Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex

1 portrait on display in Room 1 at the National Portrait Gallery

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Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1533-1534) - NPG 1727 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex

after Hans Holbein the Younger
oil on panel, early 17th century (1533-1534)
30 3/4 in. x 24 3/8 in. (781 mm x 619 mm)
NPG 1727

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Key findings: Technical analysis confirms that the picture was produced by an English workshop in the seventeenth century.

Historical summary
This portrait was purchased from A.H. Buttery in 1914. It had previously descended within the sitter’s family, the Lords Cromwell (later Earls of Ardglass), and came to King’s Weston with other Cromwell family portraits through the marriage of the heiress Elizabeth Cromwell to the Hon. Edward Southwell (1704). After that it was recorded in the collection of Richard Southwell in 1728 by Vertue. It was sold at Christie’s on 19 April 1833; sold in the Foster sale, 27 April 1853; sold at Christie’s on 13 December 1912 from the collection of J.P. Hardy.

Notes on likely authorship
The picture has the appearance of being produced by an English workshop of the seventeenth century and this has been confirmed by technical analysis.

Commentary on painting style, technique
There is some fine blending; for example, around the eyes, at the black edges of the sleeve at the cuff corner, and at the edge of the white paper in the hand. This picture is thickly painted in some areas, and some areas have raised texture; for example, in the painted decoration of the book. The background is very damaged and restored, but the original blue pigment has been identified as indigo, which was also used in the book, the tablecloth and carpet.

The scroll with the inscription ‘Earl of Essex’ is not original, and appears to have had another inscription painted on it at some point, although this is no longer visible. Photographs taken before retouching during the most recent treatment show that there was another inscription, which read ‘Thomas Cromwell’, above this scroll, in the top left.

Justification for dating
The technique and materials in use are entirely consistent with a work from this period. Dendrochronology indicates that the tree cannot have been felled before 1595. However, this cannot be considered conclusive because due to the thinning of the boards only one was suitable for analysis by dendrochronology and other boards may have indicated later dates.

Drawing and transfer technique
The fine underdrawing detected using infrared reflectography can be seen through the paint in some places, for example the outlines of the lips and nose. The underdrawing is very exact and seems to be traced from a pattern, though it is strengthened in some places. Where it can be seen in losses, the underdrawing appears to be in a sparkly dark grey medium which may be a metalpoint medium.

Strong ruled lines round the table bench and book can also been seen, and the angles of some of these have been amended, resulting in multiple lines. Alterations to the line of the fur garment were also noted. The letters on the table and outline of the scroll could be seen to have reasonably free but firmly drawn multiple lines, which are probably freehand.

Relevance to other known versions
Holbein’s original painting is now in the Frick Collection, New York. This was the product of a single sitting to Holbein carried out when Cromwell was Master of the Jewel House (c. 1532-1533), evidenced by the inscription of the letter on the table. All subsequent versions of this portrait are derived from this sitting.

Other later copies or versions include:
- Petworth (Lord Egremont)
- J. R. Chichester Constable (once in the Arundel collection, c. 1654)
- Saumarez Collection (Shrubland Park)
- Private collection, formerly collection of Lord Cunliffe, Sotheby’s sale 23 January 1946
- Clowes Collection, Indianapolis
- Major H. B. Trevor Cox (on loan to Northampton City Art Gallery)

Bigland, Ralph, Historical, Monumental and Genealogical Collections Relative to the County of Gloucester, 2 vols., 1791 and 1792, II, p. 72
Foister, Susan, ‘Workshop or Followers? Underdrawing in Some Portraits Associated with Hans Holbein the Younger’, in Proceedings of the 9th Louvain-la-Neuve Colloque sur le dessin sous-jacent dans la peinture, 1991, pp. 113-124
Strong, Roy, 'Holbein in England - I and II', Burlington Magazine, vol. 109, no. 770, 1967, pp. 276-81
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp. 113-4
Trapp, Joseph Burney and Hubertus Schulte Herbruggen, 'The King's Good Servant' Sir Thomas More, 1477/8 - 1535, National Portrait Gallery, 1977, p. 106 (no. 209)
'Holbein's Portrait of Thomas Cromwell', The Nottingham Guardian, 23rd January 1914


X-ray mosaic 01. X-ray image of the whole pai…
IRR mosaic 01. Infrared reflectogram moasic o…
IRR mosaic 02. Infrared reflectogram mosaic o…
IRR mosaic 03. Infrared reflectogram mosaic o…
Micro 01. Eye on the right (7.1 x mag).
Micro 04. Lips (7.1 x mag).
Micro 05. Underdrawing and greyish underlayer…
Micro 06. Ring, showing restoration (7.1 x ma…
Micro 07. Detail of paper on table, showing a…
Micro 08. Edge of paper and tablecloth, showi…
Micro 09. Jewel on book clasp - with paint lo…
Micro 10. Damage in tablecloth, showing pale…
Micro 11. Detail of table, showing original g…
Micro 12. Obvious brushmarks in the paper hel…
Micro 13. Detail of carpet, showing individua…
Micro 14. Blue of book cover, with raised det…
Micro 15. Corner of the tablecloth, showing g…
Micro 18. Detail of edge of fur and black rob…
Micro 20. Detail of background, showing resto…

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Compare high-resolution images against the painting - mainly x-ray and infra-red photography images, but sometimes UV or raking light images - side by side with the ability to zoom in on details.

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The painting is in a stable condition, but has been extensively damaged and restored in the past. There is a substantial cradle on the back of the panel, which has been thinned. Evidence of this thinning can be seen between the cradle members, and on the x-ray image of the painting. Some of the horizontal cradle battens still move. The cradle has produced undulations across the surface of the panel (known as a washboard effect). There is very little craquelure in the paint. There are no new losses, and the wholesale inpainting and reconstruction of the background is visually good. The most recent varnish has not discoloured.

The painting has undergone much restoration in the past, as a result of large areas of abrasion/damage, particularly to the background. The flesh paint seems to have sustained little damage and therefore little restoration. It is possible that the green tablecloth has been overpainted at some point, although further investigation is needed (see Paint sampling).


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 3

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

The panel has been thinned and cradled. The edges are very thin, and have been damaged by previous framing/mounting. The cradle has produced severe undulations/ridges across the panel (a 'washboard effect'). Some of the horizontal cradle battens still move. The panel appears relatively stable. Marks from the thinning of the panel can be seen between the cradle members, and in the x-ray image of the painting (see X-ray).

Dendrochronology (what's this?)


An examination of tree rings, which can help to provide the earliest possible felling dates for the wood used for the panel. The technique can also indicate the geographical origin of the wood.

Number of boards: 3

Last date of tree ring: 1587


For analysis the boards were labelled A to C from the left (from the front). The edges of the boards are particularly thin, and boards A and C were too thin to analyse. Board B is exceptionally slow grown and long lived. The ring series on this board matches against data for Eastern Baltic oak. The last heartwood ring dates from 1587 and as no sapwood was present a terminus post quem date can be applied to the panel. Adding the expected number of sapwood rings to the last heartwood ring counted indicates that the tree cannot have been felled before 1595. As the measured board is within the typical width range for panels and this picture is undated, it is suitable to apply an Eastern Baltic 8-40 year LEHR- usage range to this panel; this gives a conjectural usage-date range of 1595-1627. This is substantially later than the original painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, which is thought to date from 1533-34.

X-radiography (what's this?)


A technique used to identify changes in composition beneath the surface of the paint layers and to understand the physical structure of a panel or canvas.

Much of the x-ray image of the painting is obscured by the cradle (see x-ray mosaic 01). Highlights on various objects can be seen as light areas. Brushstrokes in the relatively thick paint of the face are short and quite distinct. They do not look smoothly blended. A pattern of panel wood texture can be seen, this may have become more evident when the back was planed down before the cradle was attached. Old woodworm holes can be seen in the x-ray, scattered through much of the panel apart from the most central part. A split in the wood can be seen at the upper left, running down from the letter 'F' to level with Cromwell's nose.

Infrared reflectography (what's this?)

Infra-Red Reflectographyclose

A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.

The painting was examined in infrared reflectography and mentioned in Foister's article 'Workshop or Followers? Underdrawing in Some Portraits Associated with Hans Holbein the Younger' (1991), pp. 113-124. She noted drawing around the lips, including the outer edges, and concluded that there was no clear evidence for the use of a pattern.

Examination using infrared reflectography undertaken in 2008 detected some fine underdrawing. It has been suggested that this might be metalpoint (see Surface examination) (see IRR mosaic 01, IRR mosaic 02 and IRR mosaic 03).
In the face:
- a slightly wavy line is visible around the nostril
- a sketchy line links the eyebrows and provides a mark to delineate shadow or a furrow in the brow
- multiple lines are visible around the double chin
Alterations to the line of the fur garment were also noted

Infrared reflectography also showed strong ruled lines round the table and bench, the angles of some of which have been amended, resulting in multiple lines. The outline of the book is also ruled, again with some changes to the angles of the lines. The book is not painted exactly to these drawn outlines. The letters on the table could be seen to have firmly drawn, yet sketchy, outlines. These appear more freehand and again have multiple lines. Similar free lines, and some changes, were detected at the edge of the scroll. It is possible that there is some underdrawing in the background pattern. Infrared reflectography also revealed more detail in the black hat, showing a painted detail, which might be a tassel or folded section. This is just visible in the x-ray (see X-ray), and a similar feature is very obvious in an x-ray of the original painting by Holbein in the Frick Collection.

Paint sampling (what's this?)

Paint Samplingclose

Investigation into microscopic pigment samples or samples of other media in order to help with dating, to reveal the order of the paint layers and help to understand the painting techniques used.

Paint samples were taken to analyse the pigments and layer structure of the painting in 2008.

Green Table cloth
Sample 1: The thick chalk ground consists of at least three layers. A thin translucent layer lies over the ground which may be a glue sealant over the ground. The warm grey priming is mixed with lead white, traces of lamp black and red lead. Yellow lake (with calcite base) has faded in the upper part of the surface, but colour remains in the lower part of the cross-section sample.

Brocade background
Sample 6: Dark mixture of indigo with some white lead, with dark grey (black and white) underlayer.
Sample 7: Priming, Paler mixture of indigo with white lead. Yellow from the seat back can be seen in the cross-section.

Sample 3: Indigo with white lead and black.
Sample 4: Red earth mixed with red lake, plant black pattern.

Yellow edge of Book
Yellow seems to be lead based, possibly lead-tin yellow. Some pale blue which could not be identified due to small quantities, but perhaps smalt or ultramarine ashes.

Indigo with rim painted with azurite.

In 1982 several samples were taken for Jenny Archbold:
1a - dark blue background
1b - lighter tone of background
2 - darkest blue of background
3 - blue background
4 - dark- to mid-green of tablecloth
5 - dark, opaque green of book cover
6 - blue in ring gemstone

Analysis of these showed:
- the ground is chalk (also observed by Joyce Plesters in 1964).
- the blue in the background (sample 1) is indigo (rather than Prussian blue, as concluded by the 1964 investigation).
- the structure of the tablecloth - lead white underpaint (also seen in other samples), thicker pale blue layer (indigo and white), thin layer of mixture of yellow and green. Chromium was detected in this green layer, so it was concluded that it was not original.
- the blue in the ring was found to be similar to that in samples 1-3 - mainly indigo.

Surface examination (what's this?)

Surface Examinationclose

An examination of the construction of paint layers, glazes and condition often using a microscope. This method provides important evidence concerning an artist’s technique and paint handling and can reveal a specific artist’s characteristic painting style.

Painting style and method
The paint surface is smooth with almost no craquelure, apart from some areas where there is a very fine cracking. The paint is paste-like and applied with soft texture. The paint was applied relatively thickly, with sharp edges to the forms, for example on the forehead at the hairline where there is a raised edge. There is fine blending in some areas, such as around the eyes (see micro 01), at the black edges of the sleeve at the cuff corner and at the edge of the white paper in the hand. There are numerous black particles all over the surface, which appear to be on top of, or within, the varnish.

Preparation layers
There is a thick chalk ground of at least three layers. Above the ground there is a layer which could be a glue sealant. The thin layer of pale grey priming, with lead white and traces of lamp black and red lead, is above this. The priming is visible through lines of abrasion - for example in the double chin (see micro 05). The underdrawing detected by infrared reflectography can be seen through the paint in some places, for example the outlines of the lips and nose (see micro 04 and micro 05). Where it can be seen in losses, the underdrawing appears to be in a sparkly dark grey medium (see micro 05) (see Infrared reflectography). It is possible that the medium could be metalpoint.

Paint layer structure
Flesh paint
Some lines are softened with 'feathered' edges - for example, in and around the eye on the right (see micro 01). The paint gives a sharp edge to the forehead at the hairline. The flesh paint contains numerous large red/orange particles in the face, and the paint of the hand seems to be of the same composition. There is very little craquelure in this area.

The highlights of the ring appear to be painted with earth pigments. The blue stone is painted with indigo, with the rim painted with azurite (see micro 06) (see Paint sampling).

The pattern is created with dabs of paint, each a single brushstroke, with very little lifted texture (see micro 13). The dull green of the carpet paint contains indigo, some black particles and lead white. The red is painted with red earth mixed with red lake. The pattern is painted with plant black.

The black robe is thinly painted in places. There is a mixture of pigments in the brown paint of the fur. The fur overlaps the edge of the black in places, although there might be some fine black hairs painted over this edge as finishing touches (see micro 18).

The painted decoration is raised and textured. The yellow edge decoration is executed in lead-tin yellow and there are small quantities of pale blue (see Paint sampling). The jewels have losses that reveal a white layer beneath (see micro 09). The broadly brushed blue of the book cover is very abraded (see micro 14), and under magnification has the appearance of indigo.

This is extensively overpainted and reconstructed, although some small areas of original paint might remain (see micro 20). The darker pattern has an underlayer of dark grey. The dark blue at the edge of the brocade was identified as indigo with some lead white. The paler tones are made with the same mixture with a higher proportion of white.

The scroll with the inscription 'Earl of Essex' is not original, and appears to have had another inscription painted on it at some point, although this is no longer visible. Photographs before retouching during the most recent treatment show that there was another inscription, which read 'Thomas Cromwell', above this scroll, in the top left.

Papers on table and in hand
The lower paper on the table once had writing on it, but this has either been abraded or painted over (see micro 07).

Black purse on the table
The bright red strings are apparently painted with vermilion (see micro 17). They were painted with a dull reddish mixture for shadow, with bright red for the highlights over it. The bright red contains particles of red lake.

The table cloth would have been a grassy green but the surface appears much bluer than originally intended due to fading of the yellow lake in the paint mixture. There seemed to be a pale blue underlayer (see micro 10), but paint sample analysis (see Paint sampling) has revealed that there is only one green layer and that the mixture was made with indigo, yellow ochre and yellow lake. The yellow lake has faded at the surface and this gives the impression that there are two layers. In parts where the cloth meets the shadow of the lower paper on the table, the pale blue goes over the very edge of the white. This could, however, be restoration, as in other places a pale blue extends under the shadow (see micro 08). It could be that the white of the letter (as with the paper in the hand) has been reinforced - possibly when the scroll at the top of the painting was applied. The paper in the hand shows evidence of strokes made with a fairly large, stiff-bristled, round brush, and these seem to be in the possible reinforcement/overpaint layer (see micro 12). The surface green seems to be original (see micro 11). The corner of the tablecloth shows that it was painted after the brown of the table, into a reserve left for it (see micro 15).

Order of construction
- Ground
- Priming
- Underdrawing
- Flesh paint
- Costume
- Table cloth
- Details on book
- The background paint was evidently applied after the seat back
- The scroll appears to have been reinforced or overpainted

Lead white, lamp black, red lead, vermilion, indigo, red lake, red ochre, other earth pigments, yellow lake, lead-tin yellow

Ultra violet examination (what's this?)

Ultra Violetclose

A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.

Under ultra violet light, many retouchings are visible as dark spots in various places throughout the scroll across the top of the picture (see UV 01). The background also shows the very many patches of restoration. There is a streaky fluorescence in the hat, possibly along the brushstrokes from the application of the varnish. In the black robe there is a general fluorescence, possibly related to a coating or to the paint medium. The fur appears brownish in ultra violet light. The most recent varnish is still very clear and does not have a strong fluorescence in ultra violet.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: Late 19th century.