Colour, texture and original appearance: new discoveries and re-evaluations of Tudor and Jacobean painting practices

Libby Sheldon, Lecturer in History of Art with Material Studies, University College London

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Abstract of a paper presented at Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage
Funded by the British Academy and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

The sophisticated painting skills of Tudor and Jacobean artists, long admired on the surface, are even more astonishing under microscopic scrutiny. The painterly effects achieved by these artists on a minute scale have come to light during the Making Art in Tudor Britain project, revealing unexpected pigments and employment of paint by artists, as well as tooling and texturing which is so small that it is not visible to the naked eye. Both colouring and texture must have been calculated to have a subtle effect on the period eye, and to persuade the viewer to accept a painted illusion as veracity, the mind perceiving a quality without awareness of how that quality has been created. 

Not only have these invisible techniques been observed under the microscope, but evidence of lost or disguised original colours and textures has been unearthed, allowing the present day viewer to consider with a greater degree of confidence the original appearance of these portraits. 

The discovery of purple fluorite pigment

Photomicrographs showing pigments.

Photomicrographs showing pigments.

2nd Baron Berners, NPG 4953 with photomicrograph showing fluorite pigment

John Bourchier,2nd Baron Berners,
By Unknown Felmish artist, 1520-1526
NPG 4953 with photomicrograph showing fluorite pigment.

One of the most exciting discoveries was the seldom encountered purple pigment, fluorite, on a portrait of John Bourchier, 2nd Baron Berners, NPG 4953. All other purples from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century were mixtures: a soft, muted purple or maroon was made with a mixture of charcoal black,white and crimson (as in the coat of Edward VI in NPG 442); while a more solid purple was created with azurite and crimson lake (for example the fan held by Elizabeth in NPG 2082); but the most glorious purple was made with blue smalt and crimson lake (the curtain in the portrait of Thomas Cranmer, NPG 535), a mixture which can seldom be seen in its true magnificence, since both pigments usually lose their colour.

However, the purple employed for the silky folds of Berners’ sleeves can be seen under the microscope as lovely crystals of a pure, translucent purple – not a mixture.

Why has purple fluorite been used in this portrait? Known sources of the mineral were mines in the Tyrol and Southern Germany. Does this suggest that the artist had purchased purple supplied from these sources? Was the sitter involved in the choice of this special purple for the depiction of his clothing? Berners was an erudite, well-connected and widely travelled man who was Chancellor of the Exchequer for Henry VIII, and stationed in Calais at the time of the portrait. Can we read such associations into the employment of this purple?

 Hilliard’s practices

A finding of another uncommonly used pigment had a direct bearing on characterising Nicolas Hilliard’s workshop. Two portraits of Elizabeth I – known as the ‘Phoenix’ portrait, NPG 190, and the ‘Pelican’ portrait, Walker Art Gallery, attributed to Hilliard, were brought together briefly for examination. Small patches of bright, modern-looking green amongst the costume colours of both were identified as green verditer, an artificially made copper pigment. Dendrochronology had already provided compelling evidence of the paintings being strongly linked, so the use of this rarely noted green on both pictures gave further evidence of them belonging to the same workshop.

Hilliard transferred some of his miniaturist practices to these large works: traces of highlights on the red jewels of the Pelican portrait were discovered to have been made with tiny patches of silver leaf cut into minute ovals. Invisible except under magnification, they would have simulated the lively flickering lights on jewellery. Hilliard said colours should be ‘aptly placed to deceive the eye’. What seems to be clear is the Tudor artist’s crucial understanding of the degree to which the eye can be deceived,

Hidden pigment

The hidden use of the blue azurite in at least two paintings attributed to Master John was both surprising and puzzling. A layer of this bright and expensive blue pigment could be seen underneath the paint layers in both works, not on the surface. What was the purpose or meaning of such a profligate use of a good blue as an underlayer? Was its purpose to give a perfect coolness of tone to the paint in the upper layers, particularly the flesh? Or was this extravagant material, invisible on the surface, intended to lend an inherent value (either though esteem or actual worth) to the paintings? 


In detailed brushwork and texturing of paint we see the same desire to ‘deceive the eye’. The most wonderful orchestration of effects on a tiny scale to imitate textures was found in the portrait of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, NPG 3800, where a variety of microscopic texturing, has an effect of our perception of different substances - the quick dash of paint which was then deliberately ‘combed’ at right angles to the impasto for the effective patterning of the pillar. The more microscopic the technique is, the more pleasingly effective the imitation.

Practical considerations sometimes necessitated the use of ‘combing’ or other texturing of paint. Finger or palm prints have been noticed on paintings in attempts to achieve an even spread of a finishing glaze. At the same time smalt, a beautiful blue made from crushed blue glass, was coarse and notoriously difficult to handle, so that it may have been this aspect which led to the regular combing marks seen on several Tudor paintings, as in the background of Edward VI, NPG 442. The painter may have been making a virtue out of necessity here. The verticality of the combed lines of smalt provides a dramatic backdrop to the soft, smooth flesh of the young king’s face. Of course, we need to remember that this background paint was once a vivid royal blue, close in hue to ultramarine, setting up another contrast of complementary colours.

Edward VI. NPG 442 with photomicrographs showing faded reds, discoloured greens and blues, and loss of gold leaf.

Edward VI,
studio of William Scrots, c. 1546,
NPG 442 with photomicrographs showing faded reds, discoloured greens and blues,
and loss of gold leaf.


Elizabeth I, NPG 2082 with photomicrographs showing smalt and the detail of the dress, and a digital photograph of the dress in raking light.

Queen Elizabeth I,
by Unknown artist, c. 1575
with photomicrographs showing smalt and the detail of the dress, and a digital photograph of the dress in raking light.


Original appearance.

It has been an important aim of the project to attempt some connection with the original appearance of Tudor portraits. We are so used to the dulling effect of time on images from 400 years ago, that it is difficult to imagine the original impact on the period eye of fresh colours. Many of these deteriorations have affected the portrait of Edward VI. The background blue is now a murky brown and the translucent red and pink modelling of the tunic has largely disappeared with light exposure. It was only under the microscope that traces of gold leaf were seen on the pattern of brown on the young king’s head and more vestiges gold, following the line of a shirt cuff on his wrist, have preserved the fugitive organic red lake, to give some idea of the original strength of this pigment. The stronger red of the rose is helped by an underlayer of the more stable and solid vermilion, but the framing green of the stem and leaves no longer perform as they should to allow the Tudor rose to stand proudly out against a blue background.

Original colour – red, maroon or purple?

Smalt degradation is becoming familiar to us all, but a major problem in considering the colour’s first appearance is assessing the original strength of blue of the particles, since poorly coloured smalt was used in the painter’s workshop as well as saturated blue smalt. Smalt is both a good drier and also provides bulk, and when it was found to form part of the raised outline of embroidery on Elizabeth I’s dress in NPG 2082, mixed with remnants of an organic crimson, it was felt that its function was primarily to provide a three-dimensional ridge of red silk work. However, further research on the sample found that the original particles had contained a

high proportion of cobalt, suggesting that the blue would have had much more than a tinting effect, so that, mixed with the crimson, the original colour is more likely to have been a translucent purple. The inner yellow was originally of a richer, golden yellow (helped by now faded crimson). Thus, it is possible to speculate that, when first painted, strong complementary colours of the warm yellow inner pattern and cool purple of the ridged outlines decorated the dress.


Such discoveries about original appearances have opened up the possibilities of more accurate interpretations of individual pictures. Naturally, any conjecture about the degree of change and original intent remains largely tentative, since there is an inevitable inaccuracy when mentally reconstructing the precise saturation of a faded red lake, the transparency of a green, or the exact purple originally created by crimson and smalt.

The study as a whole has emphasised the refined skills of the Tudor painter in achieving complex optical effects of both texture and colour. It is hoped that exploring the ways works have been put together and the ways they have changed will enhance our understanding of their practices, and to open new avenues for debate.

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