Making History:
Printed Portraits of Tudor and Jacobean England

Sir Humphrey Gilbert
by Robert Boissard
circa 1590-1603
NPG D20541

Taken from Face to Face Issue 21, Summer 2007

Before the age of photography, printed portraits served a growing public appetite to gaze upon the features of men and women whose exploits and achievements had excited public interest. From the mid-sixteenth century onwards the great and the good (such as naval heroes, military commanders and the nobility) and the not so good (such as convicted traitors) were portrayed by portrait engravers. These prints were mainly produced as illustrations to printed books. As an early incarnation of celebrity magazines, such images helped to create public interest in personal narratives, celebrating individual achievement or notoriety. The past display featured some of the Gallery’s earliest original portrait prints and examines how they tell a visual history of Tudor and Jacobean England.

Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset; Frances, Countess of Somerset
attributed to Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke), sold by John Hinde
circa 1615
NPG D1316

The native production of printed images became an established tradition in England only in the middle of the seventeenth century. Before this time, printed images were mainly produced by anonymous or little known craftsmen, often by émigrés from cities in the Netherlands such as Antwerp or Haarlem where book publishing and print culture thrived. Into the seventeenth century there was a growing market for engravings made as independent images to celebrate the protagonists of important events. These types of images were on sale to the public in stationers’ shops as independent sheets and may have been purchased to pin up as reasonably inexpensive wall decorations in inns and middle-class households, or by early collectors to place in albums. Contemporary commentators noted that printed images could be bought from specific stationers’ shops in London, mentioning Pope’s Head Alley in Cornhill as a favoured area to purchase high-quality engravings. A popular portrait type showed the features of medieval kings from William the Conqueror to Richard III, based on both real and imaginary prototypes. At a time when plays by William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and others were bringing English history before the eyes of thousands of playgoers these prints would have had general popular appeal.

The types of individuals who appear frequently in engraved portraits provide a telling index to the period. They include soldiers and explorers, the political élite, authors and musicians, courtiers and, not surprisingly at a time of significant religious turmoil, numerous theologians and members of the clergy. During the Elizabethan period naval heroes and explorers such as Francis Drake and Walter Ralegh became well-known names, partly through the popularity of published accounts with maps and portrait prints. The impressive large-scale portrait of the explorer Humphrey Gilbert by the French artist Robert Boissard was produced between 1590 and 1603. It would have been reasonably expensive and was published as part of a set with Ralegh, Drake and Thomas Cavendish, John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher among others. Convicted traitors such as the gunpowder plotters of 1603 or notorious murderers also became national figures through their portrayal in engraved portraits. The double portrait of Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, and his wife Frances was probably produced around 1615 when the pair were being interrogated over the murder of the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury. Frances was vilified as a sexually promiscuous enchantress, and the pair were charged the following year and spent over five years in the Tower of London – all circumstances which would have increased the saleability of this print, which was still being published over thirty years later.

The Gallery has a reasonably large collection of early portrait engravings; however, collecting up to now has focused on the acquisition of likenesses for purposes of identification rather than on the quality of the impression or condition of the sheet. This policy has allowed us to build up an impressive archive of imagery, which is used by thousands of researchers each year, but also has meant that the works are rarely put on public exhibition. This display makes a virtue of the varied mix of our holdings and brings together a body of little-known images that helped to create an early public interest in national celebrities.

Tarnya Cooper
16th Century Curator

Taken from Face to Face Issue 21. Receiving this newsletter is one of the many benefits of becoming a Member of the National Portrait Gallery.

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