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Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

by Nicholas Hilliard
watercolour on vellum, circa 1590
2 1/8 in. (54 mm) diameter
Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1988
Primary Collection
NPG 5994


Traces of red lake pigment in the profile and…
Detail of the right eye.
Detail of the rose and honeysuckle in the sit…
Detail showing the necklaces of pearls and bl…

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), Miniature painter. Artist associated with 34 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This miniature dates from the 1590s, when Mary's literary activity was at its height. She wears a fashionable cartwheel ruff and the roses and honeysuckle in her hair and on her bodice are suggestive of summer (see detail). The beads of her necklace are burnished silver highlights which have oxidised over time and turned black. The portrait is executed in watercolour on vellum stuck onto a playing card from the suit of clubs.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Tudor Portraits Resource Pack, p. 35
  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 25 Read entry

    Mary Sidney (1561-1621), the younger sister of Philip Sidney, was one of the first English women to achieve a major reputation for her poetry and literary patronage. As a child, she received a humanist education and became fluent in French, Italian and Latin. She collaborated with, and encouraged, her brother in his writing, and after his death became a noted supporter of the writers to whom he had acted as patron. Herbert supervised the 1593 and 1598 editions of her brother’s Arcadia, and completed the paraphrasing of the Psalms that he had begun. Antonius, her translation of Robert Garnier’s Marc Antoine, was the first dramatisation of the story of Antony and Cleopatra in England, and one of the first English dramas in blank verse.

  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 114 Read entry

    Mary Sidney, sister of Philip, was married at sixteen to Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, who was nearly thirty years her senior. They lived primarily at Wilton, their country house near Salisbury, which became a centre for learning and poetry; Philip Sidney wrote The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia there. As a woman, Mary was barred from participating in her brother's funeral ceremonies following his death in the Netherlands, and so she chose to honour his memory through her literary patronage. She oversaw the definitive edition of Arcadia (1593), completed Philip's paraphrasing of the Psalms, translated works of which he would have approved and offered patronage to the writers who elegised him. As a result, she was the first non-royal Englishwoman to receive literary dedications and was celebrated by John Donne, Michael Drayton, William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser among others. Mary was said to be beautiful and to resemble her brother. The identification of the sitter in this miniature is probable rather than certain, but the likeness is comparable to a later engraved portrait of Mary by Simon de Passe, dated 1618. The miniature dates from the 1590s, when Mary's literary activity was at its height. She wears a fashionable cartwheel ruff, and the roses and honeysuckle in her hair and on her bodice are suggestive of summer.

  • Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 70
  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 114
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 186
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare (hardback), 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 186
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 97
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 114 Read entry

    Mary Herbert was the devoted younger sister and literary companion of Sir Philip Sidney and suggested to him the composition of his poem Arcadia. After his death in battle in 1586, she took over his patronage of many men of letters, and revised and added to Arcadia which was published in 1590. This miniature, like most miniatures of the Tudor period, is painted on vellum stuck down on a playing card.

  • MacLeod, Catharine, Tudor Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 35
  • MacLeod, Catharine; Rab, MacGibbon; Button, Victoria; Coombs, Katherine; Derbyshire, Alan, Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures from Hilliard and Oliver, 2019 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 21 February - 19 May 2019), p. 72
  • Nicholl, Charles, Character Sketches: Elizabethan Writers, 1997, p. 30
  • Nicholl, Charles, Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2005, p. 56
  • Rogers, Malcolm, Master Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery, 1993 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 5 August to 23 October 1994), p. 11
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 487
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 73
  • Walker, Richard, Miniatures: 300 Years of the English Miniature, 1998, p. 22 Read entry

    'The subject of all verse/Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother ...' Lady Pembroke was the Urania of Edmund Spenser's poem Colin Clout's Come Home Again (1598), the friend and patron of Samuel Daniel, Nicholas Breton, Ben Jonson and other poets, and is being praised above in her epitaph by Sir William Browne.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1590back to top

Current affairs

King James VI of Scotland brings his wife Anne of Denmark to Edinburgh for her coronation at Holyrood Abbey.
Death of Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I's Principal Secretary and spymaster.
The colonial governor John White returns to Roanoke Island (in present day North Carolina, USA) to find the settlement deserted. The lost colonists include his granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child to be born in America.

Art and science

The courtier, poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney's pastoral romance Arcadia is published posthumously. It is one of the first English vernacular works to achieve a European readership, with translations into French, German, Dutch and Italian.
The poet and administrator Edmund Spenser publishes the first three books of The Faerie Queene, an epic allegorical poem in praise of Queen Elizabeth I.


Henry IV of France defeats the Catholic League under Charles, Duke of Mayenne at the Battle of Ivry. The King marches on Paris before being driven back by Catholic forces sent by Philip II of Spain.
Abbas I, Shah of Persia makes peace with the Ottoman Empire, allowing him to campaign agaist the Uzbeks.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi defeats the Hojo clan at the Siege of Odawara, Japan. The victory completes Hideyoshi's military reunification of Japan.

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