English School 1596
The commissioning of a portrait in the Tudor period was a good opportunity to display in an outward manner one’s affluence and fine taste.
The commissioning of a portrait in the Tudor period was a good opportunity to display in an outward manner one’s affluence and fine taste. Portraits were often commissioned to celebrate certain events in a person’s life and it seems likely that our work was painted to celebrate the marriage of the two subjects portrayed. The well-dressed lady stands almost face-on to the viewer whilst the gentleman is turned towards her, his left shoulder tucked behind her right arm. The composition is one of affection combined with a seriousness of purpose – marriage during this period was as much about social mobility and financial security as it was about love and friendship.
As to be expected in a portrait from this date, the couple shown here do not hesitate to remind the viewer of their wealth and good taste through the clothing they wear. The gentleman is shown wearing a costly black silk doublet with stitched detailing to the front and shoulders. Although the style of ruff he is shown wearing would have been considered a little out-dated by the time this portrait was painted in 1596 (fashionable gentlemen were typically wearing much broader ruffs by this date), due to the cost of these fine accessories and the associated expense of maintaining them, one would often reuse them for many years after they were first acquired.
Needless to say, the main focal point in this portrait is the lady, who is shown is her finest attire and bedecked in exquisite jewellery. The broad lace ruff with intricate lace edging worn around her neck was the height of fashion when this work was painted and was an expensive but necessary accessory for a wealthy lady. Our subject’s hair is worn up and is decorated with three delicate jewels, one in the shape of a flower and the other two of a circular design with a star at the centre. They are made of gold and inset with precious stones including diamonds and garnets with pearls hanging beneath. A long string of pearls can be seen wrapped around the lady’s neck and from the centre hangs a gold pendant engraved with what appears to be a phoenix, symbolic of longevity, endurance and chastity – an appropriate statement in a portrait celebrating marriage. The symbolism associated with a phoenix would have been well-known to the contemporary viewer of this work given its repeated use by Queen Elizabeth I as a symbol of the strength and regeneration of the Tudor dynasty.
One of the most spectacular aspects of our lady’s costume are the sleeves which are cut into a complex design and finished with gold stitching around the edges. Beneath these pierced outer sleeves is fine linen which is then gently pulled through the sleeves to add volume and texture. This design is then repeated on the bodice, the centre of which is embroidered with a complex motif of foliage from which grow Tudor roses. A thin layer of gauze over the decoration on the bodice adds another texture to the costume but also protects the embroidery (itself a costly addition) from damage and wear.
The sitters in this portrait were formerly considered to be William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-1598) and his second wife Mildred Cook (1526-1589). This identification, however, can be quickly ruled out, not least because Mildred died in 1589, some seven years before this work was painted. In all likelihood the sitters were related to the Neville-Grenville family of Butleigh Court in Somerset, who sold the portrait in 1946.
Although the names of numerous portrait painters (or ‘picturemakers’) from this period are recorded (predominantly those who were members of The Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers in the City of London), due to fact so few of them signed their work, connecting portraits with painters is a very difficult task. The identity of the artist who painted this work is likewise at present unknown, although the evident quality suggests it was an expensive commission from a talented hand.