Occasionally, pictures survive in such good condition that they appear almost disarmingly fresh and modern, so attuned is our eye to looking at works damaged by dirt, abrasion and neglect. The present picture is an exceptional survival from the sixteenth century and is one of the finest surviving small panel portraits by an artist known today as The Master of the Countess of Warwick.

When this portrait emerged from a private collection in 2012 it was evident that it had been subjected to unnecessary ‘restoration’ in the last one hundred years. Whilst the body and the arms appeared to be in an excellent state of preservation, it was clear that the face had been overpainted in an attempt to cosmeticise the sitter’s delicate features (Fig.1). A face quite at odds with other surviving examples of English portraits from this date was the result. These amendments were easily reversed with the removal of the overpaint to reveal a pristine surface...

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Occasionally, pictures survive in such good condition that they appear almost disarmingly fresh and modern, so attuned is our eye to looking at works damaged by dirt, abrasion and neglect. The present picture is an exceptional survival from the sixteenth century and is one of the finest surviving small panel portraits by an artist known today as The Master of the Countess of Warwick.

When this portrait emerged from a private collection in 2012 it was evident that it had been subjected to unnecessary ‘restoration’ in the last one hundred years. Whilst the body and the arms appeared to be in an excellent state of preservation, it was clear that the face had been overpainted in an attempt to cosmeticise the sitter’s delicate features (Fig.1). A face quite at odds with other surviving examples of English portraits from this date was the result. These amendments were easily reversed with the removal of the overpaint to reveal a pristine surface beneath, and an affecting Tudor characterisation. It also highlighted several interesting quirks associated with The Master of the Countess of Warwick, such as decisively drawn eyes and tiny, wispy eyelashes. The overpaint had also concealed the small veins on the sitter’s temple, a clever visual illusion intended to emphasise physical presence and remind the viewer that they were looking at the likeness of living human being.

The inscription, which retains its original layer of shell gold, identifies the sitter as the wife of Thomas Potter, and being in her twenty-third year in 1565. Recent research has revealed that on 14 November 1559, a Mary Tichborne of Edenbridge married Thomas Potter of Well Street at Westerham Parish Church in Kent.[1] This Mary was the daughter of Richard Tichborne, and born in 1541, so is presumably the sitter in the present portrait. Her mother was Thomasin Tichborne (née Seyliard). The Tichbornes were originally a prominent Hampshire family, and we can judge from Richard’s subscription of £5 towards the royal loan levied for Henry VIII in 1542 that he was relatively prosperous.[2] A monument to Thomas Potter at Westerham records that he was a Justice of the Peace in Kent for ‘about fifty years, continuing the whole course of his like liberall and bountifull to the poore, constantly and painefully studious of Divinitie, Law, and Phisick…’ The monument, which features a figure of the kneeling Mary Potter, also records that she was ‘a very religious and virtuous gentlewoman’ (Fig.2). They had four children; a son Nizell, who died at the age of twenty-one, and three daughters, two of whom, Lucrece and Ursula, died in their infancy, and Dorothy, who married Sir John Rivers, 1st Bt., the son of Sir George Rivers, sometime MP for East Grinstead during the reign of Elizabeth I.

The contrast of black and white seen in the sitter’s costume is typical of the Elizabethan period.[3] Black and white were the queen’s colours and were symbolic of constancy and purity. Black was also the most expensive dye and it thus features prominently in portraits which were intended to display a sitter’s wealth and fine taste. The black gown is accesorised with a black hood that covers most of the hair – a signifier of modesty – and under her gown she wears a lin Phillimore, W. and Fynmore, R. (1910) Kent Parish Registers, Marriages, part 1, 1538–1837. Kent. Vol 110. en smock that is gathered into a ruffle at her neck. The neck and sleeve ruffs are edged with gold to emphasise the sitter’s status and the linen smock is embellished with ‘spanishework’ or blackwork embroidery in small stylised floral designs. Such fine stitching was highly skilled and time-consuming work, and therefore costly.

Although a lack of documentary evidence, to say nothing of a dearth of signatures, can make attributing English sixteenth-century portraits difficult, the painter identified as The Master of the Countess of Warwick appears to have a distinctive style. Sir Roy Strong was the first scholar to group together works by this hand, and in his book The English Icon listed eight works of comparable quality from the 1560s.[4] He named the unknown artist after one of their finest surviving works – a portrait of Anne Russell, Countess of Warwick at Woburn Abbey, c. 1569. Since the publication of The English Icon, many more works by The Master of the Countess of Warwick have come to light, and there are now over 50 portraits attributed to this hand of varying size and complexity.[5] The present work is the smallest portrait so far recorded and as such holds a unique position within the artist’s oeuvre.

As more works by this hand emerge, we can better understand their style and working methods. The artist appears to have favoured the half-length format with the sitter turned right with their hands clasped. This mode of depiction appears to have been influenced by the work of Hans Eworth, a prominent portrait painter active in London in the 1550s, and to whom the present work was attributed when sold at auction in 1935. The artist’s treatment of his subjects’ faces is also quite distinctive, with a delicate flush of colour in the cheeks, boldly painted eyes and sharply drawn mouths. There is also a tendency to emphasise the head in proportion to the body. The costumes are often very carefully delineated reflecting the importance of a subject’s material advantages in portraiture at the time, with immense care taken over the tiniest of details. The costume and jewellery in the present painting are among the best preserved of all the ‘the Masters’ works and show the extent to which its black pigments (always the most vulnerable to overcleaning) have remained intact over the centuries. The central jewel, intricately painted with gold and madder, and perhaps containing a miniature, is also well preserved, as are the elegantly modelled hands.

Although the identity of The Master of the Countess of Warwick remains unknown, the artist was evidently talented and considered worthy of patronage within the upper tiers of English society, who were in need of a reliable portrait painter following the death of John Bettes the Elder in 1563. One possible candidate, as discussed by Jessica David and Edward Town in the essay at the start of this catalogue, is Arnold Derickson, a well-connected and long-standing parishioner of St Martin-in-the-Fields who is known to have been employed by Hans Eworth.[6] Furthermore, Derickson is also known to have been a close associate of John Bettes the Elder and in 1558 he married a woman named Elizabeth Bettes, presumably a relation of the artist. If indeed Derickson is the artist identified as The Master of the Countess of Warwick, it would make sense of how, following the death of his friend Bettes, he was able to smoothly assume the mantle of leading court painter. Given the absence of any recorded works by Derickson, it is impossible to prove that he was the unknown artist we refer to, however, as access to historical records improves and more works come to light, this may change.

[1] Phillimore, W. and Fynmore, R. (1910) Kent Parish Registers, Marriages, part 1, 1538–1837. Kent. Vol 110.

[2] The Rev. W. A., Robertson, S. (1882) Archaeologia Cantiana: Being Transactions of the Kent Archiaological Society. Vol. XIV. London: Mitchell and Hughes, p. 154.

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

[4] Strong, R. (1969) The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture. London: Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, pp. 107–114.

[5] Town, E. (2020) ‘A Portrait of the Miniaturist as a Young Man: Nicholas Hilliard and the Painters of 1560s London’, British Art Studies, Issue 17 [online] Available at: https://doi.org/10.17658/issn.... [accessed 7 Jan. 2021].

[6] For further information on the possible identification of Derickson as the Master of the Countess of Warwick see Town, E and David, J. (2020) ‘George Gower (ca. 1538–1596): Portraitist, Mercer, Serjeant-Painter’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 162, no.1410, pp. 740-742; and Town, E. (2020) ‘A Portrait of the Miniaturist as a Young Man: Nicholas Hilliard and the Painters of 1560s London’, British Art Studies, Issue 17 [online] Available at: https://doi.org/10.17658/issn.... [accessed 7 Jan. 2021].

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500 Years of British Art