall at the end of May 1595.

Following an expedition to Cadiz the following year with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, Dudley was knighted and soon after married Alice, daughter of Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh. The union, however, was not to last, and following a failed attempt to claim his late father’s peerages, he fled England with his cousin Elizabeth Southwell whom he later married in Lyon after converting to Catholicism. They then travelled to Florence where Dudley became a naval advisor to Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1607, on refusing to travel back to England on the orders of James I, Dudley’s lands were confiscated although he maintained contact with the English court through a network of friends.

In his later years Dudley published Dell'Arcano del Mare (The Secret of the Sea), an impressive six-volume maritime encyclopaedia which included an atlas of the entire world. It was published in 1646-7 and covered topics including shipbuilding, navigation, and astronomy. Dudley died soon after in 1649 and his collection of scientific instruments are now on display in the Museo Galileo, Florence.

Dudley’s iconography is sparse, and his best-known portrait is that by Nicholas Hilliard in the National Museum of Fine Arts, Sweden, painted in the 1590s. Although painted in a different medium, Hilliard’s likeness of Dudley bears a striking resemblance to the subject in our work. The identification of our subject as Dudley is further supported by the date ‘1594’ - visible beneath a rock in the lower right - which corresponds with the date Dudley departed for the West Indies. If this does depict Dudley, then this portrait must have been painted sometime after his return to England in 1595 and before he left for Italy in 1605.

The present work was sold by George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower 5th Duke of Sutherland in 1924. According to an inscription on the reverse of the canvas, it was previously at Trentham Hall, Stoke-on-Trent, and was then brought – presumably to London – to be cleaned in 1850. Trentham was inherited in 1605 by Sir Richard Leveson, who married Katherine, daughter of Dudley and his first wife Alice. If we assume the subject is indeed Dudley, then it was probably through Katherine that the present work found its way into the collection of the Dukes of Sutherland, who also owned a full-length portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Federico Zuccaro, which is thought to have been destroyed during the Second World War.

When Christopher Columbus, financed by Spain, first reached The New World in 1492, the potential rewards of colonisation and exploration reverberated throughout the courts of Europe; England, however, was somewhat slow to respond. Although arguably a strong and a powerful nation, a series of domestic issues persuaded successive monarchs to focus on establishing new trade routes, not colonies. Attempts were made as early as 1497 by Henry VII to find the Northwest Passage, a northern route around the European continent which would connect England with Asia for trade by sea, and although this was largely considered a failure, the knowledge accrued later accelerated English exploratory efforts.

It was the challenge of finding the Northwest Passage that led Martin Frobisher, later in 1574, to request a license to voyage north towards Asia, and in 1576 he set sail. Although failing to find the passage, Frobisher landed on Hall Island (now part of modern-day Canada), where one of his crew – Master Robert Garrard - picked up ‘a piece of black stone, much like to a sea coal in colour which by the weight seemed to be some kind of metal or mineral.’ Back in London, the rock was tested by a Venetian goldsmith who found it to contain a grain of gold. This discovery was hugely significant, and enabled Frobisher to secure further investment for a second and third voyage to exploit ‘the great riches of the mines of gold found in the new countries’. Although unfortunately for Frobisher (and his investors), the ‘great riches’ turned out to be little more than worthless rocks, the vague possibility of great wealth on foreign shores was enough to fire the imagination of ambitious entrepreneurs, and exploration soon became a pursuit of the wealthy merchant classes.

As well as the possibility of lucrative returns on an investment, exploration also was an opportunity to demonstrate ones bravery and masculinity. Exploration was by nature dangerous, and involved travelling vast distances by sea over long periods of time, relying on maps that were far from accurate. Those who succeeded naturally breathed a sigh of relief, and may have commemorated their achievements in literature or, as seen here, through portraiture.

The well-dressed subject in this portrait stands on the foreshore with his left hand on his hip and his right hand holding a halberd (a combination of spear and battle-axe). It is a pose of strength and defiance through which he adopts the guise of a conqueror. His intricately detailed helmet and shield are placed beneath a tree and symbolise strength, seriousness of purpose, and the subject’s willingness to fight for his cause. Coiled around the tree is ivy, symbolic of immortality, and is perhaps used here in reference to his survival through adverse circumstances. This sentiment is echoed in the small shield which hangs from a severed limb of the tree, bearing the Latin motto: 'non reiecienda reiecta' (‘that which has been rejected should not have been rejected'). It is a statement of achievement, and almost certainly refers to his conquering of a land previously ignored or rejected by others. He is congratulating himself, and quite rightly, for in the lower left corner near where he stakes his claim with the end of his halberd, are small rocks glistening with gold.

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500 Years of British Art