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Sir Henry Lee

8 of 22 portraits on display in Room 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sir Henry Lee, by Anthonis Mor (Antonio Moro), 1568 - NPG 2095 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sir Henry Lee

by Anthonis Mor (Antonio Moro)
oil on panel, 1568
25 1/4 in. x 21 in. (641 mm x 533 mm)
Given by Harold Lee-Dillon, 17th Viscount Dillon, 1925
Primary Collection
NPG 2095

On display in Room 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), Master of the Ordnance. Sitter in 5 portraits.

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

This portrait of Lee was probably painted on a visit to Antwerp in June 1568. Lee was accompanied on this trip by Edward, 3rd Baron Windsor, whose portrait by another artist also shows the sitter with his thumb through a ring, a gesture that may relate to bonds of love or friendship. The true-lovers' knots and armillary spheres on Lee's sleeves were personal emblems of the Queen and probably refer to his role as Elizabeth's champion. These patterns were marked out using a transfer technique called pouncing, whereby charcoal dust is shaken through pricked holes to mark out a design. A detailed look at the signature in the lower-right corner reveals the caption 'Antonius mor pingebat ao 1568'.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Tudor Portraits Resource Pack, p. 24
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 60 Read entry

    Kentish-born Henry Lee was educated by his uncle, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, and entered royal service at the age of fourteen. As his epitaph recorded, he served five monarchs over the course of his long career and 'kept himself right and steady in many dangerous shocks and utter turns of state'. He achieved his greatest renown at the court of Elizabeth I, serving as Master of the Armoury and devising the annual Accession Day tilts on 17 November in her honour. These elaborate celebrations became the most important Elizabethan court festival and created an environment in which the court could compete for the queen's favour. This portrait was painted in Antwerp in 1568 while Lee was travelling in Europe. He wears the queen's colours of black and white, and his sleeves are decorated with armillary spheres (symbols of celestial harmony) and lovers' knots. The significance of his gesture is unclear but also appears in a portrait of Edward, 3rd Baron Windsor, who accompanied Lee on his travels; this, and the ring tied around his arm in the manner of a chivalric favour, may indicate an offer of love and devotion, either to the queen, a friend or a lover. Anthonis Mor was one of the most esteemed portraitists working in Europe; he had returned to the Netherlands in 1561, after being appointed principal court painter to Philip II of Spain in London in December 1554.Kentish-born Henry Lee was educated by his uncle, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, and entered royal service at the age of fourteen. As his epitaph recorded, he served five monarchs over the course of his long career and 'kept himself right and steady in many dangerous shocks and utter turns of state'. He achieved his greatest renown at the court of Elizabeth I, serving as Master of the Armoury and devising the annual Accession Day tilts on 17 November in her honour. These elaborate celebrations became the most important Elizabethan court festival and created an environment in which the court could compete for the queen's favour. This portrait was painted in Antwerp in 1568 while Lee was travelling in Europe. He wears the queen's colours of black and white, and his sleeves are decorated with armillary spheres (symbols of celestial harmony) and lovers' knots. The significance of his gesture is unclear but also appears in a portrait of Edward, 3rd Baron Windsor, who accompanied Lee on his travels; this, and the ring tied around his arm in the manner of a chivalric favour, may indicate an offer of love and devotion, either to the queen, a friend or a lover. Anthonis Mor was one of the most esteemed portraitists working in Europe; he had returned to the Netherlands in 1561, after being appointed principal court painter to Philip II of Spain in London in December 1554.

  • Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 13
  • Clare Gittings, The National Portrait Gallery Book of Elizabeth I, 2006, p. 24
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 11 Read entry

    Lee was Queen Elizabeth’s chivalric ‘champion’, but he angered her by going to live at Ditchley with his mistress. This portrait may have been partly a plea in his quest for the Queen’s forgiveness.

  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 18
  • Cooper, Tarnya; Fraser, Antonia (foreword), A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2012, p. 15 Read entry

    The portraits of Elizabethan courtiers frequently include items of costume and jewellery that were designed to show loyalty to the Queen, such as miniatures or cameos with her portrait. This portrait of the courtier Sir Henry Lee employs subtle and complex allusions to Elizabeth I and demonstrates the symbolic importance attached to costume at her court. Lee wears the Queen's personal colours of white, gold, red and black and his sleeves are decorated with armillary spheres - an emblem associated with Elizabeth I - and lovers' knots. Who the painting was commissioned for and whether the Queen ever saw it is not known. The meanings of the three gold rings tied onto red cord and worn at his wrist and upper arm and held by his thumb on his chest cannot be easily explained. The gesture would seem to indicate an offer of love either to the Queen or to a lover. Each viewer may have interpreted it differently.

  • Gittings, Clare, The National Portrait Gallery Book of The Tudors, 2006, p. 26
  • MacLeod, Catharine, Tudor Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 24
  • Nicholl, Charles, Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2005, p. 12
  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 40
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 53
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 38
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 38 Read entry

    Sir Henry Lee, one of Elizabeth I's favourite courtiers, was responsible for organising the Accession Day tilts, which were chivalric events in honour of the Queen and which became annual. He appears in this portrait with his left thumb inserted into a ring, suggesting that it was an image of love, so it is possible that it was intended as a token of his love for the Queen. Certainly, in terms of English painting, it is an unusually sophisticated image for this period, and was probably painted when Lee visited Antwerp in June 1568.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 372
  • Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 190
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 45 Read entry

    Henry Lee’s epitaph records him as a man who served ‘five succeeding princes, and kept himself right and steady in many dangerous shocks and utter turns of state’. A favourite of Elizabeth I, Lee was the Queen’s champion and supervised the famous accession day tilts, turning them into spectacular festivals.

    This portrait was probably painted in Antwerp in early June 1568 by the sought-after and supremely talented Netherlandish artist Anthonis Mor (1516–1575/6). The exceptionally subtle handling helps to create a powerful sense of presence. Lee was accompanied on this trip by Edward, 3rd Lord Windsor, whose portrait by another artist employs a similar composition (private collection). Both portraits show the sitter with his thumb through a ring suspended from a cord around his neck, a gesture that is now difficult to decipher but may relate to bonds of friendship and honour. The pattern on Lee's sleeves (depicting true-lovers' knots and armillary spheres) had a symbolic meaning as both were personal emblems of the Queen and probably refer to his role as Elizabeth I’s champion.

Placesback to top

  • Place made: Belgium (Probably Antwerp, Belgium)

Events of 1568back to top

Current affairs

Mary, Queen of Scots escapes from prison in Loch Leven. Defeated by the rebel lords under the regent James Stuart, Earl of Moray at the Battle of Langside, she escapes to England but is imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth I.
Commercial relations between England and Spain are severed after the Secretary of State Sir William Cecil (later Baron Burghley) seizes three Spanish ships carrying gold bullion, which had been driven into Plymouth by storms.

Art and science

Queen Elizabeth I's favourite Sir Henry Lee is painted by Antonis Mor while visiting Antwerp.
Robert Smythson is employed by Sir John Thynne as master mason of Longleat House, Wiltshire, completed in 1580. It is one of the masterpieces of Elizabethan architecture.

International

Eighty Years' War between Spain and Netherlands begins. Dutch Protestant rebels under Count Louis of Nassau defeat Spanish forces at the Battle of Heiligerlee but are beaten at the Battle of Jemmingen. The Dutch leader William of Orange leads an army into Brabant but withdraws after Fernando, Duke of Alva declines battle.
The Catholic priest William Allen establishes the English College at Douai, France, to train Jesuit missionaries to send to England.

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