Friday, November 8, 2019

My Final Argument that the Portrait of an Unknown Fashion Fantastico in North Carolina Depicts the Privateer Sir Thomas Cavendish

Above: Unknown Gent (NCMA 67.13.4) & Sir Thomas Cavendish (image via Alamy.com)
This distinguished-looking gent, decked out in a fabulous gold-leaf fleur-de-lis doublet, lives anonymously inside the North Carolina Museum of Art, where his keepers refer to him affectionately as "Mr. Fancy Pants." The sitter bears an uncanny resemblance to a number of confirmed portraits of Sir Thomas Cavendish, the English privateer who claimed to have burned over a hundred Spanish ships. Cavendish, an artistocrat known as "the Navigator," was the third man to ever circumnavigate the globe. I'm convinced the portrait does depict Cavendish, and this post will attempt to present the evidence via an examination of the portrait's provenance, costume, pigments, and also the impresa (or visual riddle) posed by the enigmatic thunderstorms painted in the upper-left-hand corner.
Above: Unknown Man (North Carolina Museum of Art, left) & Sir Thomas Cavendish
 in 1591 by Gheeraerts the Younger (image taken for educational purposes from Ashelford's
 book DRESS IN THE TIME OF ELIZABETH). The painting of Cavendish is owned by the
 Trustees of the Will of the 8th Duke of Berkeley. Note that both men are wearing peascod
 doublets above the bum-rolls trunk hose that came into fashion during the 1580's. 
Above: close-up comparison between unknown gent (MCMA) and Sir Thomas Cavendish 
by Gheeraerts. Click on the image for a higher-resolution comparison.
Let's begin with a blog post provided by the North Carolina Museum of Art stating their theory that this unknown man was likely an Elizabethan privateer. Dr. Perry Hurt, one of the museum's associate conservators, noted in his blog post that the portrait had been painted using actual gold and silver leaf as well as an expensive red dye called cochineal (derived from the insect of that name found in the Americas). Hunt believed these three materials were used in the portrait to reflect the Spanish booty brought home to England by the unknown privateer. So let's start this argument by stating that Sir Thomas Cavendish was indeed a famous privateer who specialized in plundering the Spanish of gold, silver, and cochineal prior to being lost at sea during his attempt to be the first man to circle the globe twice.

Now let's have a look in the upper-left corner at the portrait's impresa. Elizabethans loved these visual riddles, but this one seems easy to solve.
Above: detail from portrait of an unknown gent kept in the North Carolina Museum of Art.

 The device depicts a series of sinister storm clouds raining onto what appears to be a blue iris with the French motto SANS ORAGE ("without storm") sheltering the flower. I would take the meaning to be something akin to: without hardship you get no Spanish booty. But what's more important is that Cavendish had at least one other portrait of himself painted standing beneath similar storm clouds while garbed garishly in gold.
Above: Unknown Man (North Carolina Museum of Art  NCMA.67.13.4) & "Portrait of
 Sir Thomas Cavendish" by John Bettes (image from Flickr).
Below: detail of thunder storms perched over Cavendish's left shoulder.
More evidence the sitter is Cavendish can be found inside the museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the portrait now resides. The museum's collection of British portraits contains 25 pictures total. Yet four of the sitters are confirmed members of the Cavendish family. Interestingly I had no idea this was the case when I first suggested to the museum their sitter was Cavendish. It's quite the coincidence but perhaps nothing more than that, because the family that donated the known Cavendish portraits is not the same family who donated Mr. Fancy Pants. But then again perhaps there is some connection between the two families; it would be nice to know if that were the case.

A portrait of Sir Thomas Cavendish in North Carolina makes perfect sense in that he played a key role in the history of that area. The Fort Raleigh websites recalls Cavendish in this way:
Thomas Cavendish also played an important role in the expeditions know as the Roanoke Voyages. In 1585 he participated with Sir Richard Grenville in planting the Ralph Lane colony by bringing his ship Elizabeth to the area now known as North Carolina.
It seems likely the picture was painted c. 1588 when Cavendish returned to England after circumnavigating the globe. His ship Desire contained incredible wealth in its hold. He was knighted by Elizabeth I, who was so impressed with his booty she accepted his invitation to sup with him on his ship. 

An examination of the costume supports the date of c. 1588. The bombast stuffing of the mid-to-late 1580s can be seen in the sitter's Bishop (or farthingale) style sleeves, in his pronounced peascod doublet, and in his upper trunk hose (the style was called a mini bum roll). There are no wings at the shoulder of the doublet, which is also consistent with c. 1588. The sitter is wearing a gorget around his neck, which was a fashionable way to let everyone know you've fought in battles, which Cavendish certainly had. The sitter is also adorned by a sash that was perhaps a favor from Queen Elizabeth (the beautiful sash is painted with real gold and silver). His hair style is consistent with c. 1588 as he is sporting the hyper popular Armada Perm just as it is giving way to the longer rock-star hair styles of the 1590's. However the fall collar of Italian cutwork seems more consistent with the 1590's. Cavendish was lost sea in 1592. His portrait by Gheeraerts the Younger was painted in 1591.

We don't know who painted the North Carolina portrait, although its hard not to suspect Gheeraerts the Younger. However the use of real gold and silver as pigments might indicate the portrait was painted by Nicholas Hilliard, who was known to employ those precious metals in that way. Although Hilliard is famous for his portrait miniatures, he also painted some amazing full-length portraits. 

The portrait of the unknown man was donated to the museum in 1967 by Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc, who also donated at least two other excellent portraits to the museum. One of these portraits appears, to my eye, to depict the privateer Sir Frances Drake. Another sitter resembles Sir Walter Raleigh, so it's hard not to suspect a nautical theme inside the MacLamroc collection. These portraits had unfortunately been misidentified centuries earlier. The museum acknowledges the current inscription on them are incorrect. 

It's also worth mentioning that the Cavendish clan came to England from Normandy, or at least believed they did, so the French motto and embroidered fleur-de-lis might well reflect that heritage.
Below: comparison of left hands from the same two portraits. The hand on the right is the
 unknown man's. The confirm Cavendish portrait (right) is owned by the Trustees of the Will
 of the 8th Duke of Berkeley
Above: NCMA.67.13.3 Unknown Man (center) surrounded by various portraits of Sir Frances Drake
 taken from Wikimedia.
Below: NCMA.67.13.5 Unknown Man (center) with two portraits of Sir Walter Raleigh from the
National Portrait Gallery in London.
 Below: announcement of the mystery surrounding these unknown sitters on the website of the North
 Carolina Museum of Art

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