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Sir Francis Walsingham, by an Unknown artist, oil on panel, late sixteenth century, NPG 1704

Technical analysis of paintings can occasionally yield some unexpected results, none more so than the discovery of other images hidden beneath the surface. As part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project a small portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham came into the Gallery’s conservation studio to be examined as a ‘reserve’. We weren’t expecting to spend much time on it, but simply to examine it using infrared photography and possibly to carry out an x-ray. However, when the infrared photograph revealed two shadowy forms beneath the skin in the sitter’s face it became apparent that this was a very unusual painting. The x-ray showed that the figure on the right was a seated woman with loose long hair, and possibly a child in her arms. Very surprisingly, particularly in the context of a portrait, we seemed to have found a small devotional image that featured the Virgin and Child.

X-ray image of NPG 1704

We cannot know the exact circumstances which led to the image being overpainted with the portrait of Walsingham. It may have been the pragmatism of the artist's studio -  a small painting produced or imported for stock failed to sell and so was reused for a portrait commission. However, the nature of the two paintings does make it tempting to speculate further. By obscuring a very Catholic image of the Virgin and Child with an image of Elizabeth I’s Protestant spymaster and the chief persecutor of English Catholics, was the artist making a political point? There is no sign of the underlying painting on the surface of the portrait, so any satirical intent on the part of the artist could only have been carried out for his own satisfaction. Whatever the artist’s motivation, whether the reuse of a prepared panel that was lying in the studio or perhaps something more pointed, the discovery of the hidden image nearly five hundred years later has certainly raised some interesting questions for the project’s research team.

Image credits (from top to bottom)

Sir Francis Walsingham, by an Unknown artist, oil on panel, late sixteenth century, NPG 1704

X-ray image of NPG 1704

As part of the display Hidden: Unseen Paintings Beneath Tudor Portraits


Got something to say?


17 November 2014, 11:02

Thank you for getting in touch. The x-ray is available through the Gallery’s Rights and Images department, which you can contact at: [email protected] Do let us know what you find!

Peter Baker

10 November 2014, 18:36

Is there any possibility of getting a high resolution version of the X-ray image? I think I can see more here...

Hilary Minor

01 February 2013, 11:16

I can well understand the need to reuse old painting supports. If the painter of Walsingham's portrait was a Protestant, s/he wouldn't have placed much value on a Catholic image. There doesn't need to have been any pointed "message" there - just an indication that the painter felt the devotional image was surplus to requirement and of little intrinsic value but was on a useful support. I am about to reuse a panel that currently carries an image of the Virgin and Child. It is a pasted on image that was varnished. The varnish is in bad, peeling condition and the panel is of more use to me than the picture which will probably be completely removed prior to the panel receiving several coats of iconographer's gesso. The panel will probably be painted with an image taken from an icon but I am not a religious person: I simply love the style of 13th century Italian icons!

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