Wednesday, April 26, 2023

A Curious Portrait of a Man Stabbed 57 Times That Might Actually Be A Famous Lost Painting Of William Shakespeare

Left: portrait known as David Rizzio (Royal Collection, artist unknown, image from Wikicommons). Right: the Droeshout engraving from Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio (artist unknown, image from Folger Shakespeare Library). The Droeshout engraving is our only authenticated portrait of the poet. For centuries now scholars have been searching for the presumed ad vivum (from life) painted portrait used to create this world famous engraving.

Note 1: there is a very intriguing update at the bottom of this post.

Note 2: all images in this post are being used under fair-use laws. This is an argument regarding the possible mis-identification of a historical portrait that might be connected to William Shakespeare.

If I were allowed to choose one portrait from the Royal Collection to be probed and prodded with spectral technologies this picture would be the one, as I suspect the portrait might actually depict Will Shakespeare painted from life. I'm also curious about its relationship, if any, to the famous Droeshout engraving from Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio and also to Laurence Hilliard's c. 1620 portrait of Shakespeare.  

Over a decade ago I became interested in a portrait kept in London's Royal Collection said to depict the murdered musician David Rizzio. Four things about the portrait caught my eye: (1) the sitter's resemblance to the famous Droeshout engraving, (2) the way the portrait's background contained telltales of having been scrubbed and scamped, (3) the sitter's familiar looking signet ring, (4) the Shakespearean pate clearly visible inside the full head of hair that hinted the sitter might originally have been painted as bald.

Above: portrait of a man known as David Rizzio (Royal Collection, image via wikicommons) Inscribed " 'Dad Rizzo MDLXV.' (1565)". Note the opened pocket on the doublet sleeve exposing bombast, an Elizabethan detail that disappeared from the portrait during its 1974  restoration.

The Royal Collection does not believe this is a portrait of the infamous fiddler David Rizzio. In fact, they believe the portrait to be Jacobean, not Elizabethan, largely due to its costume, and especially the fountain-fall collar. I agree it's probably not Rizzio but suspect the painting might well be Elizabethan. I also suspect the picture might be a carefully overpainted portrait of Will Shakespeare.

There's plenty of intrigue here. For instance, the 1974 restoration of this portrait eliminated one distinct, and likely Elizabethan, feature of the costume: the sleeve pocket (worn open with laces or perhaps point-tied fastenings). The sleeve pocket that disappeared was not consistent with the Royal Collection's current c. 1620 dating of the portrait, and now its gone. 

Above: Sir Thomas Drake 1585-93 by H. Custodis. (Weiss Gallery. Buckland Abbey, Yelverton. Photo source wikicommons.) Note Elizabethan sleeve pocket. Good example of pinking (decorated with small perforations). Fall or falling collar of linen done in two layers the top one transparent. Cuffs at wrists. Skirt of doublet a bit longer. Minimum shoulder wings with attached bishop style sleeves with pocket. Peascod bulge still pronounced. Paneled hose. Hair worn longer. 

I find all that very curious, and I've written the Royal Collection about this disappeared pocket and will update this post when I hear back. (See update below.) I'm curious as to why this sleeve pocket was eliminated and find it unlikely that some later artist would in-paint an extremely rare Elizabethan-style pocket onto a portrait, especially since the blue ground of the painting appears to be exposed, perhaps even scraped, all around the sleeve pocket. Was the portrait x-rayed or IR-ed as part of this 1974 restoration? I'll try to find out. Stayed tuned for the next episode of "The Case of the Disappearing Pocket."  

Above: pocket sleeve with fasteners that are either lacing, or points, or maybe even hook-and-eye. The entire sleeve pocket vanished during the 1974 restoration of the Called Rizzio portrait (Royal Collection; image via wikicommons). Note the bluish ground of the portrait, meaning we are very close to the panel itself. Was this portrait scraped at some point, and, if so, why? There certainly appears to be bombast padding exposed by the open pocket. Bombast might also indicate the portrait to be Elizabethan as such padding when out of style by the turn of the century.

Above: the portrait called Rizzio before and after its latest restoration. (Image on right from Royal Collection Website and used here under Fair Use Law for comparison purposes). Note how a very unique detail, one that may date the sitter's costume as Elizabethan, has been removed (see below to learn more). Why did they removed the sleeve pocket?

Antonia Graser's 1994 book Mary, Queen of Scots described David Rizzio as ugly, short, and hunchbacked, so it's fair to wonder if this handsome jack is Mr. Rizzio. Misleading inscriptions are fairly common, after all. 

It's worth remembering that Rizzio was hideously murdered--stabbed 57 times--when his rumored lover, Mary, Queen of Scots, was six-month's pregnant. Mary's husband Lord Darnley believed, or claimed to believe, that his wife had been impregnated by Rizzio. Mary's subsequent son, possibly the bastard love-child of a rank fiddler, would grow up to become Great Britain's King James I, so the stakes are high on this portrait, and Rizzio's possible intersections with the Stewart clan have been largely repressed. Having fiddler blood instead of royal blood makes for an impressive dynastic scandal.

Above: Called David Rizzio (Royal Collection; image via wikicommons) & stipple engraving of Rizzio (NPG; image via wikicommons). The original print of the engraving states it was copied from a portrait of Rizzio painted in 1562 by an unknown artist "in the possession of H. C. Jennings, Esq." Click here to view the recently restored version of the Called Rizzio portrait currently on the Royal Collection website.

The Royal Collection website makes no mention of the sitter's signet ring when discussing the costume, but it's odd for a musician to wear such a ring. If this is actually a portrait of Rizzio, perhaps the ring can be explained by Rizzio's quick rise from being a bass singer in Mary's court to being installed as her Secretary to France. The matrix or face of the ring appears a bit off-center to me. I'll return to the signet ring later in the update below.

Another enigma about this portrait is that its sitter appears to have originally been painted as bald. Obviously no artist would paint a sitter bald and then add hair later; yet we can see clear evidence of the sitter's pate lurking behind the hair. 

Above: detail reveals what appears to be a bald pate that was later overpainted with hair (Royal Collection, image via wikicommons). The black hair resembling a dyed comb-over is especially odd since the darker hair is depicted on the lighter side of the portrait in regard to the change of color along the background.
Above: the Marshall portrait of Shakespeare (left, Folger Shakespeare Library), Called David Rizzio (center, Royal Collection, image from Wikicommons) and the Droeshout engraving (right, Folger Shakespeare Library).

Above: side by side comparison between the Droeshout engraving (reversed) from First Folio show shows eerily similarly lined-up bald pates. The eyes also match up well. Note that engraving were often reversed images of painted portraits; therefore we don't know if the Droeshout engraving is reversed or not.

The background of the portrait appears to my eye heavily scamped in the areas likely to have inscriptions (and yes in the update below the Royal Collection confirms the portrait's background is heavily overpainted but apparently they made no effort to remove this overpaint when retouching the portrait's sleeve pocket).

As to this fountain-style fall collar, said to be Jacobean, it also shows up in the history of bard portraits in the miniature of Shakespeare attributed to Laurence Hilliard. Once again we see a strong physical resemblance between the two sitters. Whoever this unknown jack is, he greatly resembles Laurence Hilliard's William Shakespeare.

Left: copy of the Laurence Hilliard (c. 1620) miniature of Shakespeare by TW Harland  (left, National Portrait Gallery, London). Right: portrait called David Rizzio (Royal Collection). See any resemblance?  

Finally, for the benefit of our Oxfordian readers, here is a comparison of the Rizzio portrait with Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who was considered an excellent musician and played multiple instruments. Many authorship skeptics believe de Vere to be the true author of Shakespeare's plays. To this I will only add that the violin originated in the early to mid 16th century in Italy and migrated from Italy to England.

Above left: the Welbeck portrait of Edward de Vere (Welbeck Abbey, image from wikicommons). Above center: Called David Rizzio (Royal Collection, image from wikicommons). Above right: c. 1987 post-cleaning photo of the controversial Ashbourne portrait (Folger Shakespeare Library, right).
Above: hand with signet ring from the Ashbourne portrait (left, Folger Shakespeare Library) & hand with signet ring from Called Rizzio (Royal Collection).

Oxfordians have been convinced for decades, and with good reason, that the Ashbourne portrait had its Elizabethan collar overpainted in order to misidentify the sitter Edward de Vere as a haberdasher named Hamersley. Could this inscribed Rizzio portrait actually depict the young Edward de Vere with his violin? Or is this instead a Jacobean portrait, which would mean its sitter is neither de Vere or Rizzio?

A big clue to the identity of sitter might lie in the signet ring, and it would be interesting to probe this ring with spectral technologies. After all, the whole purpose of signet rings is to identify the sitter's family. . .

So, lots of red flags here. And lots of reason to x-ray, or infra-red, or use whatever occult technologies have cooked up of late to get under the paint. Expect some updates to this posts.

I have now received a number of emails from the Royal Collection about their called-Rizzio portrait. Perhaps the most important reveal is that all the conservation notes from the portrait's 1974 restoration (its only restoration of note) have been, well, um, lost. (This is almost invariably the case with Shakespeare candidate portraits btw.) The sleeve pocket was presumably removed, I learned, because it had been added to the portrait, but there's no mention in the email of how that was determined or if x-rays or IRs were even employed. One email implied the sleeve might have been added to make the portrait appear Elizabethan, though it's unclear why anyone would want to forge a portrait to depict David Rizzio. 

Also the emails from the Royal Collection makes it clear that I was correct about the background of the portrait being overpainted. The Rizzio inscription was also added to the portrait at a later date. Apparently the doublet is not leather, though it certainly looks like leather to me. A letter in the portrait's file once described the portrait as a "problem picture." I would agree.  

Below are the emails I received from the Royal Collection. I've highlighted certain passages in bold print. For example, I highlighted the passage in one email in which, within the same paragraph, I was informed that sleeve pockets never existed, and then I was told that maybe the sleeve pocket was added to make the portrait appear Elizabethan. If sleeve pockets didn't exist, then how could one have been added to make a portrait appear Elizabethan?

Also note I immediately responded to that email by sending them a photograph of an Elizabethan portrait with a sleeve pocket (see below portrait of Horace Vere). 

As you read these emails, ask yourself why the Royal Collection has not explored this "problem portrait" with x-rays or infrared light etc. After all, they admit it's extensively overpainted. Obviously somebody went a lot of trouble to misidentify the sitter. Why not learn the portrait's true history? I just don't understand the lack of curiosity in certain collections. And let's bear in mind there's a signet ring here that the Royal Collection knows has been overpainted to deceive us, and yet they've made no effort to test that ring to see its original signifying matrix that will tell us who this person is. Why? What is the Royal Collection they afraid of?

Dear Mr Durkee,

Thank you for your e-mail regarding the Portrait of a Man known as David Rizzio in the Royal Collection (RCIN 401172). The image that you saw on our website (now no longer visible) dates from 1971. It was taken prior to conservation, which I understand took place in 1974 and appears to have been overseen by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (SNPG). According to a letter of 1988, in our files, correspondence with the conservator who worked on the painting and the SNPG are missing. I suspect that it was during the conservation that the pocket sleeve and lacing were removed presumably because they were identified as later overpainting. 

The painting is due to be published in a revision of Oliver Millar’s Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures, 1963 (although it was not included in the first edition). It is thought that the background of the painting has been extensively overpainted. The inscription (which gives the date of the portrait as 1565) is not original and was presumably added a number of years after the portrait was painted. The costume of the sitter can be dated to c. 1620 on the basis of the falling ruff which is far too large for a portrait of the mid-16th century as well as the shape of the doublet, particularly in terms of the manner in which the shoulder wings project beyond the arms. The style of beard and hair are also much more like the fashions of the 1620s.

Perhaps the overpainted ‘pocket’ in the doublet was an attempt to make it appear more Elizabethan. It may also have been a misinterpretation of the fashion for paned (slit) sleeves on doublets, which were common around 1620. Pockets were never found in this sleeve location. The way in which the fabric of the garment has been painted seems more indicative of wool or silk rather than leather and it would have been known as a doublet not a jerkin as jerkins were sleeveless. 

In a letter from Dr Duncan Thomson, then Assistant Keeper of Art, SNPG, to Robert Snowden, the conservator, he describes it as a ‘problem picture’ and felt it was wrong to call it a picture of Rizzio.

You may be interested to know that there is a mark impressed on the stretcher of the painting from the firm of liners, John Peel (c.1785-1858).

I hope this information is of interest.

My reply to the Royal Collection (below):

Thank you for the helpful reply. I still have a few questions and am sorry to hear the notes on the conservation have been lost. Were any spectral tests done on the portrait prior to its restoration? I'm curious as to how it was decided the pocket was added, especially since it was so unique. And thanks also for confirming the sleeve pocket used lacing--I wasn't positive--and yes that would certainly make it Elizabethan.

I disagree that sleeve pockets were never located in that general area and am attaching a portrait to support my case. I have to say it's awfully strange for somebody to in-paint such a specific and uniquely laced open pocket onto a portrait--I've never once seen a laced pocket depicted as open, so it's hard to believe they copied it there from another portrait. And that appears to be bombast that's exposed by the opened pocket, too, and of course bombast disappeared by the end of the century as the human figure returned to men's fashion following Elizabeth's death. To my mind, the argument that somebody wanted the portrait to depict Rizzio so badly they painted an Elizabethan pocket onto the portrait is as strange as an argument stating a fall collar was overpainted onto the portrait to make it look Jacobean. Neither argument has much logic behind it and with the conservation notes lost--you'd be surprised how often this is the case--I guess we will never know now, which is a shame.

Please do let me know if any x-rays or IRs were taken. Or if there are any alternative routes to learning more about this portrait's conservation--might records exist elsewhere?
Thank you again for the reply and this information,
Above: portrait of Horace Vere, 1594 (image from Wikicommons). Note the pocket sleeve, stuff with bombast, clearly visible in the exact location of the portrait known as David Rizzio. The pocket sleeve was therefore an Elizabethan detail and might well date the portrait known as David Rizzio to c. 1594.

Email reply (below) from the Royal Collection in which my evidence the side pocket was an Elizabethan style goes oddly un-noted as does my argument no painter would have forged this obscure costume detail onto a portrait:

Dear Mr Durkee 

Thank you for your e-mail and apologies for the delay in replying. I have now traced the correspondence and reports on the painting from its time at Stenhouse

Conservation Centre during the 1970s and I am afraid that there are no references to any X rays or technical analysis of the painting. There is also no discussion of the removal of the laced pocket sleeve. There is, however, reference to removal of areas of ‘inpainting’ (later overpainting) in ‘oil colours’ which I presume relates to the pocket.

I can only re-iterate that Dr Duncan Thomson, Assistant Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, (who oversaw the conservation) believed that it was wrong to go on calling it a portrait of Rizzio.  He felt the costume of the sitter can be dated to c. 1620 and the style of the portrait are of about the same date.  I am sure you are aware of the almost-half-length engraving by Charles Wilkin (c. 1759-1814), of Rizzio, in a ruff and cap, and playing the lute. The engraving is presumably after a portrait of Rizzio which is now not known, and was published by Robert Triphook in 1814 (British Museum). We believe the violin in our portrait could possibly date from the early eighteenth century, however it appears to be an inauthentic rendering of an instrument of the period.  

Finally, I attach a detail of the pocket sleeve from a photograph taken in 1971, prior to the conservation, and we would welcome any further thoughts that you have.

With kind regards [. . .]

Friday, April 14, 2023

Oxford University, Edward de Vere, and the Stratford Bust: Is This the Smoking Gun of Shakespeare Studies?

Above left: The Welbeck portrait of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (owned by Welbeck Abbey, image from Wikicommons). Above right: the Hunt or Stratford portrait of Shakespeare (owned by Stratford Birthplace Trust, public domain photograph from 1864).

This post picks up where my book STALKING SHAKESPEARE leaves off following its chapter on why the Hunt portrait of Shakespeare has a strong claim to Shakespeare ad vivum (painted from life) and was quite likely the template portrait used to create the iconic bust of Shakespeare in Trinity Church.

Above: the Stratford bust next to the Hunt portrait of William Shakespeare (both photos from Friswell's 1864 Life Portraits of William Shakespeare). In both likenesses Shakespeare is wearing a red jerkin beneath a black robe. No scholar as ever disputed the connection between the two artworks, but which came first?

STALKING SHAKESPEARE is not an authorship book. It's a memoir about my unruly obsession with identifying unknown courtiers in Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits. But the book does delve into the authorship debate whenever that controversy overlaps my portrait obsession (such as with the infamous Ashbourne portrait of Shakespeare) and I do my best to remain a neutral.

The Hunt portrait of Shakespeare is fascinating beyond measure and plagued with telltales scandals--for example, the portrait was discovered in a Stratford attic in the mid-19th century purposely disguised so as not to resemble Shakespeare; yet when cleaned with solvents the portrait turned out to be the spitting image of the famous town bust. No scholar has ever disputed the intimate connection between the portrait and the bust, which leaves us with two logical scenarios: either the portrait was used to create the bust or the bust was used to create the portrait. 

STALKING SHAKESPEARE takes up the claim by 19th century scholars that the portrait came first and was used to create the bust, and my book also argues the Hunt portrait needs to be tested by its owners at the Stratford Birthplace Trust. Because of their neglect, we don't know how old the portrait is or what lies beneath its overpaint (and we know via multiple expert testimony that the picture was immediately altered after its discovery, although we don't know why or to what degree it was altered). As to its age, the portrait descended from the aristocratic Clopton family collection in Stratford and had been stored in the Hunt family attic for at least a hundred years when it was discovered in 1860.

Now let's return to the famous bust at Trinity Church and ask ourselves whether or not that bust could be a tribute to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford?

We know that the traditional Shakespeare of Stratford (the businessman/actor) was not a college-educated man and that there's no record of him even attending the local grammar school in Stratford. With that in mind, it's interesting that a traditional scholar is now conceding that the Stratford bust (and by extension the Hunt portrait) depicts Shakespeare wearing an Oxford University gown.

Lena Cowen Orlin, a professor at Georgetown University, has made this argument inside the pages of The Guardian that states:

The figure is wearing an Oxford University undergraduate’s gown, and the cushion detail is found in monuments memorialising lives of distinction in its college chapels.

She [Orlin] said the fact that he [Shakespeare] wanted to be memorialised with links to the university – despite never going to university himself – “now suggests some collegial association that we don’t know about”.

I'm not sure Orlin's logic holds up in the second paragraph, but the important point is that Shakespeare was immortalized wearing an Oxford gown when we know--and Orlin concedes this--that the traditional author did not attend Oxford. This is quite the monkey wrench tossed into the traditional narrative.

The first question that arises is why did it take centuries for scholars to figure out Shakespeare was wearing a gown that attached him to Oxford University? I would suggest that confirmation bias played a large role, which might also explain why this revelation came out of an American university instead of one in England such as, well, hmm, Oxford.

Edward de Vere, long rumored to have written the works of Shakespeare, did in fact attend Oxford University (hardly surprising for the 17th Earl of Oxford). Clearly the last thing traditional scholars want to do is connect their iconic bust to that infamous earl they despise.

But there's another type of confirmation bias at work here, I suspect, and this one can be found rooted inside the de Vere authorship camp which seems hellbent on denying any connection between their hidden author (de Vere) and the two most famous likenesses of Shakespeare: the Stratford bust at Trinity Church and the Droeshout engraving from Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio. The de Vereians vehemently want those two iconic likenesses to be red-herring representations of the actor/businessman they believe was used as a mask for the the real Shakespeare.

By contrast I think, within the Oxfordian framework, it begs to be argued that one or both of these two traditional likenesses (the bust and the engraving) were created, as much as possible within imposed limitations, to celebrate Edward de Vere. The physical similarities in the photographic comparison at the top of this post seems to my eye more than coincidental and raise questions that are never going to be answered as long as both camps keep their religious blinders on. 

If I were an Oxfordian, the question I'd be asking right now is: has Shakespeare been hidden from us in plain sight?   

Related links: 

Note: all photographs in this post are used for identification purposes under Fair Use laws. I apologize for not using a color photograph of the Hunt portrait, but the Stratford Birthplace Trust does not make these available.


Thursday, April 13, 2023

Costume Dating Proves This is Not a Portrait of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford

Above: Called Edward de Vere (born 1550). Tall standing collar ending in pickadil tabs that support the small figure-of-eight ruff attached to shirt and garnished with blackwork embroidery. Small shoulder wings with pickadil tabbed fringe and padded bishop-style sleeves. Doublet (or perhaps it's a jerkin) slashed-and-puffed with embroidered shirt linen pulled through slash or perhaps the doublet is displayed open-pocketed to reveal embroidered lining. Silk embroidery also evident on wrist ruffles. Short hair. Dope boar pendant (the de Vere family crest) hanging by ribbon. Painted by unknown artist but sometimes attributed to Gheeraerts the Younger c. 1565. (Portrait formerly owned by the Duke of St. Albans, currently in the possession of the Minos Miller Trust Fund.)

I just watched a slickly produced de Vere documentary on Amazon Prime called NOTHING TRUER THAN TRUE, which was not, in my opinion, terribly convincing in regard to the authorship debate, but it was a fascinating look at the 17th Earl of Oxford's grand tour of Italy, and once again I saw the above portrait, supposedly painted by Gheeraerts the Younger, trotted out as a portrait of Edward de Vere. This is not Edward de Vere. Nor was it pained by Gheeraerts the Younger. 

Portrait inscribed, "Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford" (Portrait formerly owned by the Duke of St. Albans, currently in the possession of the Minos Miller Trust Fund. Image from Wikicommons)

And yes, I'm aware there's a giant inscription on the portrait that screams, "I'm Edward de Vere." How many times do I have to tell you? Never. Trust. Inscriptions. And especially never trust them when they are fitted on both side of the sitter's head (as well as behind it) in a manner no painter in England ever employed.  

The portrait shows a man dressed in the garb of the late 1550's to the mid 1560's. We know that English nobles donned their newest European-influenced finery for portraits, so its extremely unlikely (read "impossible") that a clothes horse like Fast Eddie de Vere would be immortalized playing dress up with his daddy's wardrobe, but, again, believe what you need to believe. 

Now let's have a closer look at that diabolical mug that appears to be contemplating your murder in hideous detail. Notice anything uniquely weird about the sitter aside from his cauliflower ear and large slithery-spooky homicidal eyes? 

Yes, correct, there are beaded strings or perhaps yarn attached to the end of his pickavent beard (or possibly attached to the standing collar). That's unusual, but not 100% unique. In fact, I've been able to locate two other portraits that show this same style beaded beard. So let's have a look at those two portraits, both of which immortalize earls, and see what we can glean from them. What do these three earls have in common? 

The portrait below depicts Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and arch enemy of Edward de Vere dressed with a equally tall standing collar that supports, via the same tabs known as pickadils (ahem), a small figure-eight ruff. Look a bit familiar style-wise to the called Edward de Vere portrait? Now lift up a magnifying glass and you'll see that Dudley also has the exact same type strings, with some type of bell-shaped ornamentation, dangling from his pointy beard (or possibly his collar top). Same clothes style, (minus bishop sleeves), same diabolical glare, same beard style, yet Dudley was painted c. 1560 when Edward de Vere was ten years old. 

Starting to get the picture? 

 Above: Robert Dudley, the First Earl of Leicester c. 1560 by van der Muelin (Yale Center for British Art). Wrist ruffles, jerkin slashed and pinked vertically with long skirt ending in pickadil border. Jerkin (outer jacket) sleeveless and winged with double layer of pickadil tabs. Tall standing collar also ends with pickadils. Sleeves of doublet are tight to skin without bombast padding. Non-peascod doublet attached down center with buttons top/bottom and hooks in center. Codpiece still prominent. Hose paneled, padded for onion-shape. Small figure-of-eight ruff collar worn open at neck (ruff likely attached to shirt as were wrist ruffles). Hair short all around. Beard forked and decorated with beaded strings or yarn. Black squat cap beret-like pleated with ostrich feather.

Okay, now let's examine another portrait that once again reveals a nobleman with stringed baubles dangling off his chin. Who is it this time? Why it's the 7th Earl of Northumberland, Thomas Percy, as painted by Steven van der Muelin (the same artist who painted Dudley). Now our man Percy isn't as dapper as Dudley and can't really pull off that cold-blooded "I'm killing you in my dreams" glare that the other earls manage so effortlessly, but his style of clothing--raised collar, small figure-of-eight ruff--looks rather familiar and of course dates the portrait to early in Elizabeth's reign 1566.

from wikicommons by Steven van der Muelin

Confirmation bias is a funny thing in that people who are aware it exists can still suffer from it. Oxfordians can be extremely reasonable on so many fronts, and yet here we have a portrait of a man who in no way resembles the sitter of the Welbeck portrait of Edward de Vere and is in fact decked out in the clothing of a previous generation; yet otherwise intelligent people will still go onto social media and call me names after I politely inform them it's not their boy Edward de Vere. Why do they throw insults? I guess because they really want it to be Edward de Vere. And I get it. It would make a great diabolical Shakespeare portrait. Except it's impossible. It's not Edward de Vere and therefore it's very likely his father Earl John. End of story. Sorry. The truth hurts sometimes but is worth it. No need to lash out in the comments.
If you want to educated yourself on costume dating Elizabethan portraits visit this post on my blog and then we will never have to engage in one of these awkward conversations again. Costume dating is fun! And until you finally learn how to do it you will always be an annoying novice, such as I was for many years, inside the world of Elizabethan portraiture. It will also give you a huge advantage because even inside the refined world of British art very few curators know much about costume dating. It's a great first step. 
Note: all the portraits in the post are used for identification purposes under Fair Use Laws. This is an educational blog. Also, go pick on somebody your own size. Or better yet learn to punch up.

Monday, August 29, 2022


 This beautiful portrait miniature, kept in London's excellent Victoria & Albert Museum, was for years identified on that museum's web page without caveat as a portrait of Sir Philip Sidney painted by Isaac Oliver. I do not think this is a portrait of Sir Philip Sidney nor do I think the painter Oliver; instead, I suspect this to be a portrait of Shakespeare's beloved Fair Youth 3rd Earl of Southampton Henry Wriothesley. 

My frustrations with this miniature began many years ago when, trusting the V&A's identification of the sitter as Sidney, I started using the miniature as a template to help me identify other possible portraits of Sidney. Bear in mind, I have an odd infatuation with Sidney, a courtier I don't particularly like yet find enigmatic. Two enigmas associated with Sir Philip that grate me: (1) throughout his short life Sidney was treated with the godly reverence due a royal heir, and (2) although he was at the center of the Elizabethan portrait revolution, only one authentic painted portrait of Sidney has survived.

British museums hoard their photographs of public-domain portraits by pretending these rote photographs are works of art in themselves. These museums seldom share high-resolution photographs nor will they let authors use these rote photos without first purchasing expensive permissions. Due to this hoarding of public-domain images (I won't pretend to hide my disgust) I was unable to obtain a high-quality photograph of the miniature the V&A web page described as Sir Philip Sidney painted by Isaac Oliver.

Then one day, irritated with my low-res image of the portrait miniature, I held my magnifying glass directly to my computer screen and realized, within moments, the so-called Sidney miniature had likely been altered via both extirpation and overpaint. 

The first anomaly to catch my eye was the misshapen "I-O" monogram of the artist Isaac Oliver. This monogram appeared slipshod in comparison with other Oliver monograms I'd seen. Something was wrong here, I felt. 

Suspicions roused, I next noticed what appeared to be vestiges of an inscription along the upper background. Was it my imagination or had an inscription been scrubbed from the portrait miniature? Inscriptions, bear in mind, can be vital in identifying painters. A Nicholas Hilliard miniature can be identified by Hilliard's unique style of calligraphy, as can a Hieronimo Custodis portrait. While staring into this seemingly ghosted inscription, I even began to wonder if this might be an invaluable Hilliard portrait miniature that somehow got misidentified inside a private collection.   

That was hopeful thinking, I'll admit, but it did seem unlikely to me that such as prestigious figure as Sidney would have been painted, face and all, by Hilliard's then-apprentice Isaac Oliver. As Elizabeth Goldring pointed out in her excellent Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist, Sidney and Hilliard were friends and enjoyed discussing the relationship between poetry and paintings inside their vaulted Areopagus Society. Would Hilliard have allowed his apprentice to paint such a dignitary as Sidney?

 Well, if Oliver did paint the miniature, I reasoned, then the miniature was likely a copy of a Hilliard original.

As I kept wanding my magnifying glass across the computer screen, I soon noticed a mask of white overpaint marring the sitter’s forehead. Odd, I thought. And there were other spots that looked patched over as well. Later the V&A would confirm to me in an email (see lower post) that overpaint had been applied not only to the sitter's forehead but also to his hair and hand.

At this point I was still trusting the V&A identification of the sitter as Sir Philip Sidney; and yet this sitter bore only a passing resemblance to the long-faced sitter in Sidney's one authenticated painted portrait.

Below left: NPG 2096 c.1578 Sir Philip Sidney (artist unknown, image from Wikicommons). Below right: the V&A miniature once said to be Sidney. Obviously these two sitters don't much resemble each other.

Finally I took a closer look at the sitter's costume, and that's when things got fascinating (well, to me, at least). The miniature's red-haired sitter was sporting a half-mast linen lawn collar trimmed with Italian cutwork (called reticella, I believe). This collar was likely raised off the shoulders by a hidden rabato wire system. Such collars did not come into fashion until years after Sidney’s 1586 death when fashion began to relax, and ruff, peascod, and bombast vanished from the scene. 

Wrist ruffles disappeared almost entirely around 1583 when cuffs came into fashion. Yet the sitter in the mystery miniature is clearly sporting cuffs.

Sidney was born in 1554 and died in 1586. If we assume the sitter in the portrait to be around twenty years old (give or take) that would set this portrait c. 1574. But the collars of that period were nothing like the one in the miniature. The collars of the 1570's were tall standing collars. Furthermore, according to Ashelford, collars did not become separate items of clothing until the mid 1580's. 

In short, costume dating all but eliminates the possibility of the sitter being Sir Philip Sidney. The costume doesn't fall within Sidney's life span. And if the portrait was painted right before Sidney's death in the early 1580's, then Sidney, a renowned clothes horse, would likely have been wearing a giant cartwheel collar above a bombast-stuffed doublet with giant buttons and a peascod-bellied doublet with a cloak thrown as if carelessly over the left shoulder.

So if it's not Sidney, and it isn't, then who could it be?


Above: mystery sitter from V&A miniature (left) and a miniature of Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, by Nicholas Hillard (V&A Museum, image from Wikicommons).

Above: mystery sitter from V&A miniature (left) and another miniature of 3rd Earl of Southampton from Albion Collection (image via Bonhams auction website). Please note that both sitters have notably large heads in relation to their small torsos. Also note the shoulder wings of the doublets are identical. The similarities of the collars are obvious as well. The ears are consistent both in location and shape, as are all other facial features.

Eventually I emailed the Victoria & Albert with some questions, and their quick reply set my head spinning. Apparently my email had caused the museum to change their online identification of the miniature almost overnight. The sitter was no longer Sir Philip Sidney but "possibly Sir Philip Sidney" and the painter was no longer Isaac Oliver but "after Oliver" (indicating a copy of an Oliver miniature).

The V&A email not only admitted their identification of Sidney “is possibly suspect, as you yourself have also suggested,” but also described the painter’s “I-O” signature as “probably spurious . . . likely to be a later addition.”

The museum blamed their mistake(s) on a computer update, but I  had been using this portrait as a template for years and knew that this was no recent error.

Below is the email I received from the V&A.

Dec. 11 2019 

Dear Lee Durkee  
Thank you for your enquiry about the supposed portrait miniature of Philip Sidney (museum number 630-1882). As I mentioned in my reply to your previous enquiry, time has been allocated from January to end March 2020 to update and ‘clean’ the online entries for the V&A’s collection of Tudor and early Stuart miniatures. This will include some new research undertaken during 2019 for the anniversary of Hilliard’s death, especially for the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London. But it will also involve ‘cleaning’ up existing entries as it seems that a recent computer update has resulted in certain fields in a curator’s original catalogue entry failing to transfer to ‘Search the Collections’ (STC) – the museum’s public-facing cataloguing. 
In the case of 630-1880 I have just made a few quick updates which should go ‘live’ overnight, to move information to fields which can be seen by the public. These reflect the fact that the miniature has long been catalogued as ‘after’ Isaac Oliver, that the ‘IO’ signature is likely to be a later addition, and that the description of the sitter as ‘Philip Sidney’ is found on the back of the 19th century frame, and is possibly suspect, as you yourself have also suggested. A museum catalogue entry from 1923, which was originally cited in full in my online cataloguing, comments: “The frame is 19th century work. The miniature is a 17th century production, but most probably a copy after Isaac Oliver. Though the hand, collar and dress are drawn with vigour, there is weakness in the face and hair. The miniature has been retouched on the background and probably on the back of the hand; the forehead has been almost entirely repainted. The signature is probably spurious; it is painted with a different gold from the ear-rings and the border.” I have only partly transferred this information to STC as I should examine the miniature myself in the new year.  
Further amendments could be made from January to March 2020 as this and some other miniatures will have to be physically re-examined. Any new or corrected information will be added to the record and will go ‘live’ on Search the Collections and available to the public as each entry is signed off.  
Yours sincerely 
Katherine Coombs 
Curator, Paintings

Ultimately we are left with three questions (1) who painted this excellent miniature? (2) who sat for it?, and (3) why is an ex-cabdriver in Mississippi the only the person who cares? 

My guess is the portrait depicts Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. I think a study in costume would support this suggestion (and would certainly eliminate Sidney). I also find it quite the coincidence that mystery sitter in the miniature struck the identical pose (right hand over heart) found in one of Southampton's early portraits. In the below comparison, please note the similarities of the collars, the earrings, the hair line, the face and ear shape, and the hands.

Above: unknown sitter from V&A miniature (left) and portrait of Henry Wriothesley (Collection of Alex Cobb; image from wikicommons). Again note the similarity of the collars. Although the hand has been overpainted in the V&A image, it still bears a great resemblance to young Southampton's.

Other civilized countries make high-resolution images of their historical portraits available to the public. Other countries allow author to use photographs of public-domain portraits without buying expensive permissions. (For example, the excellent Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC provides high-resolution photographs of their Shakespeare portraits to anyone who visits their web site and charges absolutely nothing for permissions.) These are public-domain images--meaning the public owns them. It's time Great Britain caught up with the rest of the curatorial world and changed their self-serving policies. These photographs they are hoarding are not works of art. They are simple photograph any robot could take.

FYI, anyone interested in Fair Use laws regarding public domain images of portraits should consult this excellent website from the Center of Media & Social Impact

Related Links:  How To Date Elizabethan Portraits By Costume: Men's Portraits