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Sir Henry Unton

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Sir Henry Unton

by Unknown artist
oil on panel, circa 1596
29 1/8 in. x 64 1/4 in. (740 mm x 1632 mm)
Purchased, 1884
Primary Collection
NPG 710

Sitterback to top

  • Sir Henry Unton (circa 1558-1596), Soldier and diplomat. Sitter in 1 portrait.

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

This highly unusual narrative portrait of Unton's life was commissioned as a posthumous commemoration by his widow Dorothy Wroughton, and is recorded in her will (1634). At the heart of the composition is the portrait of Unton, flanked by figures of Fame (top left) and Death (top right), and surrounded by scenes from his life and death. These are (anti-clockwise, starting in the bottom right hand corner): 1. As an infant in the arms of his mother, Anne Seymour, formerly Countess of Warwick, at the Unton house of Ascott-under-Wychwood. 2. Studying at Oriel College, Oxford, where he took his degree in 1573. 3. Travelling beyond the Alps to Venice and Padua (1570s). 4. Serving with Leicester in the Netherlands (1585-6), with Nijmegen in the distance. 5. On his embassy to Henry IV at Coucy La Fère in northwest France, in an unsuccessful attempt to avert a peace treaty between France and Spain (1595-6). 6 On his deathbed, with a physician sent by Henry IV. 7. His body brought back to England across the Channel in a black ship. 8. His hearse on its way back to his home at Wadley House, Faringdon, near Oxford. 9. (centre right) Unton's life at Wadley House, with scenes showing him sitting in his study (top), talking with learned divines (bottom left), making music (above left), and presiding over a banquet, while a masque of Mercury and Diana is performed, accompanied by musicians. From the house his funeral procession leads, past a group of the poor and lame lamenting his death, to : 10. (left) Faringdon Church with this funeral (8 July 1596) in progress, and, in the foreground, his monument with Unton's recumbent effigy and the kneeling figure of his widow. More detailed information about this portrait from the Making Art in Tudor Britain research project.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • I-Spy National Portrait Gallery, 2010, pp. 10-11
  • Tudor Portraits Resource Pack, p. 32
  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 100 Read entry

    Sir Henry Unton was a soldier and diplomat. He travelled to Italy in the 1570s and served with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the Netherlands in the mid-1580s and as ambassador to France in the 1590s. His close association with Henry IV of France is demonstrated in the cameo portrait of the French king that he wears in the painting; when he became ill in France, the king sent his personal physician to attend to him but to no avail. The portrait records the events of Unton's life and death: from his birth at Ascott-under-Wychwood in the lower-right corner to the kneeling figure of his widow in mourning by his monument in Faringdon Church in the lower-left corner. Unton appears in each scene and is picked out by a ray of light from the sun in the upper-right corner. The painting also contains a number of unusual depictions of life within his household, with scenes showing him sitting in his study, making music and presiding over a banquet, while a masque of Mercury and Diana is performed. The painting was listed in his wife's will in 1634, where it was described as a 'story picture' and was clearly an independent framed painting; however, its unusual composition and structure indicate that it may have originally formed part of a temporary memorial to Unton.

  • Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 15
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 13 Read entry

    Unton was an MP, soldier and diplomat who represented Elizabeth I in France, where he died on duty. His posthumous reward was the funeral of a baron, two steps up the ladder from his knighthood.

  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 110
  • Cooper, Tarnya; Fraser, Antonia (foreword), A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2012, p. 24 Read entry

    This painting tells the story of the life and death of the Elizabethan soldier and diplomat Henry Unton. This type of English narrative painting is highly unusual and Unton is portrayed at least ten times in various scenes from his life and death.

    The action is arranged in a magazine-like style with small consecutive scenes painted around three dominant features: Unton’s portrait (centre), his house near Oxford (right) and the church where he was buried (left). The story begins at the bottom right corner where we see Unton as a baby in his mother’s arms, and then above studying at Oxford University and travelling abroad in Italy – the word ‘venis’ [Venice] is marked top right. This is followed to the left by his military service in the Low Countries and his deathbed in France. The long funeral procession, with its file of sombre mourners dressed in black moving towards the church, takes up most of the lower half of the painting.

    This idiosyncratic portrait was probably commissioned by his widow Dorothy after Sir Henry Unton’s death in 1596 as an elaborate memorial to his achievements.

  • Gibson, Robin, The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, 1998, p. 24
  • Gittings, Clare, The National Portrait Gallery Book of The Tudors, 2006, p. 29
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 108
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, pp. 110-111 Read entry

    Sir Henry Unton was a Member of Parliament, Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant in his home county of Berkshire, a representative of that ambitious, hard-working class upon which the post-Reformation Tudor monarchy depended for the day-by-day management of the country. While serving as an ambassador for Elizabeth I in France he died of the bubonic plague on 23 March 1596. His death on royal service entitled him, although only a knight, to the heraldic funeral of a baron, two rungs higher up the ladder. Unton's wife, Lady Dorothy, commissioned this memorial painting to celebrate the versatility of his achievements and the status-enhancing grandeur of his funeral.

    The picture is a rite of passage from earthly business to the calm of immortality. The composition allows viewers to construct their own version of the narrative within these overall parameters. You might be drawn in to the story by Unton's pale face and dark eyes, then down to the bright elaboration of the tomb and back through his funeral to view his life in flashback - a much-favoured movie format. Or, to continue the cinematic analogy, the activity in his house might serve as an establishing shot leading into the scene where his mother presents him beneath her coat-of-arms as a favoured child, followed by scenes of the young gentleman going to Oxford University, crossing the Channel to further his education in Italy and soldiering in the Low Countries before dying painfully in France as the doctors desperately bleed him. Back sails his corpse in a mourning ship before the long haul across-country to Berkshire, where sad representatives of all gradations of local society sit under trees on which hang heraldic speech-bubbles saying things like: 'This life grows worse and worse … - He is dead and gone - … Never greater grief.'

    The painting is described above as oil on panel. It is, in fact, painted on three pieces of wood joined horizontally, the smaller lowest one, 93mm high, being of oak (the usual material for panels of this period) and the other two working upwards, 212 and 415mm respectively, being of lime or walnut.

  • MacLeod, Catharine, Tudor Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 33
  • Nicholl, Charles, Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2005, p. 14
  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 52
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 68
  • Robin Gibson, Pets in Portraits, 2015, p. 46 Read entry

    Commissioned by his widow, Dorothy, this remarkable painting tells the life story of Sir Henry Unton, an Elizabethan soldier and diplomat who died during a mission to France.

    The story begins at the bottom right, where after entering a house through the porch, the first scene portrays Sir Henry’s early infancy. His mother, who like the rest of the important figures in the painting is portrayed larger than the other women in the room, was Lady Anne Seymour, niece of Henry VIII’s Queen, Jane, and widow of the executed Earl of Warwick. This family connection with the highest in the land would have been of great importance to Unton’s widow, and his father, Sir Edward, a mere country gentleman, makes no appearance in the painting at all. All the women in the room, including the nurse on the right and the two lady relatives on the left, wear costume of the date of Unton’s death, rather than the late 1550s when Sir Henry was born.

    At the foot of the cradle, lying on the woven rush matting between the stool and the settee, is a little white dog. With its shaggy mane and shaved body, it is probably one of the now rare little lion dogs, a breed that was popular throughout the courts and great houses of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe. Unton himself could well have brought back a dog like this as a present for his wife from his first diplomatic mission to France in 1592. Far from being excluded from the bedrooms and ladies’ chambers of the time, such dogs would have been positively welcomed in the belief that they would attract both fevers and parasites away from their owners to themselves. Indeed, it is documented that when Sir Henry was dying, the doctor sent by Henry IV of France to attend to him prescribed live pigeons to be placed on his sores for precisely this purpose.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 628
  • Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 315
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, pp. 56 - 57 Read entry

    This extraordinary narrative portrait is the best-known image of the distinguished soldier and diplomat Henry Unton, and includes numerous scenes from his eventful life. In 1586 he served in the army of the Earl of Leicester in the Netherlands, with Sir Philip Sidney, and in the 1590s he was the resident ambassador to France, twice leading negotiations with its King, Henry IV.

    Unton is depicted in several narrative scenes presented in an anti-clockwise direction around his portrait. From bottom right, they show his birth, his study at Oxford, his journey across the Alps to Venice and Padua, his military service in the Netherlands, his death while ambassador in France and his funerary procession and burial in Oxfordshire. The painting was commissioned after Unton’s death by his widow Dorothy, née Wroughton, and may have originally served as a painted funeral monument before a permanent stone memorial was installed at Faringdon Church in 1606. On the table in front of him appears to be a cameo jewel depicting Henry IV of France (previously identified as Elizabeth I).

Placesback to top

Events of 1596back to top

Current affairs

Fears of Spanish invasion of England and Ireland.
An expedition under Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and Charles Howard, Baron Howard of Effingham sacks Cádiz, Spain.
Robert Cecil (later Earl of Salisbury) is made Secretary of State.
Sir Francis Drake dies from fever during an expedition to attack Spanish territories in the New World.

Art and science

The poet and administrator Edmund Spenser publishes the last three books of The Faerie Queene, an epic allegorical poem in praise of Queen Elizabeth I.
The unusual narrative portrait of the soldier and diplomat Henry Unton is commissioned by his widow.
The actor and theatre manager James Burbage builds Blackfriars Theatre, London.


Spanish forces capture Calais, France.
The Battle of Keresztes - Mehmed III, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire defeats the combined forces of Sigmund Báthory, Prince of Transylvania and Maximilian, Archduke of Austria.
Sigismund III of Poland transfers the capital of Poland from Kraków to Warsaw.

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07 October 2017, 23:23

The death ritual is an extended process, a rite of passage rather than a single moment or event. The Unton picture is not a portrait in the modern sense but it is a complex representation of Sir Henry Unton's life, his dying and his death. And, it illustrates how cultures construct meanings for death from combinations of religious teaching and personal experience...

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