The face of a “thug”: an example of sixteenth-century portraiture or a nineteenth-century pastiche

Natasha Walker, Paintings Conservator, Tate
Jacqueline Ridge, Keeper of Conservation, National Galleries of Scotland
Karen Hearn, Curator of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century British Art, Tate
Joyce Townsend, Senior Conservation Scientist, Tate

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

In the early twentieth century this striking three-quarter length portrait helped to represent British art of the Tudor period in the old Tate Gallery. Later the painting fell out of favour and, in poor condition, was dismissed by some as a nineteenth-century fake. More recently, technical examination and dendrochronology have helped to reinstate the painting’s dating to the mid sixteenth century. Removal of varnish and overpaint has prompted reassessment of the portrait, whose painter and sitter have long been a puzzle.

In the third Exhibition of National Portraits at the South Kensington Museum in 1868, the painting was identified as a portrait of 'William West, 1st Lord Delawarr by Hans Holbein’. Although the sitter's square-on posture is indeed reminiscent of Holbein's depiction of Henry VIII in the, now lost, Whitehall Mural, the attribution to Holbein cannot be sustained. It is not even clear whether the painting was made by an artist who worked in England.

Each element of the costume, from the acorn design on the shirt to the shield motif on the ring, has been studied to try to identify the sitter. The arms on the ring seem to have prompted the nineteenth-century association with William West (born c.1519), a gentleman who tried to poison his uncle the 9th Lord de la Warr, in order to gain his title and estates. It has not so far been possible to confirm the sitter as this colourful rogue, nor to attribute the painting to a specific sixteenth-century artist, but technical and curatorial investigations, in conjunction with conservation treatment, continue.