Sir Thomas Gresham
4 of 20 portraits on display in Room 2 at the National Portrait Gallery
- Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database
Sir Thomas Gresham
by Unknown Netherlandish artist
oil on panel, circa 1565
39 1/2 in. x 28 1/2 in. (1003 mm x 724 mm)
Click on the links below to find out more:
Key findings: This portrait is extremely similar to another version at the Mercers Company. Both portraits appear to be painted in the same studio at the same time as they have identical pentimenti in the hand and a button.
Purchased from Henry Graves in 1872. Previously in the collection of Sir Henry Bedingfield of Oxborough, Norfolk; recorded by Vertue in 1739 and by John Britton in the early nineteenth century (Strong, 1969, p. 131). Apparently the prime version of a pattern from c.1565 of which there are two other surviving versions including one at the Mercers Company which appears to have been produced in the same studio.
Notes on likely authorship
In the early part of Queen Elizabeths reign, Greshams time was divided between London and Antwerp. The style of this portrait suggests that it was made by a Netherlandish artist, probably one working in England.
The fact that the same pentimenti have been found in both the NPG and the Mercers version indicates that both portraits were painted in the same workshop, as the changes were made at the same point in the final stage of the painting process. The Mercers version is competently painted but the handling of the paint (especially in the face) is less sensitively blended than the NPG version. An overlay with the tracing of the NPG version shows that the outline of the figure corresponds in almost all areas, indicating that a pattern was used. The Mercers version is slightly narrower across the shoulders and the overall size of the panel is smaller.
Commentary on painting style, technique
The paint was applied with fluid brush strokes and is in many parts quite thinly painted with fine subtle blending, notably in the face and beard. Early in the painting process an initial layer of black paint appears to have been laid in thinly to define the costume. The black paint layers of the costume were built up over this. The positions for the pattern on the costume were first marked with lines scored into the black paint, when still tacky, before the lines of grey spots were painted in. The inscription was applied after the lower paint had dried.
Some changes have been made to the hands, the buttons on the coat and the hat. These were evidently made when the painting of the costume was well advanced. The changes in the hat can be seen in the x-ray. The changes in the hands and the buttons are visible in the paint surface. The flesh paint for the hands was extended over the black costume paint and with time this has become more transparent and the black paint beneath more evident. At the right there is a partially obscured original button below the top one, which has been exposed by surface abrasion. This button appears fully finished in the x-ray. Both the changes in the hands and buttons correspond to pentimenti evident in another version of the portrait at the Mercers Company indicating they were painted out at the same late stage. The adjustments to the positioning of the hand - from clenched fingers over the purse to a more relaxed pose with the hand simply resting on the purse - may well indicate Greshams direct involvement in the changes, as they would seem to suggest an awareness of the potential associations of a tight fisted hand over a purse with the vice of avarice; a concern that was particularly appropriate to Gresham as an international financier.
Justification for dating
The technique and materials in use are entirely consistent with a work from this period. The panel is made of three boards of Baltic oak. The date of the last tree ring is 1538, which provides a conjectural usage-date of 1546-78 (there is no sapwood present).
Drawing and transfer technique
No underdrawing could be detected but it is evident that there was a pattern and that the painting followed a clearly defined composition. A reserve was left for the face and hands. There may be some redefinition of drawn lines in black paint.
Relevance to other known versions
Other versions of this portrait pattern are:
- at the Mercers Hall, London. The provenance of this version is not established but it is known to have been engraved by George Vertue in 1739 for Wards Lives of the Gresham Professors. This version has pentimenti to the hands and coat buttons that are very similar to the changes made to NPG 352 during the painting stage.
- a version was at Titsey Place, Surrey (purchased from Dr. Crompton of Manchester, 9 May 1876).
This portrait type has also been engraved by Frances Delaram (1590-1627).
Max Julius Friedlander, Max, Early Netherlandish Painting, 14 vols., Sijthoff, Leiden, 1936, XIII, p. 124
Hymans, Henry, Antonio Moro, Brussels, 1910, p. 134
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp. 129-131
Vertue, George, Notebooks IV, The Walpole Society, 1935-6, p. 162
The Age of Shakespeare, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, 1957 (no. 51)
Compare Images (what's this?)
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.
The panel is in excellent condition. It has not been thinned or had any form of support attached to the reverse. Exceptionally there are only very minor losses along the panel joins. The paint is in good condition, although the paint layers have suffered from blistering in the past. The blacks which predominate in this painting are remarkably preserved. There are a few scattered retouchings across the panel. There was a change in position of one of the buttons during painting. The painted out button is now semi-visible as a result of abrasion, which is visually distracting. The varnish is in good condition but easily scratched.
Previous restoration of the panel has been very sympathetically carried out. The blacks are in excellent condition and have not been over cleaned. There are two areas of fill and retouching in the hat. The button which has changed has been only partially painted out - it may not have been clear whether this should be visible or, more likely, it may have become abraded over time. As it appears now it is very distracting to the viewer's eye.
Number of boards: 3
Panel Orientation: Vertical
Panel condition observations
The panel is in exceptional condition. There is no evidence of either panel join moving and in x-ray there is no damage to the paint layers in these areas. There is also no sign of woodworm damage. The reverse is in its original condition, it has not been thinned and due to the stability of the joins no extra supports have been attached.
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: 1538
The panel is made of three boards in vertical alignment, labelled A to C from the left (from the front) for analysis. Board A is riven on the back while boards B and C are sawn. All three boards contained enough rings to be measured but the edges of board C were too damaged to be sequenced. No sapwood was present on the outer edges of the board and this means that a terminus post quem date can be applied to the panel. The date for the last heartwood tree ring in board A was 1538 and 1518 in board B. Adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings suggests that the two trees used to make the boards were felled after 1546 and 1526 respectively. The widths of both boards fall within the typical range for eastern Baltic boards used in panel paintings. As this picture is undated and neither board is likely to have been significantly trimmed, 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 1546-1578.
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.
Marks in the priming layer are visible, especially along the left-hand edge of the panel. It appears to have been applied with a stiff brush or tool, the marks are diagonal in orientation and regular in shape and appearance (see x-ray mosaic 01). The face has not been heavily worked up. In x-ray, the handling of the brushstrokes to model the sitter's face is very obvious, especially around the eyes. The two hands have been handled in very different ways: the painterly brushstrokes used for the hand on the right are very clear compared to the flat handling of the altered hand on the left.
The upper half of the ruff of the collar has an underlayer of white paint. The detail of the ruff has been painted and extended over this area.
The scratches in the paint layer creating texture in the facial hair are very clear in x-ray. There are two losses in the paint layer visible in the right-hand side of the hat. These might extend to the ground layer, as the wood grain is very clear. There is abrasion in the paint layers running along the bottom edge and associated with previous framing.
Changes in composition/pentimenti
- The angle of the hat has been changed and is higher than originally planned.
- One of the buttons on the costume has been painted out. It is visible with the naked eye, but in x-ray it is very clear.
- It is clear where the upper, greenish brown background paint layer has been painted up and around the figure. This has changed the final outline, for example it is painted over the edge of the shoulder on the right.
- There are small changes to the details on the belt.
A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.
No carbon-based underdrawing was detected.
Infrared reflectography shows clearly where the initial black for the costume was painted into the edges of the reserves for the hands, face and beard (see IRR mosaic 01). The paint has become more transparent with time and the rough edges and the blots and dabs of black paint are now visible, with normal light, under the flesh paint on the reserves for the hands. With infrared reflectography it is also clear where the flesh paint for the fingers was extended beyond the reserve and over the black paint, and also where the edges of the fingers were outlined finally with black paint (see IRR mosaic 03).
Infrared reflectography shows the edges of the outline of the upper layer of background paint around the neck, shoulders and arms. It also shows clearly where the edge of the black costume collar was laid in initially, and where the white shirt collar was painted over the subsequent black paint layers.
The variations in tone in the different black paint mixtures can be seen using infrared reflectography and often the pattern on the costume is more clear than with normal light. The black over the button pentiment can be seen clearly as can the changes at the edges of the hands.
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 March 2009.
In September 2009, EDX (energy dispersive x-ray) analysis was undertaken by Marika Spring (National Gallery, London).
In June 2012, further paint sampling was carried out to compare paint sampling results, especially the presence of fluorite pigment, with the Mercers' version of the Gresham portrait.
Paint sampling showed a thick chalk ground with a thin priming layer on top composed of lead white with small amounts of red lead and umber. A large blue particle was also found in the priming (in sample 2). Analysis showed that it had characteristics similar to smalt, probably added as a siccative rather than a colourant.
Costume and the purse
Sample 1, taken from the black costume, contained an evenly ground plant black pigment mixed with a small amount of azurite.
Sample 6, taken at the edge of the purse, contained a carbon black pigment with large particles, some of which are angular, which is possibly fruit-stone black rather than charcoal. Two dispersions containing fruit-stone black also had translucent particles. Some appeared to have a purplish hue. Analysis showed that it was a close match to glass. It was not possible to determine the pigment's place in the paint structure (but this was later clarified with further analysis in 2012). Further analysis by Marika Spring, at the National Gallery, identified the purple pigment as fluorite and that the glass is not part of the pigment. It has been suggested that the glass comes from the glass microscope slide. The black pigment was identified as bone black. Purple particles could be seen clearly in sample 5, taken from the grey of the costume where it runs under the yellow embroidery at the edge of the purse.
Further sampling (2012) to re-examine the black and the possible purples suggested that all the purple fluorite is associated with areas with white, in the ruff and in the grey pattern on the costume. As with the Mercers' version of the portrait, fluorite can be seen in the paint mixture with surface examination.
Sample 1 (2012), from a grey slash on the left side sleeve, in dispersion showed that some fluorite particles are more highly coloured than others.
Sample 2 (2012), from the light part of the ruff, in dispersion also showed particles of fluorite.
Sample 2 (2012), from the dark, reddish black of the left side cuff, dispersion showed black with no purple. It is possible that a little red lake was mixed into the black.
The use of yellow in the costume
Samples taken from the area of the costume around the purse showed the subtle use of a range of yellow pigments. Three different yellows can be seen on the decoration of the costume, around the area of the purse and the lower parts of the costume.
The darkest yellow (in sample 4a) from the lowest layer over the dark grey costume, consists of earth pigments. The quite high proportion of chalk indicates the use of yellow lake. The two bright yellows vary in tone and were used alternatively as the last yellow in the order of painting. The pale yellow (sample 4b) is composed of earth yellows mixed with a high proportion of lead-tin yellow. The brightest yellow (sample 4c) was pure lead-tin yellow.
Sample 7, taken from the left-hand sword hilt, shows the use of vermilion in the paint layer with a small amount of black pigment mixed in. On top of the paint layer is a bright red lake glaze.
The background paint is composed of a mixture of earth pigments, including red and yellow ochre, as well as browns and blacks of a soft rounded nature.
The yellow pigment used for the inscription is a finely ground yellow ochre.
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 has been applied with fluid brushstrokes, thinly applied in most areas with fine subtle brushwork. The face and details of the beard were executed with the finest brushwork. The dark costume paint was applied in fine layers. A range of black pigments was used for different elements of the costume, mixed with various other pigments, to convey the variety of tone, texture and quality of the fabrics. Fine lines were scored wet-in-wet into the black paint to mark the position for the pattern of grey embroidered spots. The top layer of the background was applied with the thickest and broadest brushwork.
Over the thick chalk ground there is a thin priming layer containing lead white pigment with small amounts of red lead and umber. The broad brushstrokes of the priming layer can be seen in the x-ray. No underdrawing could be detected but it is evident that there was a pattern and that the painting followed an order. A reserve was left for the face and hands (see below). There may be some redrawing in black paint. Changes in the outlines of the hands, the shoulder line and the hat were made during the painting stage.
Paint layer structure
The flesh is modelled with thin paint layers (see micro 20). It is built up more thickly with several layers in the cheeks and forehead. Brushstrokes follow the form round the eyes. The flesh paint is clearly a mixture of vermilion, lead white and black, and also probably some red lake.
The handling in this area is particularly sophisticated and the brushwork in the eyes is fine and detailed (see micro 02). As well as the usual white highlight, the pupils have other small white dashes and dots of white, some slightly blended with black paint. The grey and also the brown of the iris were applied over the whites of eyes. In the whites of the eyes there are tiny particles of pigment in the grey shadow of the eye on the right which look purple when seen at very high magnification, and which may be fluorite as found in the whites of the eyes of the Mercers' version of this portrait. For the eyelashes of the eye on the left, the brown line of paint above the eye was applied first and then brushed down to create the lashes. There are also small black lines running up to create the eyelashes. In the lower lid the lashes are marked by dragging through the ridge of pink paint on the lower lid. Another lighter ridge of pink was then applied. In the eye on the right the iris was reinforced after the eyelashes were painted, with a dark line at the top and tiny dabs round the outer circle. The eye socket and the eyebrows were painted with subtle blending of brushstrokes and dragging through the paint to create tiny strokes of texture.
Beard, moustache and mouth
The first application of black for the costume was pulled up into the reserve left for the beard to create a softer transition to the edges of the beard (see micro 06). Some of the black paint detail at the edge of the beard was applied later over the grey/brown modelling layer on the costume when further black details were applied to the costume. The beard is skilfully painted with subtle blending of blacks, browns, reds and yellows to create texture applied over a thin brown layer. There are lines scored into the wet paint to create texture (see micro 04). The mouth is simply painted with a few strokes of pink with darker tone for shadow. The paint for the moustache has been blended by dragging down over the mouth (see micro 03).
The black costume paint was applied around the reserve left for the hands. The fingers were extended over the black paint beyond the reserve when the flesh paint was applied. These changes in the hands can be seen in the paint surface where the flesh paint has become more transparent with time (see micro 15 and detail 08). The version of this portrait of Thomas Gresham at the Mercers' Company has a very similar change in the fingers. The hands have been painted after most of the black costume and the white cuffs were completed. On the hand on the left some preliminary cuff ruffles (see above) are covered with flesh paint and the outline of the fingers of the hand on the left covers the pattern of grey dots on the costume. A final outline of black paint was applied around the hands after the pattern of grey dots. The flesh paint was applied thinly with thicker layers for the highlights on the knuckles and the finger nails. There are small parallel lines which must have been pressed into the paint when wet: these marks are accidental and do not form part of the composition.
An initial layer of black paint seems to have been laid in thinly to define the costume early in the painting process, or this may be redrawing with black paint. This can be seen at the left edge of the black costume collar (below the white shirt ruffle) where there is a small area with whiskery black brushstrokes over the priming layer (see micro 10). These first parts appear to have been roughly brushed in with black running into the reserve for the beard and also into the reserve for the hands. This is also visible with infrared reflectography (see Infrared reflectography). Under the microscope the grey underlayer appears sparkly. The upper layers of black costume paint were applied more thickly. A range of black pigments, including fruit-stone black and bone black, was used for the different elements of the costume (see Paint sampling). Some azurite seemed to be present in the deep black upper layer of the coat (see Paint sampling). The deep black appears to be evenly ground plant black. The purple pigment fluorite has been found in the paint mixture in the grey at the edge of the purse.
Further examination of the blacks and possible purples, carried out (in 2012) to compare with the Mercers' version of the portrait, suggested that all the purple fluorite was associated with areas containing white, in the ruff and in the grey embroidered fabric pattern. Fluorite is mixed in the paint for the ruff and in the grey slash pattern on the costume (see additional Paint sampling notes, 2012). A thin scumble of black can be seen over the grey pattern detail.
Fine lines can be seen (with microscopy) scored into the black paint beneath the lines of grey parallel spots in the embroidered fabric pattern. These were evidently made when the paint was still tacky in order to mark the positions for the lines of grey spots (see micro 11). The grey modelling layer on the black costume runs over the brown background layer - this can be seen at the left edge of the black costume collar and over the whiskery brushstrokes. This grey modelling layer can also be seen around the edges of some of the metal elements on the belt, where the black of the costume has not been painted up to the edge (see micro 18).
White collar and cuffs
The collar was painted over the black of the costume at the edges. Wet-in-wet dragged brushstrokes from the beard have been painted across the collar (see micro 05). There are bluish shadows in the ruffle, but there are no obvious blue particles and this is probably charcoal black only. The positions of some white ruffles at the cuffs on the left have been changed slightly. These changes are now covered by the shadow in the flesh paint beneath.
Sword and dagger hilts, purse, belt and chain
The trim of the purse and other costume ornaments are painted using different grades of lead-tin yellow and ochres (see Paint sampling). The yellows have been built up to create low-relief against the flat black of the costume (see micro 07, micro 12, micro 13, micro 16 and micro 18). The ornaments and buttons all have a reddish brown underlayer. In some of the decorative elements this underlayer is utilised as a mid-tone (see micro 16 and micro 18). Paint sampling revealed that this red was vermilion mixed with a small amount of black with a red lake glaze applied over the top. This is a surprisingly bright use of red which is not apparent when viewing the painting. Bright red might have been utilised as a brilliant underlayer to enhance the decorative surfaces of the gold elements. However, the use of a glaze with further paint layers on top is unusual.
The buttons are likely to have been painted onto the coat after the grey decoration. In the line of buttons at the right side, there is a partially obscured button below the top one (see micro 19). This is evidently a pentiment which was painted over with black paint but has been exposed by abrasion (see X-ray). It is interesting to note that exactly the same pentiment button appears in the version of Thomas Gresham at the Mercers' Company, which has also been exposed by abrasion.
Changes in the hat can be seen in the x-ray. Most of the changes are visible also with microscope examination. The highlights on the hat buttons are painted with lead-tin yellow with very coarse inclusions, probably applied over yellow earth pigments (see Paint sampling). The black is painted over a reddish brown layer. The fold highlights are painted grey - the decorations, containing lumpy red particles, are on the top.
A warm brown layer lies beneath the greenish brown top layer. This can be seen as a brown 'shadow' where the edge of the top layer does not run up to the edge of the figure - to the right of the head, along the shoulders, down the arm on the left. It is possible that this was not painted right up to the face because the the beard texture was already painted. The upper background layer covers the changes in the edges of the hat which can be seen in the x-ray. The brown layer is visible, with microscopy, through cracks in the upper layer. The lower layer of background paint was painted after the first black costume layer/drawing in black paint was applied, but before the grey modelling layer on the costume was applied.
There are cracks running through the inscription but the cracks are also in the paint beneath, which shows that the inscription was applied after the lower paint had dried (see micro 14). The yellow was identified as yellow ochre.
Order of construction
- A pattern was evidently used (due to similarity with the contemporary version at the Mercers' Company), but no underdrawing was detected.
- A thin black layer was applied to the costume area leaving reserves for the face and hands, but with rough edges to hands with dabs and blots of black in the reserves.
- The lower layer of the background, a warm brown, appears to have been applied after the first black costume paint layers.
- Some of the paint in the face and beard seems to have been applied fairly early in the painting process.
- Grey modelling layer in some areas of the costume.
- Further black layer on costume, possible changes in the hat outline at this stage.
- Lines scored into tacky paint for costume pattern.
- Grey dots applied along scored lines for patterning on costume.
- Some paint for cuffs and collar.
- Flesh paint, fingers extended over black costume paint.
- Sword, belt and purse.
- Details of lead-tin yellow on purse and other costume elements applied and final white highlights on ruffs. A grey layer can be beneath the lead-tin yellow, but grey can also be seen above the yellow details in some parts.
- Final black outlines to fingers, black paint covering the button pentiment.
Lead white, carbon black (some from fruit stone), charcoal black, bone black, lead-tin yellow, red lead, vermilion, red ochre, red lake, yellow ochre, smalt, fluorite, yellow lake.
Changes to composition/pentimenti
Changes have been made to the outline of the figure which can be seen in infrared reflectography. The hands have been extended beyond the reserves left for them. A positioning of one of the buttons at the top of the coat has been altered.
The outlines of the hands, shoulder line and hat were changed during the painting stage. The hands were changed the most with the fingers extended over the black costume. There was a slight change in the positioning of the ruff around the cuff on the left and also a slight change in the edge of the dagger hilt.
A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.
There is an overall patchy green fluorescence across the panel which relates to careful cleaning of an old resinous varnish which has left residues. For a painting of this size and date, there is very little retouching. On the hat there are two large areas where there are losses in the paint layer. The button which has been changed has also been retouched. There are a few other small and scattered retouchings around the area of the belt and several around the edges of the panel (see UV 01).