Anglo-Dutch School, late 16th/early 17th Century Portrait of Sir Francis Drake (circa 1540-1596), three-quarter-length, in half-armour, blackened and gilded, ornately decorated with depictions of trophies of arms, holding a baton in his right hand and a rapier in his left, standing beside a plumed helmet on a table draped with a green cloth

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Lot 51
Anglo-Dutch School
late 16th/early 17th Century
Portrait of Sir Francis Drake (circa 1540-1596), three-quarter-length, in half-armour, blackened and gilded, ornately decorated with depictions of trophies of arms, holding a baton in his right hand and a rapier in his left, standing beside a plumed helmet on a table draped with a green cloth

Sold for £ 356,750 (US$ 480,463) inc. premium
Anglo-Dutch School, late 16th/early 17th Century
Portrait of Sir Francis Drake (circa 1540-1596), three-quarter-length, in half-armour, blackened and gilded, ornately decorated with depictions of trophies of arms, holding a baton in his right hand and a rapier in his left, standing beside a plumed helmet on a table draped with a green cloth
oil on canvas
104.6 x 79.7cm (41 3/16 x 31 3/8in).


  • Provenance
    Private Collection, UK until 1972
    Subsequently acquired by the current private collector

    Devon, Buckland Abbey, April 2016 - April 2018

    A. Haldane, 'A portrait of Sir Francis Drake? A belief in the possible', in The British Art Journal, vol. XIV, no. 3, 2013 - 2014, pp. 42-44

    Following its publication in The British Art Journal, the present portrait has since been widely accepted by the leading scholars on English portraiture of this period as depicting the great Elizabethan seafarer, Sir Francis Drake, painted possibly before his successful circumnavigation of the globe in 1577. The portrait has spent the last two years in the Drake Chamber of Buckland Abbey, Drake's home and now a National Trust property. Scientific analysis confirms that the technique and materials are consistent with those used in the 1570s; while also showing that the painting must have been well-planned prior to execution and includes a few minor pentimenti, such as the change of contour of the breast plate of the armour to the right (the sitter's left shoulder; fig. 1). All of this, along with the age of the sitter, the fashion of his armour and the dress allows the possibility that this portrait is one of the earliest known images in the iconography of this English national hero.

    In August 1573 Drake had returned from the Spanish West Indies with considerable plunder. He had entered the service of Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, and this portrait, showing him as a man of worth, wealth and social standing, would be appropriate for this moment in his life. Indeed, Essex himself is shown in similar attire in his portrait dated 1572 which is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The style of armour depicted here, like that shown in the portrait of Sir Philip Sidney at Blickling Hall (see fig. 6) is of a north Italian fashion, probably made in Milan to judge from the form of the breastplate which emulated the "peascod" form of doublet then in vogue. The pattern of the etching is a common one for such armour and is usually referred to as 'Pisan' by the collector because so much of it was kept in Pisa into the 19th century for use in the city's annual 'Gioco del Ponte'. In general, the armour was white (that is polished bright) with white etching on a stipple black background. The armours in this and the Sidney portrait are exceptional in being blued or blackened with gilt etching. It is thought likely that the armour in both these portraits was owned or borrowed as a studio-prop by the artist, rather than having been painted from life since the articulation of the couters (or elbow-defences) of the armour depicted would not work in real life and the helmet is depicted with three gorget-plates front and back when two would have been typical. The armour, ornately designed and clearly expensive, displays a number of armorial emblems which seem intended to convey a strong message, displaying trophies of arms relating to the military success, prowess or aspiration of the sitter. Drake himself was not granted a coat-of-arms until 1581, in grateful recognition of his circumnavigation, and these generic symbols would at this date have been the best way to project an image of status. The helmet is of the type intended for the tilt and since Drake bears a lady's favour on his arm the armour depicted here is most probably intended to be tournament armour.

    There is a number of portraits, the earliest of which would appear to be from the 17th century, which had hitherto identified the sitter in the present work as Drake's military rival, Sir John Norreys. The basis for this identification was a portrait which carries an identifying inscription 'Sr Jehan Nooris', by George Perfect Harding, executed in 1818. The image from which Harding was working, and from which he copied the inscription exactly, is a portrait in a private collection in Ireland. Drake and Norreys were keen rivals in the court of Elizabeth I and their paths as military figures often coincided and collided. Both Drake and Norreys were in Ireland in 1575 and, after the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Drake and Norreys were given a dual command to destroy the remaining ships from the Armada, to support the rebels in Lisbon against Philip II of Spain, and to take the Azores. It is not surprising, therefore, that the figures of Drake and Norreys should have often been viewed in parallel.

    However, not only does the inscription of the portrait in Ireland seem to have been added, and compressed into a narrow band above the sitter's head, but the portrait bears little facial resemblance to Norreys, most importantly in the respect that he is not known to have had a skin tag, or wart. It is this crucial factor when coupled with the overall likeness which now confirms that both the present portrait and the portrait in the private collection in Ireland in fact depict Drake.

    In the general physiognomical perspective Drake is known to have had light coloured eyes (fig. 2), as can be seen in Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger's portrait in the National Maritime Museum (fig. 3). He also seems to have had tightly curled brown hair, as can be found in his portraits by Nicholas Hilliard, Jean Rabel and Jodocus Hondius. More specifically, however, Drake is known to have had two warts: one of these was on the left hand side of his nose and was clearly illustrated in a number of lifetime images of Drake, including the Gheeraerts portrait, painted in 1591, as well as the portrait by an unknown hand in the National Portrait Gallery, painted circa 1581. The engraving by Jodocus Hondius is also known, executed circa 1583, which shows Drake with this wart, mole or skin tag. Hondius is recorded as having known Drake personally and it would seem probable that the artist based his 1583 engraving on an ad vivum knowledge of his sitter. While the present portrait is the only one known that is painted from the sitter's right hand side, close examination of this and the Gheeraerts portrait, however, both also show a second wart on the bridge of Drake's nose (fig. 4). The existence of this second wart is reinforced by a pen and ink sketch by Henry Bone, executed in 1813, which clearly shows the dot of a second wart between the eyes. Bone wrote beneath his pen and ink sketch that he had used the portrait of Drake at Knole as the basis for his work. The Knole portrait is clearly derived from the Gheeraerts portrait, which now therefore seems to be the primary evidence for Drake's second wart. Furthermore, the engraving by Thomas de Leu, after the portrait by Jean Rabel, also clearly shows the two warts (fig. 5) and, although there are portraits of Drake which do not show the second wart, it remains a crucial physiognomic factor in favour of the identification of the present sitter as Drake.

    While the author of the present portrait has not been identified it has been suggested that it has close affinities with the portrait of Sir Philip Sidney at Blickling Hall (fig. 6) in which the sitter is wearing almost identical armour. As well as being a poet and scholar, Sidney was General of Horse and Governor of Flushing; he conducted a successful raid on the Spanish forces near Axe in 1583 and it is thought that these two works were probably part of a series of depictions of military heroes from the court of Elizabeth I of England. A further comparable portrait is that of Sir Richard Grenville in the National Portrait Gallery (fig. 7). A cousin of Drake, Grenville was a soldier, an armed merchant fleet owner, privateer, colonizer, and explorer who took part in the early English attempts to settle the New World, while also later participating in the fight against the Spanish Armada. A proposed patent to Grenville for activities against the Spanish was initially granted, but was rescinded a year later on the grounds that England was still using diplomacy with Spain and had been at great pains to rebuild her relations with Philip II after the tensions of 1568–71. It was these plans that were usurped and were eventually executed by Drake when he circumnavigated the globe in 1577. This caused some bad blood between the two Devonians and is the reason why Grenville refused to ever serve with his cousin in any capacity. Interestingly and rather ironically it was from this arch-rival of his that, acting through two intermediaries and unbeknownst to Grenville, Drake purchased Grenville's former seat of Buckland Abbey in Devon, further cementing his status at that time and later establishing it as his longstanding family seat (fig. 8).

    Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, the eldest of the twelve sons of Edmund Drake, a farmer and Protestant preacher and early on came to live in Plymouth with his kinsman, William Hawkins. This association had a lasting influence on the young Francis: as he grew up, he served for several years under William's second son, John and seemed to model himself on this older relative who had established a reputation in trading and seafaring. First enlisted by Elizabeth I in 1572 as a privateer in the Americas, Francis Drake was key to gaining much of England's riches and naval successes, taking the treasure the Spanish had brought back from the Americas. Hence to the Spanish he was 'El Draque' (The Dragon), a pirate and a constant threat. King Philip II of Spain was said to have offered the huge sum of 20,000 ducats (£4 million) for Drake's life. Although vital to the British government and the Queen herself, even the English were ambivalent in their view of Drake: the Queen's minister, Lord Burghley, was highly critical of Drake's behaviour but did concede that he was a good weapon against the Spanish. Queen Elizabeth had to maintain a public attitude of disapproval for his unlawful methods, to try and prevent hostile relations with Spain, but she quietly approved of the treasure he returned.

    After Magellan Drake was the second man to ever voyage round the world and the first Englishman to do so. The trip lasted 3 years from 1577-1580. Six ships in total, with Drake onboard the Pelican – renamed the Golden Hind- headed for Brazil and then round the Strait of Magellan in 1578 for the Pacific. Coming to moor in 1579 at what today is San Francisco, he did not hesitate in claiming the territory for England, naming it 'Nova Albion', before crossing the Pacific, passing through the Indian Ocean, past Indonesia and all the way back to England. Following this remarkable achievement, Queen Elizabeth honoured Drake, not only with £10,000, but also with a knighthood, making a gentleman of the one-time pirate. That same year Nicholas Hilliard painted his portrait, a miniature that can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery, and the best of several likenesses made just after his return. As time passed Drake became more thick set: the painting in the National Maritime Museum, usually attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts and dated 1591, shows a decidedly older Drake, heavy of body and thin of hair, with a beard going grey and a somewhat sinking chin.

    It was almost inevitable that a man so popular would be named to sit in parliament, which Drake did in 1581 (for an unknown constituency) and again in 1584 (for Bossiney); in the latter parliament he was appointed to a committee considering a bill for Walter Raleigh's colonization in America. In 1593 he was elected one of the members for the significant constituency of Plymouth, and took a more active role in the Commons than previously. Not a parliamentary leader, Drake nonetheless had the opportunity to serve on committees with such men as Philip Sidney, Christopher Hatton, and Richard Grenville, whose friendship and influence he was glad to have.

    Drake's first wife, Mary Newman, died just 12 years after they married but in 1585, he married again, to Elizabeth Sydenham, who was 20 years younger than him and a wealthy heiress. With their combined fortune, they lived in Buckland Abbey.

    In his raids of 1586 on Santo Domingo on the island of Española, moving on to Cartegena, across to Cuba and then up the coast to Florida, Drake proved himself once again to be brave and unrelenting in battle, but he displayed little understanding of the command process, and his idea of capturing isolated towns to hold for ransom was a complete failure. Even so his reputation in Spain grew yet further as an embarrassment to the king and an object of fear in every colonial town and the greatest threat in the English arsenal. Drake was later involved in the destruction of a Spanish fleet at Cadiz in 1587, in what became known as 'singeing the King of Spain's beard'. The attacked fleet was to be part of the Armada, and this action delayed it for a year.

    Very famously Drake was then given the position of Vice Admiral to Lord Howard of Effingham in 1588, to fight the Spanish Armada. Broadside positioning, devised by Drake, was a success. He ordered the British ships to sail in a line further away from the Spanish ships than would normally be advised. They would then shoot from this position, which proved very effective in defeating the Spanish.

    Drake's voyage in 1596 was to be his last. His attempts to attack Spanish vessels in San Juan, Puerto Rico were failing and he then contracted what we now know to be dysentery which killed him on 28 January, on board the Defiance. His body, dressed in armour in accordance with his request, was encased in a lead coffin and lowered into the sea near Panama, a fitting end for a man so celebrated for his maritime exploits: a merchant, a pirate and hero of the Armada.
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