Towards a history of the market for portrait painting and commissioning practices in England 1550-1610

Tarnya Cooper, Curator, Sixteenth-century collections, 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 Studies in British Art

This paper drew on recent work undertaken as part of the Making art in Tudor Britain project at the National Portrait Gallery and research from a forthcoming book on citizen portraiture by this author. It brought together evidence concerning patronage, the market for oil paintings and the commissioning of portraiture at this period. Through the interpretation of technical analysis on Tudor paintings and the interrogation of documentary sources, the paper explored what might be learnt about the intentions of individual patrons and patterns in the market for portraiture in the second half of the sixteenth century.

It considered evidence for the commissioning of a number of different types of portraits, including ‘original’ compositions of royal portraits, the significant demand for versions and copies, the production of personal portraits of private individuals and those outside court circles. It also touched on the role or agency of the artist in developing portrait formats and types. It asked how, for example, we interpret the meaning of an inventory of a Gentleman recording a portrait of ‘Queen Elizabeth’ a month after the accession of Elizabeth I, or a citizen householder hanging his own portrait within his bedroom in the 1570s, or the existence of two near identical portraits of the same sitter with precisely the same pentimenti. The paper argued that these interpretive ‘problems’ do provide suggestive indications, or what might be seen as directional markers in attempting to understand patronage and the art market at this early date.

In assessing the meanings and market for portraits of royal sitters, courtiers and private citizens in the sixteenth century we should be aware of the significant numbers of paintings that have been lost. Certainly what remains extant today is likely to be a small fraction of what was originally produced, as survival rates for oil paintings on wooden panels are low. We can estimate that a minimum of around 60% has been lost, although it may be significantly more. And thus we are missing a significant part of the evidence to interpret artistic practice at this date. In addition, the evidence that remains is not uniformly representative of artistic production, as some types of painted images (for example religious and decorative images) have suffered to a greater degree than for example portraiture.

Quite a large number of portraits of Henry VIII survive from this period. Archival evidence from inventories is fragmentary but it does make clear that portraits of Henry were owned by people outside court circles, particularly in London. Inventories indicate that portraits of both Henry VII and Henry VIII were occasionally on display in homes of the wealthy citizenry. For example in 1533 the Goldsmith Robert Amadas (d.1532) owned a portrait described as ‘a tablet of king Henry vii’, while the inventory of the alderman Sir Thomas Offley (d. 1582) lists alongside paintings of ‘Lasarus’ and the Queens arms (Elizabeth I), a ‘pattern of King Henry’ (probably Henry VIII) which hung ‘in the little chamber over the woolhouse’. This evidence conflicts with the views of Sydney Anglo who has argued that portraiture was primarily produced for state purposes and would not have been seen, or contemplated by the citizenry. In interpreting these sources we need to be cautious because the small numbers of surviving inventories extant do not provide a viable sample to make wide scale judgements about the extent of ownership, but they do provide a snapshot of individual ownership that may well have been replicated more widely.



Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1560 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown English artist
circa 1560
NPG 4449

Like other members of the middling sort, the inventories of clergymen occasionally list ‘hangings’, ‘painted’ fabric (sometimes even ‘cloth of gold’), or ‘tapestry’ and paintings. However, one reference to a gentleman servant of the Bishop of Winchester named Nicolas Lentall (or Rentall) does indicate that ecclesiastical households might attract men with wider interests in the role of portraiture. Lentall’s probate inventory of November 1558 includes an ‘image of Queen Elizabeth’ valued at 12 shillings. Elizabeth I ascended to the throne on 17 November 1558 (at the death of Mary I), and if Lentall’s portrait does depicts Elizabeth I (and not Elizabeth York) it was perhaps painted of Elizabeth when a princess, rather than a newly purchased image. No other portraits are included in the inventory so it would perhaps seem likely that the image refers to the new queen. What this portrait type might be is difficult to know, but it might have been related to one of earliest types of Elizabeth I wearing a hood, of which numerous versions survive (see for example NPG 4449).

Portraits of private citizens and individuals must have been commissioned for a host of different unrecoverable personal motives, including the attainment of office or preferment, marriage, the birth of new offspring, purchase of property. Often it was perhaps simply about marking an accumulation of a particular status of position in life, at an opportune moment. As, for example, when the scholar and astrologer Simon Forman commissioned his own likeness at the age of 27, in the summer following his marriage in 1599. He does this at a time when he is consolidating his assets and fashioning his status as a gentleman, when he allowed his ‘hear [hair] and berd’ to grow (for the first time) and when he also purchased leases on several houses, a gelding and an elaborate new suit of clothes and other ‘pictures’. Therefore, his coming of age as an established householder seems to have prompted the commission of a portrait as a means to consolidate his status as a gentleman to his peers and associates.

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

NPG 352 Detail Hand
NPG 352, detail of the right hand showing pentimenti

Technical examination of paintings can reveal other types of evidence about patron intention, the potential circumstances of the commission, as well as provide information about the types of relationship between patron and artist. For example, technical evidence has shown that patrons sometimes commissioned two portraits of the same composition from the same studio at the same time. This might come about because the original patron wished to pass on a duplicate portrait to a family member or to institutions with whom they were connected, or possibly when portraits were commissioned by third parties, perhaps from existing portrait patterns. This appears to have been the case with two surviving portraits of Thomas Gresham painted in c. 1565, one at the National Portrait Gallery and the other at Mercer’s company, London. Technical analysis shows that both portraits have the same pentimenti in exactly the same place indicating that the original artist must have made the same final changes to the paintings at a very late stage when both panels were still in his studio. The changes include adjustments to the positioning of the hand from clenched fingers over the purse, to a more relaxed pose with the hand simply resting on the purse and a painted out button on both pictures. These changes in posture can now be seen in the paint surface (as the paint has become more transparent over time). They may well indicate Gresham’s direct involvement, as they would seem to suggest an awareness of the potential associations a ‘tight fisted’ hand over a purse with the vice of avarice; a concern that was particularly appropriate to Gresham as an international financier. It was possibly quite common to commission duplicate paintings of finished portraits from the workshop who had painted the original. In this instance, the cost would have probably been slightly less than that of a new portrait, where a sitting and a preliminary drawing would be required.

The evidence from both paintings and documentary evidence does allow us to plot particular phenomena such as the quite wide scale production and demand for versions of copies, the demand for particular portrait types by different audiences and certain commissioning practices. Given then, the small amount of extant fragmentary evidence available, we have perhaps what might be seen as suggestive markers which allow us to begin to profile patterns in the history of production and consumption in sixteenth-century England across wider social groupings than has previously been envisaged.


Abreviations: TNA: The National Archives

1.Robert Amadas see:TNA, Prob 2 486 and for Thomas Offley see TNA, Prob 2 423. The text of these inventories is partially reproduced in Susan Foister, ‘Paintings and other works of Art in Sixteenth Century English Inventories’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 123, 1981, pp.273-82,  Appendix 1 pp.281-282. For further evidence of the extent of pictures owned by the citizenry see: TNA: Thomas Edwin, Citizen and Mercer: 1592 In the Hall ‘11 pictures  11sh. 4 d, (Extent for Debts, C239/59/112); Edward Holme, Citizen and letter writer: 1577 ‘One portratt of wanscott’ X sh’ (Extent for Debts, C239/144/75); John Savell, Gent of royal Chapel: 1579-80 ‘two pictures one being of Henry the eight and the other being of Edwarde the sixth upon painted cloth xiid’ (Extent for Debts, C239/46/115); Henry Bynneman, Stationer: 1582 me with the Queens Prototete [prototype?] Vsh.’ (Extent for Debts, C 239/49/48).  For a guide to the Extent for Debts manuscripts see: Martha Carlin, London and Southwark Inventories 316-1650 A Handlist of Extents for Debts, 1997. 
2.Sydney Anglo, Images of Tudor Kingship, 1992, p.112.
3.For example, Nicolas West, Bishop of Ely (d.1534), owned a ‘bed of painted canvas’ while Hugh Whithed, Dean of Durham owned a ‘carpett of Payted work’ at his death in 1552.  Thomas Allen, the parson of Stevenage in Hertfordshire, owned a ‘square cloth with the arms of England’ in 1559.  Such items were low value objects of little importance amongst their other possessions of silver and gilt late, books, furniture, linen, soft furnishings and other high value items such as clocks. TNA Prob 2 355 (Thomas Allen, Parson of Stevenage, 1559)
4.TNA, Prob 2 346B (Nicolas Lentall, Gentleman, Servant of Bishop of Winchester, 1558)
5.Simon Forman, The Autobiography and personal diary of Dr. Simon Forman, ed., James Halliwell,1849, p.31.