Whilst the artist of this magnificently attired young girl has yet to surface from the chronicles of history, a significant number of works can be attributed to this unknown painter’s brush.

The eminent art historian Sir Roy Strong was the first to group together works by this hand in an article published in The Burlington Magazine in 1963,[1] later expanded upon in his seminal publication The English Icon, in which eleven works were illustrated.[2] Strong noted stylistic similarities with the work of the Flemish émigré painter, Hieronimo Custodis (d. 1593) and accordingly initiated the interim identification ‘Unknown Follower of Custodis’.[3] Although some parallels between the two artists are evident in certain stylistic details, such as the similar inscriptions and restricted colour palettes, this connection to Custodis is now being revised and more appropriate identification is currently under consideration. A study of his extant works indicate that he was a provincial painter working in the Southwest of England, thus rendering...

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Whilst the artist of this magnificently attired young girl has yet to surface from the chronicles of history, a significant number of works can be attributed to this unknown painter’s brush.

The eminent art historian Sir Roy Strong was the first to group together works by this hand in an article published in The Burlington Magazine in 1963,[1] later expanded upon in his seminal publication The English Icon, in which eleven works were illustrated.[2] Strong noted stylistic similarities with the work of the Flemish émigré painter, Hieronimo Custodis (d. 1593) and accordingly initiated the interim identification ‘Unknown Follower of Custodis’.[3] Although some parallels between the two artists are evident in certain stylistic details, such as the similar inscriptions and restricted colour palettes, this connection to Custodis is now being revised and more appropriate identification is currently under consideration. A study of his extant works indicate that he was a provincial painter working in the Southwest of England, thus rendering any association with the London based Custodis unlikely. It is also clear that they were highly talented and working within the upper echelons of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century English society.

Garnering an increased interest in the documentation and presentation of family lineage, the Elizabethan period saw a development in portraits which evince explicit information about the sitter.[4] In this case, the inscription identifies the age of our young sitter; ‘Aetatis Suae 4’ in her fourth year. English sixteenth century portraits of children are rare, and when they were portrayed the child’s maturity was often exaggerated. A manifestation of this overstated association with adulthood is apparent in the young sitter’s intricately decorative, fitted gown which cinches in her narrow, idealised waist. Her maturity appears to have been exaggerated to the extent that her silhouette alludes to that of a grown woman; parallels can even be drawn between this sitter’s costume and that of Elizabeth I. Both wear imposing, opulent sleeves – possibly held out by expensive whalebone – and ruffs which further accentuate the fashionable illusion of their small, corseted waistlines.

The extravagances of Elizabethan fashion were burgeoning during the late sixteenth century. This young sitter is depicted in an exquisite open standing ruff and matching wrist cuffs, decorated with intricately delineated blackwork.[5] Both cuffs and ruff are edged with yellow needlelace; either produced from expensive saffron dye, or even thin gold wire. A heart-shaped hairstyle frames the sitter’s face, the form strengthened by small plaits of hair and decorated with jewels echoed in the strong V-shape at the front of her gown. The skirt is folded to emulate the farthingale shape, and long pins would have held this flounce in shape. The use of allegory, symbolism and emblems were equally popular during this period. The blackwork on the sitter’s ruff centres around the motif of the Tudor rose – an emblem which was frequently incorporated into portraiture as a symbol of monarchical support. Her dress is also decorated with evergreen foliage including ivy; a symbol which would have been clearly understood during the Elizabethan period as a reference to fidelity, eternity, everlasting friendship and love.

Nestled amid the wealth of jewels which loop delicately from beneath her ruff, creating the fashionable low-waisted look of the Elizabethan era, a miniature white dove hangs from a black ribbon fastened around her neck. This could be symbolic of innocence and purity further reflected through the three dropped pearls beneath the dove’s claws. It is also possible, given its prominent positioning and the clarity of its depiction, that the dove is a symbolic reference to the sitter’s family.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the identity of the present sitter, her family’s affluence is evident. The rarity of portraits of individual children at this time is further attestation of wealthy patronage – children were often depicted within a larger family group but rarely by themselves in this way. Irrespective of such rarity, the present artist appears to have been adept in child portraiture. Another full-length version of this portrait is held in a private collection, providing an interesting example of the production of multiple versions of portraits, which were often commissioned for other family members. Additionally, formerly with Philip Mould & Company, Portrait of a Baby aged fifteen weeks, holding a Wooden Feeding Bottle, 1593 (Fig.1) can also be attributed to this artist’s hand. Similarly decorated with sophisticated black-work designs and edged with elaborate fine lace work, the baby’s dress is fashioned with the same precise linearity.

As more works by this artist come to light, our understanding of their individual working methods and knowledge of provincial Elizabethan portraiture develops. In particular, this unusually expressive panel portrait of a young girl advances our contemporary understanding of how the parameters between childhood and adulthood were visualised in Elizabethan England.

[1] Strong, R. (1963) ‘Elizabethan Painting: An Approach through Inscriptions – II: Hieronimo Custodis’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 105, No. 720, p. 104.

[2] Strong, R. (1969). The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture. London: Paul Mellon Foundation, pp. 207–214.

[3] Strong, R. (1963), p. 104.

[4] Cooper, T. (2014) ‘Elizabethan Portraiture: Taste, Style and Patronage’, in Cooper, T. (ed.) Elizabeth I & Her People. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, pp. 11–12.

[5] We are grateful to Jacqui Ansell, Senior Lecturer Christie’s Education, for her assistance when researching the costume.

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500 Years of British Art