The fate of a board: four paintings from Trinity College

Christine Slottved Kimbriel, Conservator, Hamilton Kerr Institute

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 2009 dendrochronological analysis of 28 portraits on panel in the collection of Trinity College, Cambridge was carried out. The analysis revealed that four of the examined panels were constructed with boards originating from the same pair of Baltic oak trees, and the apparent link between the four portraits was strengthened by similarities in the execution of both the underdrawing and the painting technique. The four panels are currently receiving conservation treatment at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, which has afforded an opportunity to examine the panels further. In particular, it has allowed us to supplement the dendrochronological findings with a better understanding of the techniques used for the panel construction, the underdrawing and the paint application.

Three of the four sitters, Wolsey, Pole and Gardiner, were all influential men of their time holding important positions within the church. The research carried out during the project has lead to a tentative identification of the fourth sitter, who until recently was unknown.

The aim of the research has been to gain as extensive an understanding as possible of this sixteenth-century portrait commission and to explore whether the link between the portraits - already established in their common wooden substrate - can be strengthened further through the close examination of their execution.

Apart from introducing the results offered by the dendrochronological analysis, which dated the portraits to the decade between 1585 and 1596, two main aspects of the research will be considered in this talk. Firstly, some of the shared features of execution and material use in all four portraits will be presented. An excerpt from Van Mander’s Den grondt der edel vry shilder-const (1604) is introduced to show how the technical execution has been found to be similar in several aspects to those employed by artists such as Jan Van Eyck and Lucas van Leyden. These include the method of underdrawing and the use of a flesh-coloured priming, both of which were employed in the working up of the thinly applied paint layers. Other shared aspects in the execution of Wolsey and Pole’s cardinals’ garments, such as a peculiar use of red lake under the whites and drying issues in the lush reds, are demonstrated.

Secondly, the identity of the fourth sitter is discussed. A connection is made to Thomas Nevile, Master of Trinity College between 1593 and 1615. Nevile donated to the college his personal 1570 version of John Foxe’s book on Protestant martyrs. Wolsey, Pole and Gardiner figure prominently in Foxe’s book, and the bloody deeds of a fourth person, Bishop of London Edmund Bonner, are described in gory detail and supplemented with illustrations (beautifully coloured in Nevile’s copy) of Bonner torturing Mary’s Protestant subjects. The presentation is concluded with the argument that the fourth sitter in this suite of portraits is, in fact, Edmund Bonner, and that his likeness in this, the only known sixteenth-century portrait of him, is at least loosely based on the illustrations in Nevile’s copy of Foxe’s book.