Paintings associated with Guillim Scrots: some technical evidence

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Catharine MacLeod, Curator of seventeenth-century collections, National Portrait Gallery

Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Guillim Scrots's name has become linked with a disparate group of paintings associated with Edward VI, including portraits of him as Prince of Wales and King, and other portraits produced during his reign. This paper proposed that one of the functions of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project might be to shed light on relationships between these portraits and to begin to clarify some of the issues around constructing an oeuvre for Scrots. The results of analysis of the National Portrait Gallery's paintings associated with Scrots were just coming in at the time of the presentation, so the paper looked at some of these results and suggested a preliminary framework for further investigation.

The extant documentary evidence for Scrots's life and career is limited, but provides some context for the examination of technical material. He is first recorded when he was appointed painter to Mary of Hungary in Bruges in 1537, and he is next mentioned in documents that suggest he was in Antwerp in 1544. We know from later inventories that during this period he painted at least two portraits of the Empress Isabella and one of the Emperor Charles V. The warrant for Scrots's salary as painter to Henry VIII and surviving records of salary payments indicate that he was in England by Michaelmas 1545, possibly having arrived as early as Christmas 1544. His salary in England was £62.10s, over twice that paid to Holbein and much more than any other painter at the English court. Salary payments are recorded up to 1553, after which there is no further evidence of Scrots's activities anywhere. The only surviving documentary evidence for paintings produced in England is a payment of 1551 for two full-length portraits of Edward VI given to British ambassadors abroad, and one full-length of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey.

Of all the pictures now attributed to Scrots the most famous is the anamorphic portrait of Edward VI in the National Portrait Gallery's collection. This attribution rests on two factors: the almost exclusive association of this kind of picture in the mid-sixteenth century with the Habsburg courts, and the mention by George Vertue in the early eighteenth century of a signature ­ 'Guihelmus pingebat' ­ on the frame. The signature is no longer visible but it is possible that the frame originally had a cover, which has been removed. Infra-red reflectography has revealed underdrawing under the portrait in very strong firm lines suggestive of a transfer process, as would be expected in a painting of this type. Microscopic photography and pigment analysis indicate that the brown area around the portrait was originally purple, formed from smalt (now discoloured) and red lake, possibly applied to create a marbled effect. X-radiography and pigment analysis have confirmed that the landscape surrounding the portrait was painted directly onto the chalk ground, suggesting that it is contemporary with the portrait and not a later addition. The pigments used are in several cases different, however, suggesting, along with the stylistic evidence, that the landscape was painted by a different hand from the portrait. The attribution of the portrait to Scrots remains unproven, however, partly because there is no evidence for where the painting was executed; it is first recorded in England in the late sixteenth century.

    King Edward VI,    attributed to William Scrots,    1546,    NPG 1299,    © National Portrait Gallery, London King Edward VI, attributed to William Scrots, 1546
    King Edward VI,    by Unknown artist, after  William Scrots,    circa 1546,    NPG 442,    © National Portrait Gallery, London King Edward VI, by Unknown artist, after William Scrots, circa 1546
    Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey,    after William Scrots,    circa 1570-1580s, based on a work of 1546,    NPG 4952,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, after William Scrots, circa 1570-1580s, based on a work of 1546

The profile portrait of Edward VI (NPG 442) is also associated with Scrots because a painting of this type was clearly used as the basis for the anamorphic head, but this is only one, and by no means the best, of many versions of this portrait. It is evident that this was a common type in circulation late in Henry VIII's reign. Dendrochronology indicates that this painting was executed during Scrots's working career and Edward's lifetime, and pigment analysis shows that it also has a discoloured smalt background, but there is no strong link to the artist. Further technical evidence from the better versions of this portrait, such as that in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, may perhaps provide more useful comparative material.

Only one full-length portrait type of Edward VI from around 1551 survives; portraits of this type seem likely to have been those for which Scrots was paid at that date. At least five paintings survive, which derive from two variants of the same basic type. The best surviving examples are those in the Louvre and at Hampton Court. The Louvre portrait is particularly close stylistically to a group of three portraits attributed to Scrots at Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck, which show the Emperor Ferdinand I and his sons, the archdukes Maximilian and Ferdinand. The construction of the face of archduke Ferdinand, in particular, appears very close to that of Edward VI in the Louvre portrait. Extensive pigment analysis and infra-red reflectography has been undertaken on the Schloss Ambras portrait but as yet this has not taken place with regard to the Louvre portrait; this would be an interesting area of exploration and comparison. The Hampton Court painting has been examined with infra-red reflectography and shows rather schematic, sketchy underdrawing on the face and hands, not necessarily suggestive of a mechanical transfer process, but neither suggesting that the drawing was done directly from life.