Evidence from portrait sets and multiple copies: Richard III in focus

Catherine Daunt, Assistant Curator, National Portrait Gallery
Sally Marriott, Assistant Research Conservator, National Portrait Gallery

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



King Richard III, by Unknown artist, late 16th century (late 15th century) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Richard III
by Unknown artist
late 16th century (late 15th century)
NPG 148

Focusing on the National Portrait Gallery’s late-sixteenth-century portrait of King Richard III (NPG 148), this case study examined how technical information gathered as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain research project, has helped us to learn more about the history, production and original function of portraits of this type.

A significant number of surviving Tudor and Jacobean portraits were originally produced to hang within groups of related portraits in order to form a visual narrative, often within a domestic interior. Portrait sets of English kings and queens, in particular, became popular in the second half of the sixteenth century, evolving from the smaller groups of related portraits that were produced and collected under Henry VIII. In addition to groups of English monarchs, portrait sets of foreign rulers, reformers, saints, judges, politicians and other eminent and historical figures were also produced. Displayed in long galleries, halls and parlours, probably up high, multiple copies of these portraits were made, sometimes to order, by workshops using established portrait patterns from various sources. 

Although few sets have survived intact, there are many extant portraits from this period that were almost certainly originally produced to be part of a set, including the Gallery’s portrait of Richard III. Acquired by the Gallery in 1862 and of unknown provenance, NPG 148 is based on the standard portrait that was probably developed during Richard’s lifetime, of which there are many surviving versions. Using techniques including dendrochronology, x-radiography, microscopy, paint analysis, infrared reflectography and ultra violet examination, the portrait was examined by conservators during a ten-week period between May and July, 2010. A melinex tracing was also made to compare the design of the portrait with versions from other collections.

Traced Overlay
Traced overlay showing the similarity in composition between NPG 148 and Richard III in the Royal Collection.

Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) confirmed that the panel dates from around the 1580s or 1590s, indicating a market for portraits of Richard III around a century after his death and as many as eighty years after the earliest surviving version of the portrait (in the Royal Collection). Infrared reflectography indicated that a pre-established portrait pattern was used and transferred via tracing onto the panel with a carbon-based medium. The melinex tracing of this pattern matched almost exactly with the pattern used for versions of the portrait at Hatfield House (probably late sixteenth century) and the Royal Collection (early sixteenth century). 

Microscopic examination of an area around the top corners of the portrait indicated that gilt spandrels, removed in the 1970s to reveal the original lead tin yellow decorative spandrels which can now be seen, were probably added to the portrait at a very early stage, possibly before it left the artist’s studio, and were not a modern addition as had previously been thought. It is possible that the gilt spandrels were added in order to make the portrait look late-fifteenth or early-sixteenth-century in style. It was painted at a time when pigments such as lead tin yellow were being increasingly used by accomplished artists to produce the effect of gold rather than gold leaf. Alternatively, gold spandrels could have been added to the portrait to make it fit within a set or a decorative scheme, or to make the portrait, which may have been displayed up high, look striking from a distance.

The evidence that has been gathered from the technical analysis of this portrait has significantly added to the body of information that we have about this painting and other portraits of this type. In addition, technical information gained by examining other portraits from the National Portrait Gallery’s Tudor and Jacobean collections has enabled us to identify trends in the production of art in this period, such as the widespread use of portrait patterns and production of copies and versions of historical figures many years after the prime version of the portrait was created.