Portrait in focus: The Somerset House Conference, 1604

This Portrait in focus page is an accessible version of our in-gallery interactive in Room 4, which enables you to find out more about the individuals in the Somerset House Conference portrait on display.

    The Somerset House Conference, 1604,    by Unknown artist,    1604,    NPG 665,    © National Portrait Gallery, London The Somerset House Conference, 1604
by Unknown artist
oil on canvas, 1604
81 in. x 105 1/2 in. (2057 mm x 2680 mm)
NPG 665
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Audio description

  • The Somerset House Conference, 1604, by an unknown artist, oil on canvas, created in 1604. 205.7 by 268 centimetres. This huge painting commemorates the treaty of peace and trade between England and Spain, which in 1604 brought an end to a war that had dragged on for 20 years. The grave faces of the 11 delegates at the Somerset House Conference gaze out at us from either side of a long table covered with a sumptuous carpet, patterned in red, dark green, and black. The end of the table is facing us and runs back towards a wide six-panelled window, one small pane of which is open. Across the courtyard beyond, another wing of the house is visible. A tapestry or painted cloth is displayed on the left wall.

    The delegates are seated on high-backed chairs. Their pale faces forming a V with the open window at the apex. They are dressed in rich, but sombre black, white ruffs encircle their necks. Their moustaches and pointed beards are on display. Here and there, a hand rests on the table. On the right closest to us, is Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, chief minister to Queen Elizabeth and then to James I. His left hand is towards us and rests on the arm of his chair. His black cloak falls and folds over his arm. His right hand is held across his chest, a gesture which highlights his own importance. The expression on his thin face and in his round black eyes is inscrutable. On the table in front of him is a document and a pewter inkwell with a quill pen. Behind him, the four other English delegates sit complacently.

    At the far end of the table, the aged figure of Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset holds a staff of office, and next to him, closer to us, the Lord High Admiral, Lord Howard, displays a single silver sleeve that alleviates the black of the costume of the company. Opposite, sit the six Spanish delegates, one older man's pale face seems to catch the light, drawing attention to the papers clutched in his hand resting on the edge of the table. Their expressions are perhaps a little less sanguine than those of their counterparts. One delegate is shown in profile as he stares across the table, eye to eye with the Earl of Devonshire. A tree, maybe an olive tree, spreads behind the English delegates, perhaps symbolizing peace between England and Spain.

Introduction to the portrait

In August 1604 a treaty was signed in Somerset House between England and the Spanish Empire, ending a war that had lasted for nearly 20 years.

Delegates from different parts of the Spanish Empire, including Spain, Milan in Italy and the Southern Netherlands (Flanders), met the English delegates in Somerset House in London.

The tapestry on the table in front of the delegates shows a scene from the Bible in which King David sends Uriah the Hittite into battle. It is probably one of a set that hung in Somerset House, which was the residence of Anne of Denmark, James I’s queen consort.

18 peace conference sessions took place there before the treaty was finally signed in August 1604. This painting was made to record this historic event.

Who’s in the portrait

The painting The Somerset House Conference with the man at the back on the left highlighted

Juan de Velasco

Juan de Velasco, Duke of Frías, Constable of Castile, led the Spanish-Flemish delegation but was ill at the time of the conference and only arrived afterwards.

The Somerset House Conference with the fourth and fifth men on the left highlighted

Delegates from Italy and Spain

Juan de Tassis, Count of Villamediana, was a Spanish delegate and Alessandro Robida, Senator of Milan, represented the Duchy of Milan which was under Spanish rule.

The Somerset House Conference with the first three men on the left highlighted

Delegates from Flanders

There were three delegates from Flanders (now Belgium): Charles de Ligne, Count of Arenberg, Jean Richardot and Louis Verreycken.

The Somerset House Conference with the first man on the right highlighted

Robert Cecil

Robert Cecil (1563-1612), later Earl of Salisbury, was Secretary of State, the most powerful English politician. The ink pot, quill pen and paper in the portrait indicate his role in leading the peace negotiations.

The Somerset House Conference with the second, third, fourth and fifth men on the right highlighted

The English delegates

The English delegates included Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset; Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham; Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire; and Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton.

The Somerset House Conference with the written panel in the bottom left corner highlighted

The painter

The name of the Spanish painter Juan Pantoja de la Cruz and the date, 1594, appear to have been added later, in error. The painting probably came from the London workshop of John de Critz.