Imagined Lives: Mystery Portraits 1520-1640

Press Release

3 March 2010

17 March 2010-October 2011
The National Trust's Montacute House, near Yeovil, Somerset 
Press View:  Tuesday 16 March 11am (RSVP if you wish to attend)   

A new National Portrait Gallery display of unseen paintings of 16th and 17th-century mystery figures opens at one of its regional partners, the National Trust's Montacute House, on 17 March 2010. Over the last 450 years, the identities of the sitters featured in the portraits on display have been either lost or mistaken. This will be the first opportunity to see these portraits, which have either been recently restored or not exhibited for over half a century.

Inspired by the mystery that surrounds the unknown sitters, the Gallery has invited writers John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Sir Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters to contribute short imaginative stories on what their lives might have been like. These fantasy character sketches and fictional biographies accompany the portraits in the display and help bring the sitters to life.

New research undertaken by History of Art MA students at the University of Bristol, working with Dr Tatiana String - and supervised by the Gallery's 16th Century Curator Dr Tarnya Cooper - has meant that they can now be brought back into full view with a clearer understanding of their past.

The display features portraits of men and women whose identities are no longer known. They appear to depict courtiers, musicians, writers, soldiers and others who hoped to preserve their memory by sitting for a portrait. They were purchased by the National Portrait Gallery from 1858 to 1971. When the identity of these portraits was disproved or disputed, the paintings were often removed from display or lent to other collections. Recent conservation work and new research has meant that some portraits can now be re-identified.   

The character sketches and imaginary biographies by the authors brilliantly provide new ways of looking at these mystery portraits. Their short fictional narratives respond to what can be seen in each portrait, picking up on details of the costume and pose in intriguing ways. For example, in a story entitled Rosy Tracy Chevalier has written about a portrait of a handsome young man with a flushed complexion as the object of homosexual desire. 

The crime writer Minette Walters has written a poignant letter from the perspective of the wife of a man shown in a portrait, which brims with despair at her husband's extravagance. The author and scriptwriter Julian Fellowes has created a subtle biography (written in the style of a traditional biographical entry in a dictionary) about a resourceful woman whose husband was executed in the reign of Henry VIII.  

Sarah Singleton has written about the adventures of a spice merchant and amateur musician struggling to make his way in the world despite his illegitimate status. Joanna Trollope has written a touching tale about the offer of a marriage proposal in the form of a letter from the sitter's intended bride. 

In a complete change of tone, the science fiction writer Sir Terry Pratchett has written an amusing tale about an explorer who presented Elizabeth I with a skunk. John Banville has seen in the features of a man laying upon his death bed the face of an admired officer serving with Cromwell's New Model Army.

Visitors to the display at the National Trust's Montacute House will be able to explore the display through close-up encounters with the portraits, and explore Tudor and Jacobean fashion in clothing, hairstyle, pose and gendered ideals of beauty and propriety. In August, they will also have the opportunity to hear some of these authors read their stories in person close to the portraits which inspired them.

There will be family activities designed by the students and extra information available to unravel the visual clues contained within these enigmatic portraits, as visitors discover the contemporary social conventions that shaped the way these sitters where portrayed.

This is the second curatorial collaboration between MA students from the University of Bristol and the National Portrait Gallery after the success of the previous display, On the Nature of Women in 2008. The event has provided them with valuable experience in conducting original research at the Gallery's Heinz Archive & Library, and in all the processes of staging a Gallery display, which involves the writing of text and captions.

Imagined Lives: Mystery Portraits 1520-1640, which will run for two National Trust seasons, until 2012, is a collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery, the National Trust and the University of Bristol.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘I am delighted that the Gallery will once again be working with the National Trust and the University of Bristol, this time bringing together some fascinating, unseen portraits from the Gallery's Collection and revealing their research into them. Visitors will also be able to read the inspired responses to the portraits of some of today's most accomplished writers.'  

Richard Higgs, Property Manager of Montacute House, says: ‘This exciting new exhibition will give visitors a unique way of looking at this fabulous collection of paintings. The fact that they are unknowns is intriguing in itself but I think the biographies created by the writers will really spark the imagination and get people thinking about the possible lives of the sitters.'  

Dr Tatiana String, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History of Art, University of Bristol, says: ‘Our unique collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery and the National Trust has attracted students to our course from Japan, Chile, Cyprus, Australia and the United States, as well as some of the most talented students from across the UK. Their research for this exhibition has uncovered important new ways of interpreting these "unknown" portraits.'    


A fully-illustrated National Portrait Gallery publication containing information on the portraits on display together with all the stories by John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Sir Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters is available in paperback from the National Trust's Montacute House priced £6.99

Also available is a fully-illustrated National Portrait Gallery publication A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, which focuses on 16th and 17th century portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, Montacute House, and other National Trust properties. Written by the Gallery's 16th Century Curator, Dr Tarnya Cooper, and with a foreword by Lady Antonia Fraser, the book is in paperback and priced £5.99.    

For further press information please contact:

Neil Evans, Press Office, National Portrait Gallery, Tel 020 7312 2452 (not for publication)

Tara Burke, Press Office, The National Trust, Tel 01985 843582 / 07747 745675  (not for publication)

Hannah Johnson, Press Office, University of Bristol, Tel 0117 928 8896 (not for publication)


About the National Trust

The National Trust cares for 300 inspiring historic houses and gardens across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. From former workers' cottages to the most iconic stately homes, and from mines and mills to theatres and inns, the stories of people and their heritage are at the heart of everything it does. People of all ages, individuals, schools and communities, get involved each year with its projects, events and working holidays and over 56,000 volunteers help to bring the properties alive for the Trust's 3.8 million members. Find out more at:

Notes on two of the students involved in the research

Etsuko Shimona, a Japanese student on the course, says: ‘There are portraits whose identification is almost impossible to achieve due to the complex provenance, conditions and history. However, this difficulty is, in fact, a part of relish of curatorial research for me. The opportunity to work for the exhibition, Imagined Lives, in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery and with other students taught me not only scholarly approaches toward portraiture, but also opened my eyes to the practical, more methodical sides of curation.

Anna Bonewitz, a student from Texas, USA, says: "What I have found most rewarding about researching these unidentified portraits is that I have become more aware of methods of artistic production used in the creation of Tudor portraits, which are often regarded solely for their biographical importance. When stripped of their biographically specific identity, these portraits become beautiful works of art which not only teach us a tremendous amount about the types of people which warranted representation in Tudor England, but can also be admired for their intrinsic aesthetic merits.'

National Portrait Gallery, London

Founded in 1856, the aim of the National Portrait Gallery, London is ‘to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and ... to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media'. The Gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. The Collection is displayed in London and in a number of locations around the United Kingdom, including several houses managed by the National Trust. The Gallery aims to bring history to life through its extensive display, exhibition, research, learning, outreach, publishing and digital programmes. These allow us to stimulate debate and to address questions of biography, diversity and fame which lie at the heart of issues of identity and achievement. The National Portrait Gallery aims to be the foremost centre for the study of and research into portraiture, as well as making its work and activities of interest to as wide a range of visitors as possible.

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