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Ralph Simons (Symons)

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Ralph Simons (Symons)

by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, transferred from original panel, circa 1595
22 3/8 in. x 16 7/8 in. (567 mm x 430 mm) overall
Purchased, 2016
Primary Collection
NPG 7021

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

Simons is depicted at bust length, holding a pair of dividers in his right hand. These take the form of a dagger when closed and would have been used for marking measurements on the ground rather than drawing; surviving Italian examples can be found in the Wallace Collection and the Museo Galileo. Simons wears a brown leather jerkin with embroidered detailing and decorative tabs at the sleeves, and a figure of eight ruff; blackwork stitching is visible on his cuffs. The clothes are simple in comparison to the lavish silks worn by late Elizabethan courtiers, but the detailing and ruff nonetheless signify his relatively elevated status. The style of the ruff suggests that the portrait dates to the mid-1590s and this is supported by the fact that the inscription on the copy of the portrait does not refer to his work at St John’s, which began in 1598.

Linked publicationsback to top

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  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 133 Read entry

    Ralph Simons was a mason–architect who was responsible for the construction and redesign of a number of colleges at Cambridge University. His Second Court at St John's College still survives, along with his drawings relating to the commission. His career spanned a crucial moment in the development of the architectural profession. The term 'architect' first appeared in English in John Shute's The First and Chief Groundes of Architecture (1563) but was not widely used until the seventeenth century. However, an early copy of this portrait records an inscription that was probably on the original frame of this work, which described Simons as 'the most skilful architect of his time'. Simons is depicted holding a pair of dividers in his right hand that would have taken the form of a dagger when closed; this would have been used for marking measurements on the ground rather than drawing. His clothes are simple in comparison to the lavish silks worn by courtiers, but the detailing on the leather jerkin and the delicacy of the ruff signify his relatively elevated status. The style of the ruff suggests that the portrait dates to the mid-1590s, and this is supported by the fact that the inscription on the copy of the portrait does not refer to his work at St John's, which began in 1598.

Events of 1595back to top

Current affairs

The Nine Years War begins in Ireland. The Earl of Tyrone leads an uprising against the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. He appeals to the Catholic Philip II of Spain for assistance.
Spanish ships land in Cornwall sparking fears of a new Armada. They burn Penzance and Mousehole but then flee.
The Jesuit poet and Catholic martyr Robert Southwell is executed for treason. His Saint Peter's Complaint and Other Poems is posthumously published.

Art and science

Sir Walter Ralegh sets out on a voyage to Guiana (now Venezuela) to find the mythic land of 'El Dorado' where there was said to be large amounts of gold. His search is unsuccessful.
Sir Francis Drake sails for the West Indies.
William Shakespeare writes Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream at about his time.
Portrait of the poet and clergyman John Donne is painted at about this time.


Battle of Fontaine-Française- Henry IV of France defeats the Spanish army and the remnants of the French Catholic League under Charles, Duke of Mayenne.
Sigmund Báthory, Prince of Transylvania and Michael the Brave, Prince of Wallachia defeat the Ottoman army at the Guirgevo (in present-day Romania).
Mehmed III succeeds Murad III as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

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