English School, circa 1600 Portrait of a noblewoman, 113 x 89 cm. (44½ x 35 in.)
Lot 108
English School, circa 1600
Portrait of a noblewoman, 113 x 89 cm. (44½ x 35 in.)
Sold for £ 127,650 (US$ 172,212) inc. premium

Lot Details
English School, circa 1600
Portrait of a noblewoman, three-quarter-length, in a black dress decorated with gauze narcissi and quatrefoils of pearls, with a multiple rope of pearls, a lace collar and headdress of gauze narcissi decorated with pearls and an armillary sphere, holding a fan in her right hand
oil on panel
113 x 89 cm. (44½ x 35 in.)


    Irby family collection, Boyland Hall, Long Stratton, Norfolk, since the nineteenth century and thence by family descent to the present owner (according to family tradition, acquired as a result of a poker game between the Prince of Wales and a member of the Irby family)

    Prince Frederick Duleep Singh, Portraits in Norfolk Houses, 1927, 'Property of Colonel Frederick Arthur Irby, Boyland Hall, 7th April 1907' (illustrated, as by Lucas de Heere)

    We are grateful to Tarnya Cooper of the National Portrait Gallery and Karen Hearn of Tate Britain for dating the present painting to circa 1595-1600.

    Traditionally thought to depict Elizabeth herself, a nineteenth century copy of this composition was described as such and included the regalia on a table to the left. Recorded at St. James's in 1865 as a portrait of Elizabeth I by Lucas de Heere, this copy was probably painted in the nineteenth century for the set of royal portraits at St. James's and based on the present original.

    The present work intriguingly displays certain attributes that were specifically associated with the Queen: the black and white colour scheme of her costume, the abundance of pearls and the armillary sphere that is seen in the sitter’s headdress. Black and white were the Queen’s colours and she is attired in them in numerous portraits. Indeed, contemporary observers commented on how well this colour scheme complemented her red hair. White was emblematic of humility, sincerity and, most significantly at the court of the Virgin Queen, chastity; while black reflected the fashion for melancholy that pervaded the English court from about 1590. Pearls (because of their resemblance to the moon) were used to present Elizabeth as the goddess of the Moon: Diana (or alternatively Cynthia), was a virgin and therefore pure. Sir Walter Raleigh helped to promote the cult of Elizabeth as a Moon goddess in his poem, The Ocean's Love to Cynthia, in which he compared Elizabeth to the Moon. Furthermore, the armillary sphere, a piece of jewellery in the form of a skeletal celestial globe, was a symbol that was particularly associated with the Queen. It is seen as an earring in the Ditchley Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger in the National Portrait Gallery; a similar sphere hangs from her sleeve in the anonymous Rainbow Portrait at Hatfield House; while it also appears embroidered on the Queen’s dress in a portrait by an unknown artist of circa 1580-85. In these depictions this instrument that was used to represent and study the movements of the planets was a symbol of wisdom, power and, in the more specific context of the Elizabethan court, the harmonious relationship between a Queen at the centre of power and her satellite courtiers.

    While it was not uncommon for great ladies to be painted wearing an abundance of jewellery, Francis Bacon suggested that for the Queen herself there was an ulterior motive at play: ‘… she imagined that the people, who are much influenced by externals, would be diverted by the glitter of her jewels, from noticing the decay of her personal attractions’. This portrait does indeed bear a certain resemblance to the Queen’s well-known image, as described by the German traveller, Paul Heutzner in 1598: ‘… her Face oblong, fair, but wrinkled; her Eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her Nose a little hooked, her Lips narrow … she wore false hair, and that red …’ The face, however, does not exactly match the physiognomy of those portraits known to be of the Queen, which on the whole can be categorised into set face patterns. The present sitter has a longer nose and a more rounded chin than can be seen in most depictions of the Queen. Even if this was painted towards the end of the Queen’s reign, when her face became more narrow and gaunt, artists working at this time did have a tendency to show the Queen’s age and it is difficult to see the present sitter as a woman in her mid-sixties, which would be the Queen’s age when this type of dress was in fashion. While there is one portrait of Elizabeth in the North Carolina Museum that contains all the attributes of the Queen and yet does not fit any known face pattern, the present portrait does not appear to fall into such a category, being too good a portrait: too sensitive a depiction of an individual’s particular features.

    One might alternatively read the many Elizabethan attributes and resemblances to be more a tribute to a monarch whose dominance over court life at this time was all-encompassing. It could thus be argued that the sitter displays the armillary sphere for the same reason that the Queen’s champion, Sir Henry Lee (who is likely to have commissioned the Ditchley Portrait) sports this symbol on his sleeves in his portrait by Anthonis Mor: as an affirmation of the good relations between the Queen and her faithful courtiers. Similarly, black and white was also a colour scheme that was fashionable among both men and women at court as a means of emulating their sovereign; they were the colours worn by Elizabeth’s champions at the tilt and by actors in court masques. If this is not a portrait of the Queen, it most likely depicts a lady-in-waiting of the utmost proximity to her and thus presents an exciting new window on the court of Elizabeth.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note that the estimates for this lot should read £40,000-60,000 and not as stated in the catalogue.
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