Sir Philip Sidney
1 portrait on display in Room 2 at the National Portrait Gallery
- Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database
Sir Philip Sidney
by Unknown artist
oil on panel, circa 1576
44 7/8 in. x 33 1/8 in. (1139 mm x 840 mm)
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New attribution: Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist
This painting was purchased in 1984 from Lane Fine Art Ltd., with help from the Art Fund. It was previously in the collection of the Dukes of Bedford at Woburn Abbey, where it was first recorded by Vertue in 1727. It may have come into their collection by descent from Sir William Russell, the father of the fourth earl of Bedford, who was Sidney’s friend and was with him when he died at Zutphen. The painting was sold at Christie’s on 19 January 1951 (lot 156) and Sotheby’s on 11 July 1983 (lot 62).
The poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney had his portrait painted a number of times, most famously by the Italian artist Paolo Veronese. In this portrait he is depicted wearing a gorget, a piece of neck armour, beneath his ruff, and a doublet of white slashed leather.
The inscription in the upper-left corner reads: ‘PHILIPUS SYDNEYUS / ANo AETATIS 23’. Sidney was 22, and therefore in his twenty-third year, in 1576/7. The inscription in the upper-right corner: ‘CAETERA FAMA / ED’ has been interpreted as ‘Further fame from God’, with the ‘ED’ standing for Ex Deo (Strong, 1990, p. 8) but it could be read as ‘the rest is fame’ as the meaning of the ‘ED’ is not clear. The inscriptions may not have been applied at the same time and it is possible that they were applied after Sidney’s death.
Notes on likely authorship and justification
Following technical analysis of all three versions of this portrait, undertaken by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1986, Strong argued that NPG 5732 is a copy of the portrait at Longleat, which bears a black inscription dating it to 1578. He attributed the portrait to Cornelis Ketel and suggested that it could have been a gift presented to Sidney’s sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke (Strong, 1990, pp. 6-7). He noted, however, that NPG 5732 is by a different hand and suggested a possible attribution of Hieronimo Custodis for this work (Strong, 1990, p. 8). Comparison of the x-rays shows that the three paintings are the work of different hands; however, there is no evidence that two are versions of a prime likeness and the artist remains unidentified.
Commentary on condition, painting style and technique
The paint surface is somewhat abraded and many small details have been strengthened, including the inscription, both in the past and during more recent restoration. The inscriptions on both sides of the head are gilded but the gilding on the inscription on the right has a semi-opaque paint layer over it. A lot of old varnish remains on the hose, which have been cleaned selectively, no doubt due to the condition of the paint.
The painting method is simple, but with skilful and rapid handling of paint applied wet-in-wet. The way in which the brush is lifted away from the wet paint to create soft texture is a characteristic feature of the paint handling in this portrait. The limited pigment palette is handled subtly, notably in the costume where white and black are used with varied proportions of red. There is a restrained use of highlights, with lead-tin yellow or white. There is a thin grey underlayer beneath the flesh paint, applied in a streaky manner over the priming. This gives the thinly painted flesh paint a pearly translucent quality.
Justification for dating
The technique and materials used are entirely consistent with a work from this period. Analysis of the wooden panel by dendrochronology has indicated that the wood derives from a tree which was felled between 1561 and 1577.
Drawing and transfer technique
Some lines of carbon-based liquid underdrawing can be seen in the ruff and hands using infrared reflectography. This appears to have been applied sparingly with a brush because it skips over the texture of the priming layer. Infrared reflectography also reveals that some changes were made to the fingers at the painting stage.
Relevance to other known versions
This was a common portrait type of Sidney and other versions survive in the following collections:
- Longleat House, Wiltshire. Possibly painted as a gift for Sidney’s sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke; the portrait was at Wilton House, seat of the poet’s brother-in-law, the earl of Pembroke. Following the death of Philip, 4th earl of Pembroke, in 1650, the collection was sold off
- Warwick Castle, with no inscriptions and a different costume, presumably in the possession of Sidney’s friend, Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke and first recorded there in 1734.
- NPG 2096, a copy from the eighteenth century, or later
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp. 290-3
Strong, Roy, ‘Sidney’s Appearance Reconsidered’, in M.J.B. Allen, D. Baker-Smith and A. Kinney, eds., Sir Philip Sidney’s Achievement, 1990, pp. 3-19
Christie’s, Pictures by Old Masters sold on the instructions of His Grace the Duke of Bedford, 19 January 1951 (lot 156)
Sotheby’s, The English Renaissance at Sotheby’s, 11 July 1983 (lot 62)
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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.
The three panel boards have evidently been rejoined in the past. A small part of the lower-left corner is missing. There appears to be a coating on the back, which is possibly solvent based. The panel has a noticeable warp which is concentrated in the left-hand board, (which is English oak). The panel joins are filled and restored. The most substantial paint losses are in the lower right, particularly in the hand, which are filled and restored. The paint surface is generally somewhat abraded and the majority of the restoration is over areas of wear. Many of the decorative details have been strengthened during past restorations, as well as during the most recent treatment. There have been problems in the past with small areas of paint blistering. Small prick holes, made to allow adhesive to penetrate, can be seen in the paint surface. A dark deposit can be seen in the cracks in the light passages, most obviously in the flesh. This deposit consists partly of old discoloured varnish residues but there are also black deposits which could be soot. The varnish is clear and even but there are small scratches in the surface due to the brittle nature of the varnish resin.
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: 1548
This panel is relatively unusual in that it utilises two eastern Baltic boards and one English board. The boards were labelled A to C from the left (from the front) for the purposes of analysis. Board A was found to contain some paler rings, which may be the onset of surviving sapwood. This would allow a felling date range to be applied to the panel. The sequences of tree rings for each panel were compared, and boards A and B were found to match, suggesting that they derive from the same tree. The dates of the latest measured rings for boards A-C were identified as 1548, 1547 and 1523 respectively. The interpretation of these dates requires the addition of estimated numbers of unmeasured rings (+5 on board A, +20 for board C, as well as the allowance for minimum sapwood of +8 for the two Baltic boards and +10 for the English board C). These results give the earliest possible felling dates for boards A-C as 1561, 1555 and 1553 respectively. Therefore, this panel can be no earlier than 1561. If sapwood onset is present at the edge of board A, then adding the minimum and maximum number of expected number of sapwood rings to the estimated boundary date on it suggests this board derives from a tree felled between 1561 and 1577.
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.
The straight wood grain and narrow growth rings of the two Baltic oak boards on the left side, and the undulating wood grain and wider growth rings of the English board on the right, are all very clear in x-ray (see x-ray mosaic 01). A short nail can be seen at the bottom edge of the left side board, across the end of a split in the panel. Three nails can be seen in the lower part of the same board in the join with the next panel. The split at the join edge probably occurred when the boards were separated. The nails were evidently put in to attach the split piece before the boards were rejoined. Another short nail is visible at the top edge across the end of a split in the right side board.
The broadly applied priming layer can be seen in the x-ray. The brushstrokes are even but are cross-hatched and do not follow a single direction. The variety of brush sizes used in the painting is very evident in x-ray. The modelling in the face was executed with a small soft brush, and a slightly larger brush was used for details such as the collar and cuffs. The technique for creating soft texture by pulling up the wet paint is very clear in x-ray. The narrow tip of a brush was used for painting small highlight details.
A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.
The broad dark grey brushstrokes under the flesh paint are clearly visible with using infrared reflectography (see IRR mosaic 03). The priming layer brushstrokes are only faintly visible. Lines of carbon-based liquid underdrawing can be seen in the ruff and the hand and cuff on the left (see IRR mosaic 01). The line at the edge of the hand on the right indicates that this hand, which is now damaged, was also underdrawn. The outline of the fingers on the hand on the left were changed a little at the painting stage, in particular the two central fingers. Although the drawing appears to have been carried out with a wet medium, it was sparingly applied on the brush, allowing the underdrawing to skip over the texture of the priming. No underdrawing was detected in the face using infrared reflectography.
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 October 2009.
The presence of lead soaps has been noted in a number of areas, including the hose and collar.
The panel was prepared with a chalk ground. The identification of an overall priming layer was difficult to determine from the samples taken, as only one of the three cross-sections shows it clearly.
Sample 5: Taken from the costume at the lower edge, shows an underlayer containing lead white with the addition of some vermilion, red lake, and a little black, azurite and yellow.
Surface examination indicates that an overall pale pinkish priming layer is present beneath the paint layers, so it is likely that the pale underlayer seen in sample 5 is in fact the priming. The lack of visible priming in the other two cross-sections taken suggests that the priming was broadly applied; x-ray examination supports this (see x-ray).
The flesh is composed of a mixture of lead white, bright yellow ochre, vermilion, red lake and azurite. Blue pigment was also found in the shadows of the chin and in the eyes.
Sample 5: Taken from the dark costume at the lower edge showed two layers above the chalk ground. The constituents of the lower, pale layer were a surprising mixture of red lake, azurite, charcoal black and traces of yellow mixed with lead white. This mixture is similar to that seen in the fawn coloured doublet (see sample 4), and may therefore underlie the whole costume.
Azurite was found in several parts of the costume, where it was used to create the cool tone of the half shadows. Lead-tin yellow was identified during surface examination in several parts of the costume. On occasions the lead-tin yellow was modified with the addition of red lake to create a more orange, darker yellow. Other pigments which were identified in the costume include vermilion, ochre and umber.
Gorget, cuff and ruff
Yellow lake was identified in the shadow of the gorget, and green earth and azurite were found in the bluish shadows on the cuff. The bright white of the ruff is pure lead white, while the shadows contain fine charcoal black and a little vermilion. Small particles of azurite were also found.
The sword is composed of a warm brown mixture, containing vermilion (this was not sampled), black and brown (umber or ochre).
Sample 1: Taken from the background, shows two layers of dark paint. The lower layer is a grey composed of lamp black and white. The upper layer contains a high proportion of black with red lake and a little white.
Examination of the letter 'R' shows that the original inscription was of gold leaf. This appears to have been repainted twice, first with a pinkish yellow (possibly lead-tin yellow and red), and then a smoother mustard colour paint.
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 painting method is simple but with skilful and rapid handling of wet-in-wet paint. A characteristic feature of the paint handling in this portrait is the way in which the brush is lifted away from the wet paint to create soft texture. The limited pigment palette is handled subtly, notably in the costume where white and black are used with varied proportions of red. There is a restrained use of highlights, with lead-tin yellow or white.
There is a chalk ground and a pale pink priming, containing lead white, vermilion and red lake with the addition of some black, azurite and yellow ochre. There is also a dark grey underlayer under the flesh paint and the ruff.
There is some carbon based underdrawing.
A thin grey layer was applied in a streaky manner, in broad brushstrokes, under the flesh paint but over the priming. These brushstrokes can be seen with infrared reflectography but are not evident in x-ray (see IRR mosaic 03). The grey paint was applied thinly with a stiff brush and the priming is evident where the bristles have parted as the paint was applied (see micro 19 and micro 21). Similar grey brushstrokes can be seen under the flesh paint in the hands.
The flesh is very thinly painted. It contains lead white, vermilion, red lake, yellow ochre, black and some very small particles of azurite. The last parts of the flesh were painted over the collar. There are numerous small areas of restoration in the face, in particular in the chin area. There may have been a small moustache at the corners of the mouth; there appear to be some light brown brushstrokes beneath some recent restoration, which may be part of a small sketchy moustache. The whites of the eyes are painted with black, white and a little red and some azurite can be seen in the irises. Red lake is mixed into the black in the pupils (see micro 01). The lips are painted with red lake and vermilion (see micro 08).
The hair is very thinly painted over the pale priming and flesh. The paint mixture contains lead white, black, earth pigments and red which is probably vermilion. There are numerous, quite rounded, black particles. The highlights are painted with a more opaque mixture, using a higher proportion of white.
The ruff was laid in with pale grey and white highlights which were added over the grey, painted-wet-in-wet. The shadows contain lead white, charcoal black, vermilion and a little azurite. The highlights were applied after the background was painted. The lower edge of the collar was extended a little over the gorget beneath the chin (see micro 09).
A dark grey, similar to the background colour, was applied first. The highlights and details were applied over this (see micro 11). The details contain lead white, lead-tin yellow and red (vermilion or red lead). Yellow lake was also identified in the shadows of the gorget (see Paint sampling). The white highlights were applied thinly and built up with relatively lean paint with a stiff brush (see micro 10).
The hands have the same grey layer under the flesh paint as in the face. Exposed black pigment in the grey layer can be seen in areas of abrasion (see micro 21). The finger nails are defined by scoring into the wet flesh paint with a brush used for shadow, thereby pulling away the wet paint (see micro 16). The paint mixture contains lead white, vermilion, and red lake.
Doublet and sleeves
The doublet is painted with subtle mixtures of lead white and black, with varied proportions of vermilion and red lake and a little azurite. Warmer tones are used in the shadows. Large round particles of black can be seen (see micro 12, micro 13, micro 14 and micro 23).
There are drying cracks in all the dark parts of the hose, due probably to the medium-rich paint mixture. Lines of dark paint can be seen in the cracks in the texture of the priming layer (see micro 22). This is probably part of the costume's upper paint layer, but might be a separate first layer applied over the priming, in a similar way to the grey paint applied over the priming in the flesh paint. The gold detail in the embroidery is painted with lead-tin yellow and ochre, lead white, vermilion and some red lake (see micro 15). Details appear to have been applied first with a greyish yellow layer, followed by the bright highlights. The dark part of the costume has evidently suffered abrasion and the details seem to have become less prominent with time. There are many small restorations in the embroidery, applied to strengthen many of the details in the decoration. These small restorations were applied at different times: some are old and others date from the most recent treatment. There are small dark deposits over many parts of the paint surface, which are a combination of residues of varnish and surface dirt layers.
Sword and belt
The sword hilt is painted with a brown containing vermilion, black and brown (see Paint sampling). The highlights contain similar mixtures to those on the hose (see micro 17).
The background paint mixture contains lamp black, red lake and lead white. The paint surface is heavily restored and numerous lead soaps are protruding through the paint surface in this area.
The inscription on the right-hand side is made with gold, which appears to be applied directly over the oil paint. There is a semi-opaque layer over the gold. This upper layer contains lead white, lead-tin yellow, earth pigments and red lake, and there is restoration over this layer. The letters 'ED' do not have the restoration layer over them and therefore appear paler. The paint over the gilding was evidently applied after the gold had been abraded, perhaps caused by poor adhesion due to the lack of a mordant (see micro 03). The inscription on the left-hand side is also gilded but the gold is applied over a mordant containing lead white, black, red and earth pigments. The inscriptions are old but may not have been applied at the same time (see micro 05).
Order of construction
- Thin grey layer, applied rather streakily over the priming on the face and hands
- Flesh paint
- Collar, hands and face finished
- Final details to the edges of the costume and background
Lead white, charcoal black, lamp black, vermilion, red lake, lead-tin yellow, yellow lake, green earth, umber and azurite
Changes in composition/pentimenti
Beneath the chin the collar was extended over the gorget.
There are many small retouchings in the face. Many details in the painting have been strengthened with restoration, including the inscription.
A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.
Examination in ultra violet light shows remaining residues of old natural resin varnish, with greenish fluorescence, left during careful and selective cleaning (see UV 01). A great deal of old varnish remains on the hose. There are old varnish residues down each side of the panel joins and also at the edges of the panel. Considerable restoration can be seen on the paint losses at the lower right. Thinly applied restoration can be seen in the face over areas of abrasion, especially in the moustache and chin. The lines of restoration down the joins are evident in ultra violet light.