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Sir William Butts

1 of 7 portraits of Sir William Butts

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Sir William Butts, after Hans Holbein the Younger, late 16th century, based on a work of circa 1540-1543 - NPG 210 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Sir William Butts

after Hans Holbein the Younger
oil on panel, late 16th century, based on a work of circa 1540-1543
18 1/2 in. x 14 3/4 in. (470 mm x 375 mm)
NPG 210


New Date: 1571-1603

Key findings: Very thinly painted English workshop painting.

Historical summary
Purchased in 1866 from E. Daniell, who bought the painting from a dealer in Bury St. Edmunds. Daniell offered it to the Gallery alongside a copy of a companion portrait of Lady Butts, which was declined, being at Raveningham Hall, Norfolk (Strong, 1969, p. 33).

The original Holbein portrait on which this painting is based is now in the collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. It originally formed a pair with a portrait of Butt’s wife. A preparatory drawing for the original painting of Lady Butts is now in the Royal Collection. It is likely the preparatory drawing for William Butts’s portrait was used in the making of a group portrait by Holbein (or his assistants) of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company in 1541. Strong argued that the National Portrait Gallery painting was a good, near contemporary copy of the original, possibly made for a junior branch of the family. However, the technical analysis for this study has proved that this portrait must date from the Elizabethan period. This indicates that Elizabethan patrons commissioned portraits of early Tudor sitters.

Notes on likely authorship
On the basis of style, the painting appears to be by an English workshop.

Commentary on painting style, technique
The portrait is very thinly painted, especially in the face. There is a thin brown layer under the flesh tones. Very fine brushes have been used for details such as the thin white hairs visible against the sitter’s black hat. Elements of the costume have been very economically painted. The fur has been executed with very thin brushes to mark individual hairs and create texture. Most of the background is now pale blue due to considerable fading of the indigo pigment, but the colour is well preserved at the top and left edges where it has been protected by the frame rebate.

Justification for dating
Dendochronology has identified the date of the last tree ring on the panel as being 1563. This means that the work cannot have been made before this time. It is likely that it dates from the period 1571 to 1603.

Drawing and transfer technique
No underdrawing was visible using infrared reflectography which may be due to the painting technique (see above). The close match of this portrait to the original suggests that a pattern has been used.

Relevance to other known versions
- Original Holbein hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, P21e1
- a version of this portrait was sold at Sotheby’s on 6 April 1993 (lot 11). It previously belonged to the Wodehouse family of Kimberley Castle, Norfolk and before that, the Rev. A.C. Lawson in whose sale it appeared at Christie’s on 27 May 1960 (lot 70). This version shows signs of having been produced from a pattern using pouncing (Foister, 2004, p.70). The dotted chalk marks which are clearly visible on this version appear to be absent from NPG 210, suggesting that a carbon paper method of copying may have been used instead. However, both portraits are virtually identical in outline with only a slight variation in the area of the chin (Foister, 2004, p. 70).
- there is a version at the Royal College of Physicians attributed to George Richmond after Holbein, which they acquired in 1946.
- Strong references a version in the collection on F. H. M. Fitzroy Newdegate at Arbury (Strong, 1969, p. 34).
- a version was sold to Major Henry B Trevor Cox for £70 at Sotheby’s on 18 May 1966 (lot 70).
- another version is recorded as being in the collection of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Foister, Susan, ‘Workshop or Followers? Underdrawing in Some Portraits Associated with Hans Holbein the Younger’, Le Dessin sous-jacent dans la Peinture: Colloque IX, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1991, pp. 113-124
Foister, Susan, Holbein and England, 2004, p. 70
Starkey, David, Henry VIII: A European Court in England, National Maritime Museum, 1991, p. 143, (no. XI.4)
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp. 33-4
Catalogue of the Exhibition of Works by Holbein and other Masters of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Royal Academy of Arts, 1950, p. 41 (no. 66)


X-ray mosaic 01. X-ray image of the whole pai…
IRR mosaic 01. Infrared reflectogram mosaic o…
Micro 01. Detail of the eye on the left (7.1…
Micro 03. Detail of the edge, showing the fad…
Micro 04. Detail of fur showing wet-in-wet ap…
Micro 05. Detail showing the build up of fles…
Micro 06. Detail showing the fine brushstroke…
Micro 07. Detail showing possible underdrawin…
Micro 08. Detail of the top of the hat, showi…
Micro 09. Detail showing the grey preparation…
Micro 11. Link in the chain, showing gilding…
Micro 12. Detail showing preserved blue pigme…
Micro 13. Detail of gradual fading of blue pi…
Micro 14. Detail of localised red used in the…
Micro 15. Grey priming layer visible between…
Micro 16. Detail of earlobe, showing the use…
Micro 17. Detail of hat where the brown under…

Compare Images (what's this? )

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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.

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The painting is in a reasonable condition. The panel is stable but has suffered extensive woodworm damage in the past, especially along the join. As a result the panel has been thinned and an extensive cradle applied that covers most of the reverse. The paint layers have suffered from extensive and repeated tenting. Areas of tented paint are still visible, although stable. Retouchings are visible in the background, particularly along the join, and in the black costume. Retouchings in other areas are less obvious and the varnish is in a good condition with an even gloss.


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 2

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

The panel has suffered from woodworm infestation. It has been thinned and a cradle has been applied. In x-ray there appears to be damage along both outer edges, especially the right-hand edge, as well as along the join. A section of the upper-right corner has split and been fixed back on with a panel pin. The reverse has been thinned and shows evidence of previous woodworm infestation. The cradle covers the majority of the back of the panel.

Dendrochronology (what's this? )


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: 1563


The boards are in normal vertical alignment and were labelled A and B from the left (from the front). Board A was measured and found to match eastern Baltic reference data. It was not necessary to measure board B. The date of the last ring on board A was identified as 1563 and adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings suggests that board A cannot have been felled before 1571. However, although no sapwood was present, the last ring on board A was slightly more pale and friable than the rest which would indicate the onset of sapwood rings. If this is correct then the addition of the maximum expected amount of missing sapwood suggests that this board is likely to have been felled before 1587, giving a likely felling date range of 1571-1587. At 283 mm wide board A is within the typical width range for boards used in panel paintings. As the measured board is within the typical width range for panels and this picture is undated, it is suitable to apply an Eastern Baltic 8-40 year LEHR- usage range to this panel; this gives a conjectural usage-date range of 1571-1603.

X-radiography (what's this? )


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.

Broad brushstrokes can be seen in different directions across the whole of the panel and these dominate the x-ray image, and can also be seen with the naked eye. This is presumed to be the lead containing preparation layer on the panel. The painting is very thinly painted and the upper paint layers do not show up very well in x-ray; this is also partly due to the lead based priming. Brushstrokes in the flesh are particularly difficult to make out. The hat and cloak show up dark in the x-ray. There are no signs of pentimenti. Damages along the join are very clear as well as small losses around the edge of the panel. These areas are now retouched, as noted in the surface examination. At the upper-right corner, two nails can be seen holding a fragment of panel in place. The large cradle on the reverse is also clearly visible (see x-ray mosaic 01).

Infrared reflectography (what's this? )

Infra-Red Reflectographyclose

A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.

No underdrawing was visible in infrared reflectography, but this could be due to the painting technique (see Surface examination).

For her article on the reproduction of Holbein portraits, Susan Foister took a tracing from the NPG version and compared it to another version of Dr Butts in a private collection and to the Barber-Surgeons painting. All three outlines closely matched (see IRR mosaic 01).

Paint sampling (what's this? )

Paint Samplingclose

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 2009.

Preparation layers
The upper part of the chalk ground has the typical darker appearance of chalk more heavily saturated with glue, or oil. The priming layer contains white lead with traces of lamp black and red lead and appears to be a pale, warm grey colour.

Black coat
Sample 4: Cross-section shows the chalk ground, the priming containing white lead and some traces of black and red lead, and the coat painted with lamp black. The black appears to be very fine particled lamp black which can be seen in agglomerates in the dispersion.

Chain with gold
Sample 3: The chain was presumed to have been painted with shell gold. The cross-section shows several layers. There are three warm-toned layers over the lead white priming. The lowest layer is light brown containing a mixture of earth colours, the next layer is darker and contains mostly red and some black, the top layer is a mixed orange underlayer for gold. Tiny traces of gold were found on the surface which appear to be shell gold.

Background blue
Sample 1: The sample was taken from an area where the blue had not obviously changed and become paler on the surface with time. The blue colour on the surface has been strengthened by mixing good quality indigo with smaller quantities of lead white. In the cross-section the blue appears to have been applied in two layers, the upper layer is mixed with a higher proportion of lead white than in the lower layer which is a more intense blue.

Surface examination (what's this? )

Surface Examinationclose

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 thinly painted and has the appearance of a drawing, especially in the face.

Preparation layers
There is a chalk ground layer. A thin grey priming layer is visible in some areas and appears to cover the whole panel (see micro 09 and micro 15). It has been applied over the ground with a stiff brush or tool which has created horizontal striations in the layer. This horizontal texture is visible in the upper paint layers and is prominent in the flesh paint. No underdrawing was visible in infrared reflectography. However, it may be hard to see due to the painting technique, as discussed below (see micro 07).

Paint layer structure
Flesh paint
Under the flesh tones there is a thin layer of brown paint. This was possibly a modelling layer and has been used to build up the flesh paint. It has been left visible as mid-tones and shadows in the features of the sitter (see micro 05, micro 11 and micro 16). The flesh paint is very thinly applied in small, hatched strokes (see micro 01 and micro 06). The sitter's features have been finished off/emphasised by a black line in very dry paint - looking almost like a drawn charcoal line. The painting is very finely executed and looks almost like a drawing. Very fine brushes have been used for details such as the thin white hairs visible against the sitter's black hat.

Elements of the costume have been very economically painted. The ribbon on the hat has been emphasised by allowing the brown underlayer to show through, acting as a highlight (see micro 17). A lighter grey paint and crack lines have also been used to mark this detail. The fur has been finely executed with very thin brushes to mark individual hairs and to create texture by fine wet-in-wet blending (see micro 04). Tiny red brushstrokes can be seen under magnification in localised areas of the fur (see micro 14).

A reserve has been left for the chain in the black costume. The brown underlayer of paint has been used as a base. Individual links are marked out with a grey/brown paint (see micro 11). Highlights have been applied with gilding - this appears to be shell gold as it has a matte appearance. The gilding is abraded in many areas and was probably more extensive originally. Black paint has then been applied as shadows where it is mixed wet-in-wet with the grey/brown paint in some areas. Black paint has also been applied very precisely as the black cloth between the links of the chain.

The background is now pale blue due to the considerable fading of the blue indigo pigment. However, at the edges the blue is still strong where it was protected from light by the frame rebate. The blue is darkest at the top and left edges where the paint was evidently covered entirely by the frame rebate, but the fading is graded at the left edge where the exposed edge of the paint surface was probably partially protected by shadow cast by the frame (see micro 03, micro 12 and micro 13). The background has been applied in two layers. Under magnification small chips can be seen in some areas in the upper layer and a darker layer of paint is visible underneath. The upper layer appears to contain more white pigment particles than the lower. It seems that the upper layer of the background was painted last. Brushstrokes have been painted up and around the figure and in some instances go over the black paint of the clothing (see micro 08).

Order of construction
- White chalk ground layer
- Pale grey priming layer
- Brown underlayer - under figure
- White collar
- Flesh modelling
- Black costume
- Details of features
- Chain
- Upper background layer painted last

Indigo, lamp black, lead white, red lead, earth pigments

Other observations
Lead soaps can be seen in the paint of the hair and in the blacks, likely to be coming up from a ground layer.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.

Observation under ultra violet light shows the extensive retouching along the join which is also visible in normal lighting conditions as a darker blue colour (see UV 01). Ultra violet light also reveals many small areas of retouching in the face as well as scattered retouchings in the background. There are larger areas of retouching in the black cape.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: Possibly 20th century.