Arthur Capel, 1st Earl of Essex; Elizabeth, Countess of Essex

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© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Arthur Capel, 1st Earl of Essex; Elizabeth, Countess of Essex

by Sir Peter Lely
oil on canvas, circa 1655-1660
50 1/8 in. x 67 3/8 in. (1274 mm x 1712 mm)
Purchased, 1981
Primary Collection
NPG 5461

Sittersback to top

Artistback to top

  • Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), Portrait painter. Artist or producer associated with 843 portraits, Sitter in 19 portraits.

This portraitback to top

The Earl holds a sword, the symbol of his military prowess, while the glass globe in the Countess's lap is probably intended to symbolise the fragility of human affairs. The classical bust in the background perhaps represents a Stoic philosopher, and underlines the portrait's moral tone.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 209
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 54, 153 Read entry

    Carved and gilt oak, irregularly chamfered at the back, mason's mitre, the pine back frame lap jointed with bevelled edge, though with the top and bottom ends of the side timbers removed, some guide lines visible at bottom corners, the extremities of the carving planted at the corners and at the main projections on the sides, the remains of fittings for hanging in the form of a U-pin and holes at left and a cord at right. 4 1⁄ 2 to 6 1⁄ 4 inches wide.

    This sea-monster-and-shells pattern, an early type of Sunderland frame, was favoured by Peter Lely and some other artists in the 1650s. It is found on a large scale on NPG 5461 and on Lely's portrait of Sir John Cotton and Family (Manchester City Art Gallery), as a three-quarter length on the Lely studio Charles II at Ham House and as a half-length.1 In each case the same basic elements are repeated. Other Capel family portraits, which once hung in the Great Library at Cassiobury, including the portrait of Mary Capel and her sister (Metropolitan Museum, New York), have similar frames.

    1 The portrait of the Cotton Family is reproduced with frame in Oliver Millar, Sir Peter Lely 1618-80, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, 1978, no.30.

Events of 1655back to top

Current affairs

Secretary of State, John Thurloe, implements a highly efficient intelligence service and thwarts plans for a series of royalist uprisings which produced only Penruddock's revolt.
Following ineffectual royalist riots, Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, appoints nineteen Major-generals to manage regional government and prevent future challenges to the protectorate.

Art and science

Publication of the controversial work De corpore, by philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, prompts mathematician, John Wallis to scornfully refute the work in Elenchus geometriae Hobbianae, starting a bitter, long-running polemical dispute between the two men.


General Robert Venables and Admiral William Penn lead an expedition to the Caribbean to threaten Spanish trade routes and weaken Catholic influence in the New World. An integral part of Cromwell's foreign policy to curb Spanish power, the campaign, Cromwell's 'western design', fails leading to war in Europe.

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