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This work is currently on view in our display A Brush With Fashion: 500 Years of Male Portraiture until 20th May.

We are grateful to Jacqui Ansell, Senior Lecturer Christie’s Education, for her commentary on men’s fashion which has been incorporated into this catalogue note. We are also grateful to Rica Jones for her thoughts regarding the commissioning of this portrait.

Black and white were the favourite colours of Queen Elizabeth I and as such were worn by fashionable courtiers eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the crown. The colours black and white were symbolic of constancy and chastity and were worn together by Elizabeth to portray eternal virginity.

As well as a form of flattery, black was also the most expensive dye, and clothing of this colour was therefore an indicator of wealth and social status. The linen ruff is a further reminder of the sitter’s fine taste and affluence; ruffs of this type were expensive to...



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This work is currently on view in our display A Brush With Fashion: 500 Years of Male Portraiture until 20th May.

We are grateful to Jacqui Ansell, Senior Lecturer Christie’s Education, for her commentary on men’s fashion which has been incorporated into this catalogue note. We are also grateful to Rica Jones for her thoughts regarding the commissioning of this portrait.

Black and white were the favourite colours of Queen Elizabeth I and as such were worn by fashionable courtiers eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the crown. The colours black and white were symbolic of constancy and chastity and were worn together by Elizabeth to portray eternal virginity.

As well as a form of flattery, black was also the most expensive dye, and clothing of this colour was therefore an indicator of wealth and social status. The linen ruff is a further reminder of the sitter’s fine taste and affluence; ruffs of this type were expensive to acquire, but also costly to maintain due to the labour required to clean, starch, and set them. The arrangement of the ruff into figure-of-eights (called ‘sets’) was achieved by setting the starched linen with tubular ‘poking sticks’ to form the semi-circular shapes. Each ‘set’ was then pinned or held in place with wax.

The fashionable silhouette of the 1570s placed an emphasis on hauteur provided by broad shoulders and a long neck. In this portrait, the sitter wears a sleeveless jerkin, or perhaps a cloak, with a strikingly high collar and pronounced shoulder wings, the lines of which are emphasised by gold buttons which appear decorative rather than functional. Buttons were an important part of any Elizabethan outfit and one London haberdasher from the period recorded over twenty different types of buttons in his inventory.[1] Beneath the jerkin and against the body, the sitter would have worn a t-shaped garment of linen which would have been washed between uses.

Within the context of Elizabethan portraiture, this portrait, which depicts the dashing courtier Sir Francis Willoughby, is of considerable note. It was painted in 1573 by George Gower, one of the most fashionable ‘picturemakers’ of the Elizabethan age and is one of the earliest extant portraits by his hand for which a payment record can be confidently linked.

Until recently, the present portrait was only known to scholars through a black and white photograph published in 1917 showing it framed above a fireplace at Wollaton Hall, the Willoughby family seat.[2] A later, extended copy of the composition and a companion portrait of Francis’s wife, Lady Willoughby, also a later copy after a Gower prototype, are recorded in a private collection and in the past have been confused with the originals.[3]

The re-emergence of this portrait is exciting, as until now only three other extant portraits could be confidently connected to Gower’s hand through original surviving documents. Two of these portraits are in the collection at the Tate and depict Sir Thomas Kytson and his wife Elizabeth Cornwallis, Lady Kytson. The payment record in the Willoughby family papers is for the accounting year 1572-73 and reveals a payment of 10 and 20 shillings for portraits of Francis and his wife Elizabeth Littleton, Lady Willoughby.[4] Although the original portrait by Gower of Lady Willoughby has yet to come to light, we can assume, based on the surviving later copy, that it was larger and more detailed than the present work and was therefore more expensive.[5]

Francis was the younger son of Sir Henry Willoughby of Wollaton, Nottinghamshire and Anne Grey, daughter of Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset. As the second eldest son, Francis never expected to inherit the family estates, however, the death of his father in 1549 and elder brother in 1559, changed his fortunes. The family’s wealth derived from coal mining and their principal estate, Wollaton, contained extensive reserves. On inheriting the estate, Francis wasted little time in expanding the coal mining operation and used the profits to build the spectacular Wollaton Hall which is thought to have been designed by Robert Smythson, the architect of Longleat and later Hardwick Hall. Although the interior of Wollaton has been extensively remodelled over the years, the impressive exterior, with its ornate detailing, has remained largely intact. The house was a bold statement of Francis Willoughby’s new wealth and success, although the cost of its construction was enormous and left him in considerable debt, which was ultimately passed on to a distant relative along with the family estates when Francis died in 1597.

[1] Cooper, T. (2014) Elizabeth I & Her People. London: National Portrait Gallery, p. 169.

[2] Conway, M. (1917) ‘Country Homes Gardens Old and New: Wollaton Hall I. Nottingham, the seat of Lord Middleton’, Country Life Magazine, Vol. 41, Iss. 1066, p. 572.

[3] See Strong, R. (1969) The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture, London, pp. 167-184 and Friedman, A.T (1989) House and Household in Elizabethan England: Wollaton Hall and the Willoughby Family, Chicago and London, p. 28.

[4] The Middleton Collection, Nottingham University Library, Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections. Quoted in Goodison, J.W. (1948) ‘George Gower, Serjeant Painter to Queen Elizabeth’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 90, No. 546, p. 262.

[5] See Jones, R. (2020) ‘Some observations on five documented paintings’, unpublished paper delivered 6th July 2018 at a conference, ‘The Tudors Restored: The Creation and Conservation of 16th-Century British Art’, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Cited in Town. and David, (2020) ‘Gower’ p. 731.

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500 Years of British Art