Sir Nicholas Bacon
- Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database
Sir Nicholas Bacon
by Unknown artist
oil on panel, inscribed 1579
24 3/4 in. x 19 1/4 in. (629 mm x 491 mm)
One of a number of versions of this portrait type, many of which are inscribed with the date 1579. Unusually, the portrait is painted on a walnut panel.
The portrait was purchased by the Gallery in 1863 from Reverend Herring of Colchester.
Sir Nicholas Bacon is depicted in his role as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, holding his staff of office and the 'burse', a bag containing the seal, embroidered with Elizabeth's royal coat of arms. The inscription in the upper-right corner dates the painting to 1579 and gives the sitter’s age as 68. It also includes Bacon’s motto: ‘MEDIOCRIA FIRMA’, which translates as ‘the middle course is most secure’.
Notes on attribution
None of the versions of this portrait have been securely attributed to an artist and they appear to be the work of different hands.
Justification for dating
The date and the sitter’s age are inscribed in the upper-right corner; however, it is possible that this portrait was produced posthumously, as there are a number of versions bearing the same inscription and Bacon died on 20 February 1579. The technique and materials are entirely consistent with a work from the late sixteenth century but it is not possible to date the wooden panel using dendrochronological analysis because, unusually, it is made from walnut, for which there is no reference dataset.
The wood grain is very visible on the surface of the painting, particularly in the face and hands where discoloured dark residues remain in the interstices of the grain. There is restored abrasion in the hat and the costume, and down the panel join.
The preparatory layer is very thin. It appears to have been applied in sections as an underlayer beneath each area of the composition, with a pale flesh-colour beneath the face, ruff and cuff, and a grey beneath the costume and tablecloth; there is no evidence of an overall ground layer. The paint was thinly applied and the texture of the wood grain is extremely evident. In the face, the underdrawing was applied over the underlayer and then the features and modelling were applied over this. The gilding on the rod, bag, jewel and ring was applied (over a grey mordant) at an early stage in the painting process. The paint style is simple but with some finer brushwork in parts; the handling of the inscription is notably skilful, using a paint mixture containing lead-tin yellow.
Drawing and transfer technique
Strong black underdrawing is clearly visible both with surface examination and using infrared reflectography. The features, collar, ruff, hands and cuff, and ring are all clearly outlined. It seems clear that a pattern was used, and that the strongly drawn lines were applied to reinforce transfer lines. Hairs in the beard and eyebrows, and the crease lines round the eyes and knuckles are all indicated with lighter lines, drawn freehand.
Other known versions
One of the two standard portrait types of Bacon; the other depicts him at the age of 55 in 1562.
Other versions of this type include:
- Raveningham Hall
- Cambridge University Library, 34
- Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, 3
- Gainsborough Old Hall, GANOHL 78
- Gainsborough Old Hall, GANOHL 60
- Christ Church, University of Oxford
- Government Art Collection, 5394
- Christie’s 24 July 1953, lot 63 (ex. Prince Duleep Singh)
- Christie’s 27 May 1960, lot 64 (bought Nicholls)
- Sotheby’s Renaissance sale, 11 July 1983, lot 41 (ex. Earls Colne)
- Sir Geoffrey Keynes (Lammas House)
- Petworth (National Trust)
- Christ Church, University of Oxford, LP 31
- Gorhambury (Earl of Verulam)
- sold by Sothebys 9th December 2010, ex-Clarendon collection
- Gray’s Inn
- sent by Mr E.B. Everest (sitter file)
18th century copy:
- Royal Courts of Justice by Coke
19th century copy:
- Drawing by Henry Bone after NPG 164, 1911 (NPG D17241)
Cooper, Tarnya, ‘Portrait of Sir Nicholas Bacon’ in S. Doran, ed., Elizabeth: The Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, exh. cat., 2003, no. 35, p. 48
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London, 1969, pp. 15-16
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Compare high-resolution images against the painting - mainly x-ray and infra-red photography images, but sometimes UV or raking light images - side by side with the ability to zoom in on details.
The wood grain is prominent in the paint surface, especially in the face and hands where discoloured dark residues remain in the interstices in the wood grain. Blanched residues of old varnish can be seen on the brown fur. There is restored abrasion in the hat and the costume, and down the panel join; this appears a little milky, especially on the hat. The varnish is semi-glossy, unevenly sprayed and spattered with small glossy spots.
Number of boards: 2
Panel Orientation: Vertical
Panel condition observations
The wood grain is very visible on the paint surface. The support appears to be in a stable condition. There are holes on the back at the top, the centre and the lower part where three horizontal wood battens appear to have been attached. The central join is slightly stepped and a little raised in parts. The paint surface on either side of the join was sanded down to the wood at some time (before 1974) in order to assist alignment. There are short vertical and diagonal cuts into the wood, at the lower edge, either side of the join. There is also considerable old woodworm damage on each side of the join; the damage runs down the whole of the board on the right side (seen from the back) and from the centre to the lower edge on the left side. The boards were rejoined with Resin 'W' adhesive. Filler made with cellulose fibre, sawdust and resin 'W' adhesive have been packed into some of the damage near the join.
An examination of tree rings, which can help to provide the earliest possible felling dates for the wood used for the panel. The technique can also indicate the geographical origin of the wood.
Number of boards: 2
Last date of tree ring: n/a
The walnut wood is unsuitable for dendrochronological analysis because no data exists for this material. Walnut is rarely used for panel paintings.
A technique used to identify changes in composition beneath the surface of the paint layers and to understand the physical structure of a panel or canvas.
The wood grain and the repaired join are prominent in x-ray (see x-ray mosaic 01). The broadly applied underlayers can be seen, especially on the right side of the costume. Four nail holes can be seen in rows across the top, the centre and the lower part, where battens appear to have been attached.
A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.
Carbon-based underdrawing is clearly visible using infrared reflectography. The outlines of the features, the collar ruff, the hands and the cuff are all underdrawn (see IRR mosaic01 and IRR mosaic02). It seems clear that a pattern was used, and the strongly drawn lines were probably applied to reinforce the transfer lines. Lighter, freehand lines indicate details such as hairs for the beard, the eyebrows, crease lines around the eyes and knuckles.
Investigation into microscopic pigment samples or samples of other media in order to help with dating, to reveal the order of the paint layers and help to understand the painting techniques used.
Paint samples were taken to analyse the pigments and layer structure of the painting in January 2011.
No ground layer was present in any of the paint samples.
Variations on a pale grey priming were found in samples 3, 6 and 8, mixed with lead white and carbon black and sometimes with red ochre. Priming not present in all samples.
Bag - Red and gold Tassels
Sample 3: Shows a mixture of lead white and a little carbon black beneath the red tassels, which are painted with a mixture of vermilion, intense red ochre and some carbon black.
Sample 6: Shows a thin pale grey/white priming beneath an orange layer. The orange layer appears to be the mordant for the gold leaf, made with lead white and red and yellow ochre. Gold leaf can be seen over the mordant.
Dark deposits, perhaps from an insect were noted at the lower-right edge of the coat of arms.
Sample 3: Cross-section shows a layer of greenish paint at the left of the sample, which is probably from the edge of the table cloth. It contains degraded copper green with some carbon black.
Sample 8: Shows a pale grey priming layer with lead white and carbon black, and also a little red ochre.
Sample 1: Dispersion contains unusually large and angular particle of carbon black, dark red ochre and yellow lake. The black is possibly a vine black.
Sample 7: No ground or priming is present. The paint layer contains red ochre, vermilion, lead white, carbon black, and yellow ochre, with brown earth pigments.
Sample 11: Shows the same paint mixture but with some azurite. Greenish blue lumps visible in surface examination were identified, in dispersion, as good quality azurite mixed with yellow ochre.
An examination of the construction of paint layers, glazes and condition often using a microscope. This method provides important evidence concerning an artist’s technique and paint handling and can reveal a specific artist’s characteristic painting style.
Painting style and method
The painting is simply and thinly painted, with some fine brushwork in parts. The particularly thin nature of the preparatory layer, or layers, is notable, and allows the texture of the wood grain to play a prominent role in the overall appearance of the painted surface. A considerable amount of discoloured varnish remains in the interstices of the textured wood grain.
There does not appear to be a ground layer (see micro 19), or an overall priming layer. Instead, each area of the composition seems to have a different underlayer. Some paint samples show a pale grey layer of varying thickness, with variation also in the pigment mix; the pale grey contains lead white and carbon black in some areas and in others the grey also contains red ochre (see Paint sampling). It seems that this tonal variation was intended to provide an appropriate coloured underlayer for each area of the composition: the black sleeves, hat and brown fur appear to have a white underlayer; the flesh, ruff and cuff have a pale flesh-coloured underlayer; and the tablecloth has a grey underlayer. The background appears to have been applied directly over the wood in some areas, and on parts of the left side there is unevenly applied white paint beneath the background paint. The gilded areas also have an orange layer, which acts as a mordant; this layer is mixed with lead white, a little black, and yellow and red ochre. The underdrawing appears to have been applied above these layers using a sparkly black, which has the appearance of charcoal black in a liquid medium (see micro 05). The lines indicate that a pattern was used, but some parts are drawn freehand, such as the side of the beard (see micro 06).
The face appears to have been blocked in with a pale flesh colour (see micro 18) and the underdrawing that defines most of the facial features was applied over this. The flesh was modelled very thinly using lead white, charcoal black, vermilion and yellow ochre. For areas of shadow a higher proportion of black and earth pigment were added. In areas of deep shadow, a brown grey was used to define the features (around the nose and lips for example) made with a mixture of charcoal black, lead white, earth pigments, a little vermilion and red lake (see micro 03).
The eyes were drawn above the basic flesh colour and additional flesh paint was applied over this with softly blended brushstrokes (see micro 02). The whites of the eyes were painted with black and white and the iris appears to be painted with charcoal black, white and a little earth pigment. The pupils are painted with the same mixture with a higher proportion of vermilion. The shadow around the eyes was painted with dark brown made with black, earth pigments, vermilion and perhaps some red lake.
The left side of the lips is very abraded where the paint has been worn down to the wooden support when the panel was rejoined. This occurred at some point before the last restoration.
Beard and hair
The beard and hair are very thinly painted above the flesh paint, using fine brushstrokes of grey, white and brown, applied wet-in-wet (see micro 16).
The costume is underpainted with grey. The passages of brown fur appear to have been applied first, with soft, multi-directional brushstrokes providing the texture and movement in the fur (see micro 08). Darker fur paint was then applied wet-in-wet to create shadow and definition. The dark brown/black passages of the costume were then applied. Where the brown fur reaches the black sleeves, the dark sleeve paint was softly brushed over the brown using a stiff brush, to create the appearance of the fur edging.
Ruff and cuff
The underpaint for the flesh also lies under the ruff and cuff (see micro 16). The underdrawing was applied over the underlayer, and the ruff and cuff were painted over this (see micro 05). The underdrawing was used to define the folds, and shadows were then created using pale grey (see micro 04). The highlights were painted with white containing a little charcoal black and earth pigments, blended wet-in-wet (see micro 12). There is some wear in the upper paint layers; however, it appears that the pink underlayer to the ruff and cuff was always intended to show through as a warm mid-tone.
The tablecloth appears to have been underpainted using a pale grey. A reasonably thick layer of copper green glaze was applied above this and soft brushstrokes of lead-tin yellow, and perhaps a little earth pigment, were used to create highlights and folds when it was still wet.
Rod and jewel and seal bag
The gilded areas were applied over an orange layer, made with lead white, charcoal black and red and yellow ochre, which had been applied at a very early stage. The detail, shadow and definition on the rod of office were painted with a translucent brown mixture containing black, lead white, red and earth pigments (see micro 09) and there is evident underdrawing. The pendant dragon jewel was applied in the same way as the rod, with red lake glazes for the rubies and copper green glaze for the emeralds (see micro 13). There is a large gem in the centre of the jewel which is now a milky colour and may contain discoloured smalt. The ribbon for the dragon jewel is almost entirely overpainted, with blue highlights, but it seems to have originally been grey/brown with highlights made with black, white and a little red (see micro 20).
The same techniques were used for the seal bag; the paint mixtures contain vermilion, azurite, charcoal black, red lake, and copper green glaze (see micro 14 and micro 15). Underdrawing can be seen throughout. The red areas were painted first with an opaque layer containing red, black and white. A red lake glaze was applied above this, but much of this has been lost through abrasion.
All details of the ring are underdrawn. The ring was quite freely painted using vermilion, lead-tin yellow, azurite and lead white; the vermilion shows some signs of discolouration. The detail on the ring was defined with a dark brown glaze (see micro 10).
The background was painted brown, made from a mix of different pigments. This brown was applied directly onto the wooden panel, apart from some parts on the right which were painted over thin, unevenly applied white or pale pink (see micro 19).
There is a drawn line under the inscription which is very slightly incised into the paint beneath (see micro 17). The inscription is skilfully painted with a mixture containing lead-tin yellow, with notably fine brushwork.
Order of construction
- No apparent ground
- Underlayers applied in some areas directly onto the wood
- Mordant for gilding
- Gilding applied
- Bag, rod, jewel painted
- Fur edging after the background
- Green tablecloth
Lead white, charcoal black (possibly vine black), vermilion, red ochre, red lake, azurite, possible smalt, copper green glaze, lead-tin yellow, yellow lake, yellow ochre, earth pigments
Changes in composition/pentimenti
During painting there appears to have been some slight change made to the top edge of the hat .
The sanded down paint either side of the panel join has been restored. One of the ties for the ruff was probably lost from this area when it was sanded, as only three are now present and not four. Restoration on the hat is a little milky. The varnish has an uneven, sprayed appearance.
A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.
The varnish fluoresces unevenly in ultra violet light (see UV01). It appears to have been partially removed and the old varnish remains in an uneven layer. The most recent restoration down the central join appears dark in ultra violet light; lighter toned restoration, which is less recent, can be seen in the hat and down the right-hand side of the paint surface.