Monday, September 15, 2014

This World Famous NPG Elizabethan Memorial Portrait Does Not Depict Sir Henry Unton

 Above: NPG 710 Called Sir Henry Unton Memorial Portrait (artist unknown)   

Turning a Blind Eye: the Unton Memorial Portrait Reconsidered
"Although retouching and overpainting are very extensive, microscopic examination implies that the original paint layers are in reasonable condition . . ."  NPG file Unton Memorial Portrait
Part One: This Is Not Sir Henry Unton

I first came across the NPG memorial picture about eight years ago while sitting in the Elizabethan garden outside the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC. Waiting for the library to open, I had just turned a page on Roy Strong’s book The Cult of Elizabeth when I saw a portrait I assumed depicted Will Shakespeare. The large bust centered in the portrait seemed to combine elements from his Chandos portrait with the bust in Stratford’s Trinity Church. (Even Strong acknowledges the bust in the writerly memorial portrait is presented in the style of Shakespeare's.) Posing before a green curtain, this Shakespeare stand-in had been immortalized behind a table bearing inkwell and paper while in the act of writing. Stranger yet, the Angel of Fame was blowing her trumpet into the sitter's right ear while offering him the Crown of Triumph.  Fame, triumph, curtains, ink, paper, pen, etc, it's no wonder I assumed this dead writer was Shakespeare.

The NPG's memorial portrait, painted on a wooden panel five feet wide by two feet tall, presents the counterclockwise narrative of a man's life moving from birth to funeral rites with all these life episodes orbiting the sitter's central bust. And although its possible to categorize the portrait, as Roy Strong does, as a “story picture,” this mural is unique. As far as we know, nothing resembling it was created during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. We don't know who painted the portrait, although I'm told the The British Arts Journal will soon publish a paper proposing an artist.  

In his essay on the portrait, Sir Roy Strong implies that the mural was mentioned in the will of Dorothy Unton, but I think that statement is misleading. Lady Unton had an extremely large collection of portraits, a group of which were sub-labeled as "story pictures," a category that would include any pictures with a mythological narrative etc, but there is no specific mention of this unique mural in her will.

Nor can we  be certain when the portrait was painted, although its costumes, specifically the figure-of-eight linen ruff collars (which at times appears layered in the bust) would seem to indicate c. c.1580-1600. At other moments in the portrait's narrative these ruffs appear to be fluted in tubular sets. To my eye the costumes presented are such a hodgepodge that attempting to date the portrait by fashion might be a mistake. (Do the costumes in the birth scene reflect the fashion during the year of the sitter's birth or during the time the portrait was painted?) Sir Roy Strong has no such doubts and states with great confidence that the costumes establishes the date of the portrait to be c. 1596, the year of Unton's death, but Strong gives no examples to support this claim in his essay on the mural. 

As to the central bust, the sitter is sporting cuffs at the wrist, so the portrait is very likely post 1583. But what's most interesting--and Strong misses this entirely--is the sham sleeve that is repeatedly seen hanging behind the sitter's left shoulder. The sitter does not appear to be wearing a Mandilion with one sleeve hanging fashionably loose; instead he is wearing one jerkin (or jacket) sleeve unbuttoned and purposely hanging loose (thereby exposing the doublet sleeve beneath the jerkin). As Cunngington states in the Handbook of English Costume in the 16th Century, "Thus to wear one [sleeve] and leave the other to hang was the vogue during the 1580's" Yet Strong insists on dating the costume to 1596. 

Infrared testing has revealed the central bust's collar to have been a bit larger than the one we presently see. (It also reveals the sitter's nose was originally hooked in appearance.) The sitter's bushy haircut also befits the mid-to-late 1580's (famous for the Armada perm) better than it does 1596, but, that said, I think the portrait has been too greatly mistreated to date it with any accuracy via fashion.

It has been suggested that the great miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard might have painted the portrait, which includes dozens of tiny courtiers pictured throughout the narrative span. As Strong notes in his essay The Ambassador, these courtiers appear to be depictions of specific people. The various landscapes likewise appear to have been modeled on specific locales distinguished by anomalies (and some of these locals cannot be attached to the known travels of Sir Henry Unton). So what we are left with is a staggeringly precise mural designed for the purpose of identifying and immortalizing a famous writer of great fame and triumph. And this is exactly where our problems begin, because Sir Henry Unton was not famous, he was not a writer, and his life was far from triumphant.  

Strong's essay ignores any details that contradict the Unton narrative. His only comment on why the sitter is posing as a writer is that, "He seems the perfect civil servant poised to jot down instructions." It does occur to Strong that "jotting down instructions" is not an act that has historically wooed the Angel of Fame nor has it ever merited a Crown of Triumph. Strong also notes that, "The insert scenes recall the glories attained by the house of Unton under Sir Henry," yet Strong fails to elaborate on what these glories were. The truth is we have a portrait of a famous writer here--that's obvious--but which famous writer is it?


Sir Henry Unton never penned poem, play, masque, history, pamphlet, or novel. And even Strong admits that Unton lived a life of pitfalls and described his own life as “clownish.” So why does the Angel of Fame offer Unton the Crown of Triumph not once but twice in this portrait? And why, in the depiction of the tomb's effigies, is there a statue of a woman--whom Strong identifies as Lady Unton--gesturing with reverence to a pedestal supporting books? Also, why is there a wyvern (a winged dragon) above this tomb when that mythological beast was not associated with the Unton clan or with his wife's family. And why is there another wyvern above the gate to the sitter's house when Unton's heraldic beast was the greyhound? Sir Roy Strong does not provide explanations for any of these mysteries. He simply ignores them.

After leaving DC, I contacted the NPG to purchase some historical photographs of the life portrait. Although none of these photographs were dated—odd since the NPG had bought the picture in 1888—the photos did reveal a history of waning and waxing obfuscation. The black-and-white photograph I purchased appeared to be the oldest in the file and it showed the portrait thickly overpainted especially along its lower section (this being the lone oak panel of the three horizontal planks on which the picture was painted). Everywhere I looked I saw tide lines and abrasions, bubbles and wounds, evidence of rubbings, scrapings, and in-paintings. Even the close-up details that illustrate Strong’s chapter in The Cult of Elizabeth reveal a parade of crude brushwork around the crests behind the tomb’s effigies. The more I studied these details, the more I began to wonder if the entire picture might have been methodically censored to hide the sitter’s identity. (continued after jump)

Above: detail from the tomb in the Life Portrait.  Note the woman's statue on the tomb is in the dominant position. She appears to be pointing to the written work of the dead writer. Two coffins are visible within the grand tomb, which much resembles the tomb of Elizabeth I.  Note the thick overpaint visible along the left side.  Image from NPG.
Let me give some examples of the enigmas encountered in just one section of this portrait, the area labeled “Oxford” and meant to depict the sitter's school days. Strong claims this section represents Oriel College in Oxford, which Unton attended without receiving a degree. In early photographs of the portrait, two distinctive turrets connected by a battlement wall run along the right side of the "campus." However in the portrait’s current state, having been cleaned at least three times by the NPG, these towers and their walls have been muddled as if with sandpaper and glue, and this muddling happened at some point after 1970. Whatever destroyed this wall (and the towers it connected) we will never know. Certainly the NPG doesn’t know—they’ve admitted as much—though the portrait was in their possession when the structures were obliterated.
Above: towers and battlements obfuscated from portrait at some point after 1970
Above: detail from early photograph of portrait showing area labeled "Oxford." 
I sent the above comparison to the NPG. Months later, the NPG’s Dr. Tarnya Cooper kindly informed me:
The difference in the two details of the Henry Unton portrait cannot easily be accounted for in the Gallery records . . . There is also no record of any ‘damage’ occurring whilst the painting has been in the collection.  However, it is possible that the raised paint areas and removal of old retouching may have taken place in this area, although our records do not exactly indicate this to be the case.
At this point I had to ask myself if the area portrayed was even Oriel College. This is no small matter. If the portrait celebrates Henry Unton it absolutely has to be Oriel College. The Unton family's connection with that college went back three generations. Their house was located on Oriel’s property. Yet there is zero resemblance between the medieval village in the “Oxford” section and Oriel College as it stood in the later half of the 16th century. The campus by that time had adopted a grid design around a central courtyard. We know this not only through concise written descriptions but also through a drawing done in 1566 by John Bereblock to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Oriel. (Unton was ten years old when the grid system was adopted.) The grid of buildings Bereblock drew remained there until the early 17th century, meaning they were still standing when Unton died in 1596. 

Instead of a college grid, the “Oxford” section depicts a walled medieval village with a church and orchard fitted within the peninsular confines of a bending river. The college is bordered on one side by a battlement wall supporting an elevated platform between (let us assume) two turrets. There is not one point of similarity between this walled village and what we know of Oriel College. That Strong doesn't mention this is curious.

And so an interesting phenomenon begins: the identification of Unton as the sitter is now dictating the identification of the various landscapes. This is Oriel College only because it has to be Oriel if the portrait memorializes Sir Henry Unton. The tail is wagging the dog.

Other examples of this flawed method of identification abound. For instance, we know that Unton was buried at All Saints Church in Faringdon. However it’s obvious that the church in the portrait is not All Saints. Even Strong concedes, “In fact this spire, together with the attempts to depict the clerestory lights and the transitional arcading in the nave, are about the only features which hint that the artist might actually have seen Faringdon church at all (108).”

Faringdon’s All Saints Church was reduced to ruins in 1623 by Cromwell (as was most of Unton’s tomb and also his home called Wadley); however the church was rebuilt along its original lines. Even if that were not the case, earlier paintings of the church prove that we are not dealing with the same structure seen in the portrait. Remarkably Strong does not mention that the steeple portrayed in the picture belongs to a tower hidden behind the main nave, an observation that would further distance the church from the town of Faringdon. Nor does Strong notice the thick layers of overpaint that mar the church--especially along the painting's left side. Strong turns a blind eye to everything odd about this picture.

I pressed the NPG about my theory of overpaint. After all, Strong had not mentioned any indication of scamping in his extensive essay. The NPG eventually replied with some quotes from the Unton file: “Extensive retouching evident in all areas of the painting . . . large areas of retouching and extensive strengthening of many features of the painting clearly visible . . . suspect some areas seriously abraded.” 

Years later, when I traveled to London to view the conservation file myself, I found an additional note they had neglected to send me: “Although retouching and overpainting are very extensive, microscopic examination implies that the original paint layers are in reasonable condition.” In other words, much of the original painting still exists beneath the surface layer marred by overpaint.   

Even as an amateur paint sleuth, I had recognized these telltale bubbles and tide lines in a perfunctory glance; yet Strong, the head of the NPG, had examined the portrait in depth and had not once mentioned the word overpaint or extirpation. Strong, who describes his own writings on the picture as “exhaustive,” did state that the memorial portrait could be approached as a propaganda document. And the more I studied the portrait, the more I started to feel the same way.  It is a portrait with a historical message, and that message contradicts are current understanding of English history. In other words, there is a reason this portrait has been censored.

At times Strong's attempts to support the identification as Sir Henry Unton seem an exercise in cognitive dissonance. For example, after acknowledging the sitter is presented as a famous writer “in the style of Stowe or Shakespeare,” Strong fails to discuss the obvious contradiction: Unton was not a writer, much less a famous writer of great triumph. So what exactly did Unton write in his fabled lifetime? He once “compiled” a minor treaty Strong described as “a discourse of ambassages.” And that's it. Presenting him as a famous writer is absurd.   

Yet twice in the picture, the Angel of Fame offers the mural's writer the Crown of Triumph. To judge from Unton’s life, this was not a very discerning angel. According to Strong, Unton was denounced publicly on three separate occasions by his queen, was banished from court, and died in massive debt to the tune of 23,ooo pounds (wow) with his estate in ruins. What reputation still exists concerning Unton does so only because of this painting. Greatness has been overpainted onto Sir Henry Unton. 

And I don't mean to disparage the dead. Unton was a man many people thought highly of, but Queen Elizabeth was not among them. Here, then, are some examples of Strong’s self-devouring argument as published in his The Cult of Elizabeth:
~“Unton speedily followed Essex in being denounced by Elizabeth . . . it was an act which the Queen never quite forgave and one which she harped on when contemplating his [Unton’s] reappointment as ambassador in the autumn of 1595; ‘Princes,’ she dictated, ‘will not be capitulated with by their servants.’”
~“Elizabeth’s wrath descended upon both general and ambassador [Unton] once more when the English troops, contrary to orders, helped Henry to besiege Burnay . . . The operation ended in failure.” (96)
~“While in France, Unton challenged to single combat the young Duke of Guise . . . the actual encounter never materialized.”  (96).
~“ . . . among those who spoke on behalf of moderating the subsidy was Unton. The Queen’s wrath knew no bounds . . . Unton was in disgrace.” (96)
~“For over two years he [Unton] was to languish in involuntary exile from court . . . when Unton was presented to her [Elizabeth I] at Windsor . . . all he received for his pains were ‘very bitter speeches . . .” (97)
~“Unton had good cause to regret what he referred to as his ‘clownish life.’” (97)

Cue Angel of Fame? Hardly. To make matters worse, Unton's “clownish life” ended ingloriously when, shortly after being publicly shunned by the French king Henri IV, he fell from a horse and died of a fever, leaving, in Strong’s words, “ . . . a broken estate and great debts . . . in the midst of a sea of family quarrels the Unton estates were sold and broken up and the Untons of Wadlye for want of a male heir disappeared from history.” Unton’s death was remembered by only one anthology of verse compiled by the Faringdon town preacher. Strong described this collection as “trite encomiums.”

It is therefore with a more cynical eye than Mr. Strong’s that we will continue our exploration of this mural beginning with the sitter's Grand Tour of Europe running along its top margin.
Above details from the NPG website Making Art in Tudor BritainNote that the NPG describes the mysterious spear-shaking horseman as "painted out" of the portrait. 
But first a spoiler alert. The picture was finally plumbed inside the Making Art in Tudor Britain project.  Among other findings, the infrared results revealed an overpainted man on horseback riding atop a hill on a rearing horse. This horseman, who presides exactly center-top above the mural, raises a jousting lance into the sky. This mysterious tilter was censored by someone who did not want a jouster thus featured in a portrait. Perhaps this was because there is no record I can find of Sir Henry Unton playing any part in the tilts. So we now know that our famous writer, whoever he is, was likely a champion at the tilt yard.

And let's not forget that Unton fell of a horse and died, all of which makes that censored image even less appropriate to Unton. In fact, the whole mural indisputably celebrates horsemanship, which apparently was not one of Sir Henry's strong suits. 

Let's continue our tour. As Michael Daly at Artwatch UK once pointed out to me, Renaissance books sometimes contained examples of generic locations used to signified a city (Daly's example was Schedel’s 1493 Nuremberg Chronical used the same woodcut to depict Damascus, Gerrara, Milan, and Mantua); however the attention to detail evident in the NPG mural makes it obvious that its cities are in no way generic. There is no repetition. The portrait's landscapes, like its citizens, are designed to be recognized. 

The sitter's travels spans the right side of the painting. The section of sky above the cities visited by the sitter appears to have been thoroughly rubbed and remixed, although vestiges of a long mountainscape, perhaps a continuation of the Alps above Padua, remain visible. The four cities depicted are labeled in an inconsistent white lettering: VENIS, PADDUA, NIMINGGAN (further labeled THE LOW COUNTRIES), and CUSHIA (further labeled FRANCE). The lettering especially degenerates regarding these latter two cities, which Strong confirms as Nymigein in the Netherlands and Coucy La Fere in France. There is also an additional label on the house that says WADLIE, which was the name of the Unton household on the property of Oriel College. 
Various labels appearing on the NPG Memorial Portrait called Sir Henry Unton.
In the city Strong calls Nymigein “before which a battle is raging,” the sitter stands in armor in front of a war tent. Nymigein was held for Philip II until 1591 when it fell to Maurice of Nassau, “an action,” Strong points out, “at which Unton was certainly not present (92).” Nor is there any evidence of Unton ever having led troops in Nymigein. And is this even Nymigein? Aside from the dubious lettering, no details pinpoint it as such. Not a single windmill is depicted in a city famous for them.

The neighboring city, according to Strong, is Coucy La Fere, the French commune where Unton died, and indeed the portrait contains a death-bed scene adjacent the walled city Strong believes is Coucy La Fere (yet is labeled CUSHIA). Unton was sent to Coucy, a commune in northern France, against his will by Elizabeth I. Upon his arrival, and after being publicly shunned by the French king, Unton wrote home, “I do hide my head in shame.” Soon thereafter Unton fell from his horse and died. The painter’s decision, therefore, to portray Unton mounted gaily on horseback capering toward Coucy La Fere might seem morbid. 

For reasons unknown, our unknown artist in painting Coucy chose to depict not a commune or village but a walled city filled with magnificent Gothic towers and bisected by a large river. Lionel Cust, Strong’s predecessor as head of the NPG, described this city as “oriental.”
Detail NPG Memorial Portrait Called Sir Henry Unton (image from Wikicommons). Left side of detail shows sitter's death bed after falling from a horse.  Right-side of same detail shows sitter happily on horseback approaching a walled city bisected by a great river and labeled, oddly, "Cushia," which is a small commune in France that in no way resembles this great city that Lionel Cust, former head of the NPG, described as "oriental."
Enigmatic bearded man who appears twice in the NPG portrait  The figure first appears in the death-bed scene as a mourner and next appears leaning festively against the sitter's tomb holding indecipherable banners in his hands while people congregate along the walls oddly applauding the funeral procession.  This area appears to be the most heavily obfuscated section of the portrait.  Image from Wikicommons.  Mourner image from NPG Making Art in Tudor Britain webpage.
The walled city labeled CUSHIA bears no resemblance to Coucy La Fere. And, again, if it’s not Coucy La Fere then it’s not Sir Henry Unton. The city portrayed is far more likely to be Krakow, also known back then as Cracovia, and the relationship between Krakow and the mural will be explored in the second part of my series on NPG 710. It's also interesting that although the King of France paid a visit to Unton's death bed, Henri IV is not depicted in that scene.

Following the life narrative, we eventually arrive at the sitter's tomb. The church that contains the tomb has been crudely scamped, but not nearly as much as the tomb depicted beneath it. This tomb with its funeral effigies is a fascination of overpaint with thick brushstrokes visible around the heraldry backing its two effigies. As to the effigies, it’s hard to know where to begin. Some relics from Sir Henry Unton's tomb have survived, including a bust of Unton’s wife, which is drastically different from the one seen in the portrait. And even Strong describes the tomb in the mural as an early draft of the tomb that was eventually built for Unton. The tomb in the picture bears no resemblance to what we know of Unton's actual tomb.

Stranger yet is the arrangement of the tomb's effigies. 
And why are there two coffins visible inside the tomb? After all, Unton's wife Dorothy remarried and lived a long life after Henry's death. And why would Henry Unton’s wife have been portrayed as presiding over her husband’s effigy? Sir Henry, after all, was the son of a Countess. Yet his wife, a social nobody, is depicted as presiding over their shared tomb. And also, while we're asking questions, why is Unton portrayed as resting on one elbow in a pose synonymous with melancholy? And why is Lady Unton gesturing like a game-show hostesses to a pedestal on which rest books. She was not a writer. Her husband was not a writer. Something is very wrong with this picture.

The base of the tomb has been drastically manipulated, the demarcation and discoloration on the left side obliterating an entire section of the red fence. The fencing proves this is not a modest wall memorial, such as the one that has survived in Faringdon of Unton’s parents, but instead we have a grand tomb styled in the Westminster fashion of Queen Elizabeth I’s, a tomb befitting royalty. Beneath the tomb we have the enigma of the two coffins: one horizontal, one vertical (mirroring the effigies above them). Why are there two coffins visible inside the tomb? Unton's wife Lady Dorothy remarried and lived a long life after Henry's death. What exactly is going on here? And why doesn't Strong have any curiosity about all these red flags.  

Let's delve into the portrait's history to see if we can resolve these problems. The portrait was first identified as Sir Henry Unton in 1775 via a bannered inscription above the birth panel. This inscription supposedly stated that the sitter was Sir Henry Unton and then went on to detail his lineage etc. Yet as Strong noted, “In spite of the numerous inscriptions which covered the pictures, it was catalogued as ‘an old original historical picture of the late Sir John Unton, who married Anne Seymour of the Somerset family.” In fact, the portrait remained misidentified for over three decades until this bannered inscription became miraculously visible, but only for a brief window, in 1775. The inscription is not legible today, nor was it legible when the portrait first surfaced in a 1744 sale at St. Paul’s Coffee House, nor was it legible when the picture was examined by the antiquarian George Vertue in 1748, nor was it legible in 1888 when the picture was first cataloged by the NPG. The portrait has been cleaned a number of times by the NPG, but at no point has this inscription reasserted itself. The banner was also not legible under x-ray or IR examination.
Above: detail from the birth section of the life portrait showing the sitter's red-haired mother dressed in black and sitting beneath a black curtain. Another woman gestures to be given the child. The two women on the left also have red hair and appear to be wearing gowns with a form of French farthingale known as the" roll" or "semi-circle" farthingale (these came into fashion c. 1580). The bodice and kirtle are of the same pattern. The woman gesturing for the child, by contrast, is wearing an apron over her skirt and has the heart-shaped style of French hood known as a Mary Stuart hood. Her apron, and her lack of a farthingale, identifies her as a servant or nurse. At the top of the scene is the banner that for a brief moment in 1775 identified the sitter as Sir Henry Unton. Image from NPG website Making Art in Tudor Britain.

In 1775, when the inscription magically surfaced, the portrait was owned by a Mr. John Thane. When Thane died, the portrait vanished again, this time for over thirty years, and was rediscovered in 1847 inside a Chelsea attic.

Let's linger at the birth panel a moment. Strong notes: “In a picture whose sense of scale is almost wholly dominated by social precedence, Sir Henry Unton’s mother assumes gargantuan proportions which are modified only by her seated position. If she were standing, the two ladies and the nurse would be dwarfed by her. Of her noble rank we are left in no doubt (Strong 85).” 

 Strong is correct in noting that caste dictates the scale of the various sitters in this portrait. Mother Unton is painted as gargantuan, Strong states, because she was the daughter of Edward Seymour, the former Lord Protector. Yet Strong makes no attempt to explain why Unton's wife, who was socially far beneath him, is painted so gigantically and actually presides over the feast and masque inside the house (just as she presides over the tomb). This portrait clearly shows Lady Unton as socially dominant. Nothing makes sense here.  


The child in the birth panel is wearing red ermine robes, like a tiny king would. But this is far from a joyous scene and it fact appear downright grim, perhaps even tragic, as it unfolds beneath ominous black curtains with the mother dressed in black. The father is conspicuously absent. And directly below this section is a gallows-dark scene, horribly overpainted and obscured, that shows what appears to be a couple standing together inside a darkened chapel. Strong has no interest in these details.

We do know, thanks to the magic of x-rays, that there is some buried lettering in the birth panel right next to the servant gesturing for the child. Somebody long ago censored this lettering. The letters visible in the x-ray read, "A--LIE." (Two letters are missing between the A and LIE.) I will explain this partial label in future posts. 

Moving upward and to our left, we arrive at the portrait’s masque. The house, or banquet hall, in which this masque takes place appears to be modeled upon an Elizabethan playhouse, at least to judge by the only surviving likeness of such a theater copied by Arendt van Buchell from a sketch made my Johannes de Witt. That drawing is of the Swan, build in 1596 in Southwark, and depicts a projecting stage beneath a “lords house” (called so by Ben Jonson) in which affluent patrons can watch the play from above and behind the stage. In the house we see two Greek columns with large pedestal bases support the structure of the two-roomed “heavens.” Since the main sitter is pictured as residing in these heaven (as well as at the feast below) we are likely dealing with another Elizabethan conceit: the home as playhouse incorporating the idea of the theater’s “heavens.”

The masque being performed has never been identified. Strong describes the: “. . . glittering procession is headed by Diana . . . she is ushered into the presence of the feasters by Mercury . . . behind her walks a train of six maidens in pairs carrying bows and garlands . . . the theme of the show is not apparent . . . " 

Strong states the musical arrangement accompanying the masque as a  “broken consort . . . an orchestra in embryo which had developed out of the consorts used in the playhouses.” The style of music he describes was popular in the 1580's, not the late 1590's. 

In the mural's upper right corner, we find the sun shining down onto the life travels of our famous courtier, giving him a god-like distinction. Individual rays, threadlike at times (but confirmed by spectral tests) extend from the sun and attach themselves to the courtier within each episode of his life depicted inside the mural. Strong briefly acknowledges this strange phenomenon but can offer no insights into it. But these sun rays are extremely important to understanding this portrait. Let's recall that Strong himself described the mural as a propaganda document.

In part two of this series on NPG 710, I will identify an alternative candidate for the main sitter. Although he is not William Shakespeare (as I hoped he was) this new candidate was an incredibly famous writer, and a tilt champion, and a world traveler who visited every city depicted in the portrait. This candidate also endured a famously long death-bed scene that inspired floods of tears throughout England and was transported back to England for burial in a ship with blackened sails and hull that moored off of Tower Hill (just as the black ship is seen doing in the mural). The mural will be proven to fit the life story of this triumphant writer at every turn, twist, and gallop.
Above: detail from NPG 710, a blackened coffin ship 
anchored off Tower HIll
End Part One (of Three)                                               

5 comments:

  1. Absolutely fascinating research of an iconic painting Lee. Based on your presentation it throws serious doubt on the identity as Unton, I hope it sparks further investigation at the NPG. However, Shakespeare? hmmm...

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  2. Well it seems clear the sitter was a very famous writer. So that limits the candidates quite a bit. And we can limit them more by admitting it was a famous writers worthy of an elaborate job of censorship. It might not be Shakespeare--though he certainly meets that criteria (witness the various authorship debate theories, etc) but it is somebody quite fascinating whose story has been buried beneath the paint for centuries.
    As to the legwork of the anti-Unton theory, Sir Roy Strong did most of that, though he didn't seem to realized he was doing it. Thanks for reading.

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  3. Fascinating. Enjoyed reading this immensely. The last part interested me because as I was reading your commentary, I kept noticing the sun's rays.

    To my eye, it appeared that the sun's rays always landed upon the de Vere image, excepting the one in the schooltower. Even the overpainted jouster on the hill seems to have a faint ray of sun. Others I see from top to bottom, include the mounted horseman in France, the man in front of the tents, the man in the "heavens", the cellist, the man feasting, a man behind the feasters, the lute player, the man in the school tower, and the baby. All of these appear to be the same person, de Vere, except the man in the school tower and of course, the baby.

    There are also two rays that I can't quite make out where they go. One goes thru the ship, and presumably falls upon the man at the center of the image. The other is a ray above the cellist and below the man sitting in the "heavens". As these rays seem to bend up a little as they traverse thru the playhouse, perhaps it reaches the foot of the reclining man holding the scrolls.

    Then there are a couple other de Vere-like images that don't seem to have rays falling upon them. There's the man sitting under the table in the bedroom scene, but the ray passing thru the horseman in "France" could also fall upon the sitting man.

    Of course the most obvious absent ray would be the one that should fall upon the figure on the tomb. However, if you take the ray that seems to fall upon the central figure, and instead follow its direction, it might actually be falling upon the tomb figure. More often than not, these rays fall upon a figure's head, so that makes more sense than the ray falling upon the central figure.

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    Replies
    1. I've been meaning to get back to this portrait, but, yes, I do believe the NPR has a description of all the places the sun rays land in the portrait. If I only had time . . . Thanks for your interest. I don't check the blog that often so sorry for the slow reply.

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