Double Take: Versions and Copies of Tudor Portraits

Demand for painted portraits increased throughout the sixteenth century. They adorned both private homes and civic institutions, serving as a visual record of family members, patrons and holders of public office. Portraits were also used to situate monarchs and courtiers within an historical context and their display could demonstrate allegiance to the Crown or political allies.

Artists had little opportunity to take a direct likeness of important sitters and as a result they made portrait patterns, which would often circulate between artists’ workshops. These patterns could be copied from existing paintings or be based on pre-existing drawings from the life. Occasionally the demand for images of certain sitters meant that many versions of a portrait were produced by a workshop at the same time, either for patrons or for general sale stock.

Today, surviving versions and copies of portraits can often appear quite different because of variations in the condition of the works. Recent research undertaken as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project has used a variety of scientific techniques to analyse the Gallery’s sixteenth-century paintings, and also comparative works from other collections, in order to explore the way in which these versions and copies were produced.

Production for stock
The uses of patterns

Holbein’s legacy

Multiple versions

Workshop production

Production for stock


King Henry VIII, by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, circa 1535-1540 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry VIII
by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist
circa 1535-1540
NPG 1376

Henry VIII - Society of Antiquaries of London

King Henry VIII
by Unknown artist
circa 1535
Society of Antiquaries of London

Many portraits of Henry VIII were produced during his lifetime. The development of portraiture in early sixteenth-century England and its use as a means of projecting power meant that his likeness was far more widely replicated than that of his predecessors. These two portraits depict Henry in his mid-forties, shortly before the artist Hans Holbein the Younger painted the Whitehall mural and produced what is now the most familiar likeness of the king.

It is possible that both of these portraits derive from the same English workshop and, although there is limited documentary evidence, they could have been produced for general sale stock rather than at the request of an individual patron. They show the influence of Netherlandish painting techniques, copied from foreign artists who settled in London. A pattern was used to mark out the king’s likeness, which was copied freehand for the smaller version owned by the Society of Antiquaries. Photomicroscopy reveals similarities in technique, which suggest that parts of the paintings may have been by the same person. For example, both feature a ‘dab and twist’ technique in the collar, where thick paint was dabbed on with a brush and then the brush was twisted in order to create the ruff, and the pointed hairs of the fur collar are flicked over the background in a comparable manner. In the Gallery’s painting the orange/brown area around the head, the hat and along the top of the shoulders seems to be the result of discolouration in the paint medium.

Collar Collar
National Portrait Gallery, London Society of Antiquaries of London

Photomicrograph details of the collar, showing the ‘dab and twist’ technique.

Beard Beard
National Portrait Gallery, London Society of Antiquaries of London

Photomicrograph details of the fine hairs of the edge of the beard and the top of the fur collar, showing wet-in-wet blending.


The uses of patterns

Anne Boleyn, by Unknown artist, late 16th century (circa 1533-1536) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne Boleyn
by Unknown artist
late 16th century (circa 1533-1536)
NPG 668

Anne Boleyn, by Unknown artist, late 16th century - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne Boleyn
by Unknown artist
late 16th century
NPG 4980(15)

As the mother of Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn’s image was often included in portrait sets of English monarchs, however only a few versions survive today. Portrait sets became increasingly popular in the late sixteenth century and were used to decorate long galleries and great halls.

Although these two portraits vary in quality they are based on the same pattern, demonstrating the way in which established face patterns of prominent individuals could be used for many years. Using infrared reflectography it is possible to examine the preparatory underdrawing beneath the paint layers.

NPG 668 IRR Mosaics
NPG 668
NPG4980(15) IRR mosaic
NPG 4980(15)

Infrared reflectogram mosaic details of the two paintings

The underdrawing in NPG 4980(15) is much more heavy handed than that in NPG 668, however, close comparison of the patterns using melinex tracings shows that they match quite closely. The use of patterns meant that artists could produce sets of portraits quite rapidly and cheaply. In NPG 4980(15) the artist’s extreme reliance on a pattern is demonstrated by the unusual painting technique in which the eyes, lips and eyebrows were painted in full and then the flesh was painted around these features. By contrast, the painting technique in NPG 668 is far more subtle, with fine brushwork and wet-in-wet blending.

NPG 668 left eye detail NPG 4980(15) left eye detail NPG 668 detail lips
NPG 668, eye on the left NPG 4980(15), eye on the left NPG 668, detail of the lips

Photomicrograph images of the eye on the left in each painting and also of the lips in NPG 668, showing the difference in painting technique between the two paintings.


Holbein’s legacy

William Warham, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1527) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

William Warham
after Hans Holbein the Younger
early 17th century (1527)
NPG 2094

Portrait of William Warham, Lambeth Palace, By kind permission of the Archbishop of  Canterbury and the Church Commissioners

William Warham
after Hans Holbein the Younger
late 16th century
By permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners

An influential churchman and statesman, Warham was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor in 1504. In 1527 Hans Holbein the Younger painted his portrait as a gift to send to the Dutch humanist Erasmus. This painting does not survive but the preparatory study made by the artist is in the Royal Collection and it has faint indentations marking the contours of the face, which suggests that it may have been used to make a pattern. Holbein occasionally produced multiple versions of his portraits, and there is a version of this painting in the Louvre that was probably made by the artist for Warham.

Tree-ring dating has shown that the portrait of Warham from Lambeth Palace and NPG 2094 were produced long after Holbein’s death: the former in the late sixteenth century, and the latter in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. The demand for portraits of prominent sitters could often extend long after their death. However, it is possible that the paintings were made in order to satisfy demand for copies of compositions by Holbein, whose skill was greatly appreciated by collectors.

The paintings would once have appeared much more similar, because the green background in the Lambeth painting has discoloured to brown. The high degree of similarity between the paintings and the Louvre version suggest that, rather than being taken from Holbein’s original drawing, the pattern for these portraits was taken from Holbein’s painting. Infrared reflectography reveals the detailed underdrawing in both paintings and the level of care that the artists took to imitate the details of Holbein’s work.

Detail image of the original green colour of the danmask, which has been protected from the light by the sight edge of the frame NPG 2094 IRR detail face NPG IRR detail face
Detail image of the original green colour of the damask in the Lambeth painting, which had been protected from the light by the sight edge of the frame. NPG 2094                                             Lambeth Palace
Infrared reflectogram mosaic details of the face, showing the different styles of underdrawing.


Nonetheless, different painting techniques were used in each portrait, as is evident from close examination of the paint surface.

NPG 2094 detail face
NPG 2094
detail face
Lambeth Palace
Detail images of the face, showing the differences in painting technique.

Overlay melinex tracings of the two paintings.

Overlay melinex tracings of the two paintings.


In the Lambeth portrait the paint is applied more thinly, with fine brushstrokes and more fluid paint. It is also notable that when the two paintings are compared closely not all of the features match up exactly, particularly the hands and the crucifix. This suggests that the pattern for the composition was transferred in several pieces and slipped during the transfer.


Multiple versions

Sir Thomas Gresham, by Unknown Netherlandish artist, circa 1565 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Thomas Gresham
by Unknown Netherlandish artist
circa 1565
NPG 352

Thomas Gresham, By Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, Oil on panel, circa 1565, The Mercer’s Company

Sir Thomas Gresham
by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist
circa 1565
The Mercers' Company


Sir Thomas Gresham was an important international merchant who divided his time between England and Antwerp. He was the founder of the Royal Exchange and played a vital role in the management of the finances of Elizabethan England.

Gresham NPG 352 lips Gresham NPG 352 lips Gresham NPG 352 Purse Gresham Mercers 352 purse
NPG 352 Mercers' Company NPG 352 Mercers' Company
Photomicrograph details of the lips Embroidered detail on the purse

In these two portraits Gresham’s costume is an exercise in restrained, yet costly, elegance. However, differences in the paint handling, particularly in the costume, suggest that these paintings are the work of two different artists. There is more dry brushwork in the Gallery’s version, whilst the paint used in the Mercers’ version has a smoother consistency.

NPG 325 IRR Mosaics
NPG 352 IRR mosaic
Mercers IRR mosaic
Mercers' Company IRR mosaic

Infrared reflectogram mosaics of the whole paintings, showing the reserves left for the hands

Very unusually, both paintings show evidence of changes being made to the composition at a late stage in the painting process. This suggests that they were produced at the same time, within the same workshop. These changes are now partly evident on the surface as the uppermost paint layer has become more transparent over time. This is particularly notable in the hand, where similar reserves were left in both paintings, and then the fingers were extended over the black purse in order to loosen Gresham’s grip. This change may have been made at the suggestion of the patron.

Detail photographs of the hand holding the purse Detail photographs of the hand holding the purse Photomicrograph details of the overpainted button Photomicrograph details of the overpainted button
NPG 352 Mercers' Company NPG 352 Mercers' Company
Detail photographs of the hand holding the purse in each painting. Photomicrograph details of the overpainted button in each painting.

An overpainted button can also be seen in both versions. However, in NPG 352 it was fully worked up, whilst the Mercers’ Company version does not appear to include any of the final highlights in lead-tin yellow. This suggests that when they were being painted within the workshop the Gallery’s portrait was progressing at a slightly faster rate than the other version.


Workshop production

Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, by Unknown artist, 1601 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset
by Unknown artist
1601
NPG 4024

Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset

Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset
by Unknown artist
early 17th century
Sackville Collection, Knole

Thomas Sackville was a poet, playwright and statesman, and the owner of Knole house in Kent. He was made Lord Treasurer in 1599 and Lord High Steward in 1601; the rod of office that he holds in this portrait probably refers to his appointment as Steward. Sackville was created Earl of Dorset in 1604.

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, by John De Critz the Elder, 1602 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury
by John De Critz the Elder
1602
NPG 107

This is the only known portrait type of Sackville and analysis of these two versions have revealed some of the difficulties encountered when attempting to identify the output of a particular artist’s workshop. Both paintings been associated with the work of John de Critz the Elder on the basis of compositional similarities to the only known portrait type of Robert Cecil, which is linked to de Critz through documentary evidence. However, no documentary evidence survives to link de Critz with Sackville’s patronage, and the stylistic differences between these paintings and other works attributed to de Critz means that it is impossible to substantiate the attribution. Nonetheless, de Critz is known to have headed a large workshop which was able to rapidly produce large numbers of portraits to order and it is possible that both portraits were produced by individuals who worked for him.

Dendrochronological analysis (tree-ring dating) suggests that the tree used to make the boards used in the Knole panel was felled at a slightly later date than those used in the Gallery’s version, and the painting may have been produced just after the sitter’s death in 1608. It is more freely painted than the Gallery’s version, which has more meticulous brushwork in the details. The preparatory stages to lay out the design also seem to have been executed in different media. Infrared reflectography revealed very detailed carbon-based underdrawing, made using a pattern, in the Gallery’s portrait. This appears to be strengthening a tracing, with delicate freehand hatching for the details. By contrast, very little underdrawing could be seen in the Knole portrait, which suggests that the pattern may have been transferred to the support using paint.

NPG 4024 IRR detail of face Loan IRR detail of face NPG4024 Detail of Sackville right eye Loan Detail of Sackville right eye
NPG 4024 detail Sackville Collection NPG 4024 detail Sackville Collection
Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail and infrared photograph of the faces in the two paintings. Photomicrograph details of the eye on the right in each painting

The different paint handling techniques evident in these two paintings can be seen by close comparison of the Garter jewels. The Gallery’s version has slightly sharper details in the highlights, and there is variation in the depiction of the dragon and in the placement of St. George and his horse within the jewel.

We are grateful to Her Majesty the Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Mercers’ Company and the National Trust, Knole on behalf of the Sackville Collection, for lending works for this display.

The research for this display has been funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Trust, the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust and the Mercers' Company as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project.

NPG 4024 Garter detail Loan Garter detail
NPG 4024 Sackville Collection
Details of the Garter jewel in each painting.