Saturday, October 19, 2019

Is This Portrait of an Unknown Man in a Fleur-de-lis Doublet the Privateer Sir Thomas Cavendish?

Above: detail from portrait of an unknown gent, which is part of an incredible yet small collection of British portraits kept in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. The artist of this incredible portrait is unknown.
I came upon this unknown sitter, currently known affectionately to his caretakers as "Mr. Fancy Pants," inside the excellent British portrait collection owned by the North Carolina Museum of Art.

An insightful blog post provided by the museum states their theory--interesting in itself--that this unknown jack might have been one of Elizabeth's privateers who plundered the Spanish fleet. The portrait was painted using actual gold and silver leaf as well as a red pigment called cochineal. The museum's associate conservator Perry Hunt argued that these three materials were used in order to reflect the Spanish booty brought home to England by the unknown privateer depicted in the portrait. It's a fantastic theory, very outside-the-box thinking, and I'll admit I was skeptical, but I am now convinced Hunt was spot-on. This sitter is a privateer, I believe, but he was so much more.

Meet Sir Thomas Cavendish, rich boy, self-made privateer, and the third man to ever sail around the globe. He was descended from high aristocracy, which you can probably tell by his constipated expression. Experts like to say that physical resemblance is of no importance in the art of portrait identification, but I'd argue it depends on the sitter in question and whether or not he/she has a unique face. In this case, it's quite unique: large honker, crazy hair, fleshy lips, heavily lidded eyes, and that archly pursed expression. As soon as I saw this jack, I knew I'd seen him somewhere. It took me less than 24 hours to find the right book he was kept inside.
Above: Unknown Man (North Carolina Museum of Art, left) & Sir Thomas Cavendish 1591  by Gheeraerts the Younger (right, image taken for educational purposes from Ashelford's book DRESS IN THE TIME OF ELIZABETH). The painting on the right is owned by the Trustees of the Will of the 8th Duke of Berkeley.  
To return to the museum's theory about the sitter being a privateer, here is the opening passage of Cavendish's wikipedia entry:
Sir Thomas Cavendish (19 September 1560[1] – May 1592) was an English explorer and a privateer known as "The Navigator" because he was the first who deliberately tried to emulate Sir Francis Drake and raid the Spanish towns and ships in the Pacific and return by circumnavigating the globe.
Not only is Cavendish the identical twin of "Mr. Fancy Pants," he was indeed a privateer who plundered the Spanish of gold and silver (no mention of cochineal so far). He also survived his voyage around the world by eating salted penguin. In his day Cavendish claimed to have burned 119 enemy ships. But his second attempt to circumnavigate our planet failed tragically when Cavendish disappeared at sea at age 31. This guy was born filthy rich and could have lived an easy life but chose to defend his country by ambushing the Spanish navy while sailing around the globe. He brought home fabulous wealth in doing so and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I.  It is difficult not to admire the tribe of Elizabethans. They were in the game of immortality, which dictated their course in life and made them especially eager to be portraited or sonneted. 
Above: close-up comparison details from unknown gent (MCMA) and Thomas Cavendish. Click on the image for a true appreciation of how the facial features mirror each other.
As to the portrait's impresa, or visual riddle, the device in the upper left corner pictures a series of storm clouds raining onto a blue flower with the motto SANS ORAGE, which translates, by my Mississippi public high school French, into something like, "Without storms." This is a very insufficient translation as Elizabethan mottoes tended to be complex. But I would take the meaning to be: without hardship you get no booty. My friend and ace botanist Heather Sneed tells me the flower looks like a variety of iris, although its stem more resembles that of a succulent.

The storm clouds might also refer to the typhoon that wrecked Cavendish's ship off the coast of Japan, but his ship proved salvageable and he continued his voyage. I'd like to know more about the relationship, if any, between Japan and England under Elizabeth I.

I'd like to thank associate curator Dr. Michele Frederick for her prompt replies and help in exploring these beautiful portraits. I can't wait to visit North Carolina.
Detail of fleur-de-lis embroidered on fabulous doublet (North Carolina Museum of Art). 

Update: Canvandish also invented sweetened tobacco after he brought the plant to England from America.  

Paul van Somer (Flemish, 1576/78–1621/22), William, Lord Cavendish, Later Second Earl of Devonshire (1591–1628), and His Son, 1619. Oil on canvas. Gift of John Motley Morehead, 1958 (NCMA 58.4.1)

Paul van Somer (Flemish, 1576/78–1621/22), William, Lord Cavendish, Later Second Earl of Devonshire (1591–1628), and His Son, 1619. Oil on canvas. Gift of John Motley Morehead, 1958 (NCMA 58.4.1)

Update 2: it's pretty clear he seized cochineal as well, although this particular huge load of cochineal got lost to Davy Jones's locker. From the book ELIZABETHAN PRIVATEERING by KR Andrews. 
Update 3: Cavendish also has an established history with North Carolina and even with Raleigh, so it's great that he might have a portrait of him there. 

Update 4: another portrait in the North Carolina collection appears to strongly resemble the explorer Sir Francis Drake (see below). It seems the collection in NC might have a theme of grerat navigators. I will deal with all this later in a new post.
Above: Sir Francis Drake 1580 (NPG London, image via wikimedia, left) and unknown man (North Carolina Museum of Art, right). Drake also spent time in North Carolina on Roanoke Island.

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