Sir Thomas Chaloner

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Sir Thomas Chaloner

by Unknown Flemish artist
oil on panel, 1559
28 in. x 21 1/2 in. (711 mm x 546 mm)
Purchased, 1929
Primary Collection
NPG 2445

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This unusual portrait shows Chaloner in contemplation of the brevity of human life. He holds a pair of scales in his right hand which are weighted on the side of the blazing book (a symbol of intellect and learning) against the riches of the world, shown on the other side. He is also clicking the fingers of his left hand to emphasise that life passes as quickly as a finger snap. The Latin inscription refers to Sardanapalus, the legendary exemplum of the vice of intemperance. Conservation of this frame has been supported by Sir Simon and Lady Robertson.

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  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 96 Read entry

    Thomas Chaloner was a diplomat and scholar who served under four Tudor monarchs. He survived shipwreck off the coast of Algeria in 1541 and was knighted after fighting in England's defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547. He served as ambassador to Philip II in the Netherlands in 1559 and 1560, and then in Spain until 1564. He also wrote poetry and translated a number of works into English from Latin, including Desiderius Erasmus's In Praise of Foll (1549). This portrait makes little reference to Chaloner's status, noting only his title in the inscription in the lower-left corner and not the coat of arms that he was granted in 1548. Instead, the portrait is conceived in allegorical terms, with Chaloner depicted in contemplation of the brevity of human life. He holds a pair of scales that are weighted on the side of a book, a symbol of learning, against the riches of the world. He also clicks the middle finger and thumb of his left hand in a gesture that emphasises the transitory nature of life, which passes as quickly as a finger snap. The message is further emphasised in the Latin inscription that describes the realisation by the legendary king of Assyria, Sardanapalus, that earthly treasures are transitory. The inscription describes how all mortal things perish and is translated: 'they fade black and begrimed with soot as though gold were nothing else but smoke; but the mind increases with cultivation and, after death, becomes even clearer; the power is in the mind. Remaining vanities flee.'

  • Bolland, Charlotte, The Tudors Passion, Power and Politics, 2022, p. 145
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 35
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare (hardback), 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 35
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 112
  • Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 45

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Events of 1559back to top

Current affairs

Queen Elizabeth I rejects a marriage proposal from Philip II of Spain; a proposal from Charles Archduke of Austria is also declined.
Elizabeth I is crowned at Westminster Abbey.
Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity approve a new religious settlement reinstating the Protestant faith and introducing the Elizabethan Prayer Book.
Matthew Parker becomes Archbishop of Canterbury

Art and science

The Italian anatomist Matteo Realdo Colombo publishes De re anatomica (On Things Anatomical), in which he describes the pulmonary circulation of blood.


Mary Queen of Scots becomes Queen of France when her husband Francis II succeeds to the French throne.
Scottish Protestants under John Knox rebel against Queen Mary. Monasteries are sacked and royal tombs desecrated.
The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis ends the war between France, Spain and England. Spain is confirmed as the dominant power in Italy.

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