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The Unknowns

Lindsey Cox

Unknown sitter. Unknown painter. Unknown provenance…

If you want to understand the breadth of Early Modern portraiture in England, then there are many unknowns in play. Many portraits are not displayed in galleries or reproduced in publications. Even those portraits that have survived changing tastes, a connection with the sitter or artist, or damage, are not on public view. Yet, it is these very same hidden faces who lack the celebrity of fame or connoisseurial acclaim that can add breadth to the histories of art. Look closer and you can see an alternative history of British portraiture.

This small portrait measures only 90 x 60 mm and it fits comfortably in the hand. The small size of the object would allow the viewer to hold it up to their eyes to examine it in more detail. Its small size also would have facilitated it being a relatively easy object to transport and to pack away – rather nicely in fact as it comes with its own wooden frame which closes like a book and protects the portrait inside.

The image represents an unknown woman wearing black garments including black lace over her hair and a white lace-trimmed coverlet tied with a black ribbon. More attention has been spent representing the detail of the sitter’s attire compared to reproducing any individual likeness of her. In the background, we can see green hills, a path, trees and a building. The grey sky is embellished with white clouds. These details, and those in the oval opposite with a tree and a church in a landscape, are stylised rather than specific.

In double portraits, it is frequently the husband who is represented on the left-hand side. Instead, here the tree and the mound of earth may be intended to suggest his burial place. This theory is supported by the inclusion of a church in the background and the woman’s black attire signifying that she may be a widow.

The identity of the sitter has now become lost to us, yet the inclusion of the landscape, the tree and the frame, suggest clues to the sitter’s identity and how this image may have been used by its original owners.

This artwork points to an important, yet largely overlooked, body of portraiture produced by now unknown painters. The painter of this portrait was possibly working on an unfamiliar small scale, possibly not professionally, and/or possibly regionally based.

The portrait was painted in a different aesthetic to that of the better-known courtly style. It represents an important yet lesser-known style of art and points to the socially diverse ownership of portraiture in Early Modern England.

March 2024

Further Reading

Cooper, Tarnya, Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales. New Haven, CT: Yale University, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2012.

Cox, Lindsey, Pleasing ‘the common sort exceedingly well’: An Interdisciplinary Repositioning of the British Portrait Miniature c.1520–1650,2 vols, PhD thesis, University of Kent (2018)

Tittler, Robert, Painting for a Living in Tudor and Early Stuart England. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2022.

Artist / Maker