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Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard

1 of 12 portraits of Catherine Howard

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Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard

after Hans Holbein the Younger
oil on panel, late 17th century
29 in. x 19 1/2 in. (737 mm x 495 mm)
NPG 1119


Key findings: The painting style and technique are not consistent with sixteenth-century workmanship, and this is confirmed by dendrochronological analysis which suggests a late seventeenth-century date of production.

Historical summary
This painting came from Overleigh Hall, near Chester (Strong, 1969, p. 41). It passed into the collection of Thomas Cowper who gained possession of the estate, in part through descent and in part through purchase, in c.1660. It then descended through the family to Thomas Cholmondeley of Condover (1793-1863). The label on the reverse of the portrait which reads T.C. probably refers to him. In c.1816 the Overleigh pictures were removed to Condover Hall. The portrait was sold in the Cholmondeley sale at Christie’s in 1897 as ‘a Lady, in black dress’. It was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 1898 as Catherine Howard.

It is based on a three-quarter-length portrait thought to be by Holbein, now in the Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio. Although the Toledo version (dated c.1540) has previously been called Catherine Howard, there is no evidence for this. It is possible, instead, that the sitter was a member of the Cromwell family who once owned the picture. The painting was a gift to the museum from Edward Drummond Libbey in 1926. Previously it had been in the collection of Mr. Cromwell Bush, a descendent of Oliver Cromwell, and then in the collection of Mr James H. Dunn.

Notes on likely authorship
The painting style and technique is not consistent with sixteenth-century workmanship. The handling is more consistent with a work of the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century.

Commentary on painting style, technique
Many elements of the painting have been crudely handled, especially the hands, face and black fabric of the dress (see detail 04). In contrast some of the jewellery is finely painted and convincing, in particular the cameo brooch discreetly positioned at the very bottom of the painting in the skirt (see detail 05). The flesh is painted thinly over a grey underlayer, which gives it a cool tone. In the background a layer containing smalt has been identified beneath a brown upper layer. The original background appears to have been blue which has discoloured and was retouched with brown.

Justification for dating
The results of analysis by dendrochronology indicate that the last tree ring dates from 1609 which suggests that the only measurable board used for the panel came from a tree which was felled sometime between 1612 and 1644. The picture can therefore be dated to the later seventeenth century and was probably a copy for a family collection.

Drawing and transfer technique
Some possible dark underdrawing can be seen around the iris of the left eye.

Relevance to other known versions
There are no certain portraits of Catherine Howard in existence. A miniature said to be of her was sold at Antwerp in 1668 from the collection of the artist Pieter Stevens. It was recorded as Holbein’s work.
Other versions of NPG 1119 are:
- in the Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio (see above)
- a miniature in the Royal Collection (dated c.1540, vellum on card) – previously called Catherine Howard
- a miniature in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch at Drumlanrig Castle, Thornhill. Previously called Catherine Howard and attributed at different times to Isaac Oliver after Holbein, or the French artist Corneille de Lyon
- recorded as being in the collection of Captain E. G. Spencer-Churchill who bought it in 1953
- recorded as being in the collection of the Duke of Sutherland at Sutton Place until it was sold at Christies on 24 October 1961 (lot 45) and bought by W. Sabin

Chamberlain, Arthur Bensley, Hans Holbein the Younger, 2 vols., Allen & Unwin, London, 1913, II, pp. 194-195
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp. 41-44
Waylen, James, The House of Cromwell and the Story of Dunkirk, Elliot Stock, London, 1891, p. 347


X-ray mosaic 01. X-ray image of the whole pai…
Micro 01. Eye on the right (7.1 x mag).
Micro 02. Eye on the left (7.1 x mag).
Micro 03. Detail of the lips (7.1 x mag).
Micro 06. Detail of lettering in the backgrou…
Micro 08. Detail of pendant on necklace showi…
Micro 09. Heads of an angel and a figure on t…
Micro 10. Thick paint used for highlights in…
Micro 13. Detail of jewelled ring (10 x mag).
Micro 15. Detail of red jewel and fine highli…
Micro 17. Detail of the pattern on the cuff,…
Micro 18. Detail of green stone on the jewel…
Micro 19. Head of the central figure on the s…
Micro 20. Detail of the right-hand angel on t…
Detail 04. Detail of hands.
Detail 05. Detail of the cameo.

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 panel has a slight warp and there is very slight movement when being handled. Buttons have been applied along the panel joins on the reverse to help support the members. There are losses along the panel join and smaller losses occur in the face. The ground and paint layers appear stable with no evidence of flaking. The paint layer is visually in a very bad condition with discoloured, darkened retouchings. The varnish layer is discoloured and quite matte. The painting has many areas of restoration, especially in the face. These retouchings have become darker and discoloured with age.


Support type: German/Polish oak

Number of boards: 3

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

The panel is in good condition. It appears to be in its original condition and has not been thinned, as is indicated by the presence of crude saw marks on the reverse. Later additions to support the joins indicate that there may have been some movement in the past. There are rectangular wooden buttons which have been added to strengthen the join. The boards are of uneven thickness at the back where some of the original wood has been removed to fit the buttons in place. There is evidence of an earlier support on one of the joins where the remains of a thick adhesive (from some kind of tape) are still present.

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: 3

Last date of tree ring: 1609


The panel is made from three boards in vertical alignment. The boards were labelled A to C from the left (from the front). Boards A and C contained tangental planks containing too few rings for analysis and were not measured. The presence of sapwood on Board B means that a felling date range can be applied. The last tree ring was identified as 1609, which included 5 sapwood rings. Adding the minimum and maximum expected number of sapwood rings appropriate to the source suggests that the tree was felled after 1612 and before 1644.

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.

In the x-ray, broad brushstrokes can be seen across the panel which relate to a priming layer. These brushstrokes appear quite faint and the woodgrain is very clear, indicating that it is a thin priming. The hands and face appear very light which shows that they are built up in several layers of lead-based paint. Highlights on the dark fabric of the dress appear much lighter and clearer than on the painting. The pattern on the sleeves is very clear, indicating that this might be a mordant for gilding.

At the top-left corner there is a piece of wood held in place with nails, which in x-ray appears very dark compared to the rest of the panel. Close inspection on the x-ray shows that brushstrokes in the priming layer do follow from this piece of wood onto the joining piece, suggesting it was not a later addition.

Damages can be seen along the panel joins where there are small losses of paint. There is also damage to the sitter's face, including a scratch across the mouth (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.

Infrared reflectography was not carried out. Some possible dark underdrawing can be seen around the iris of the left eye.

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 chalk ground and warm pale grey priming could be seen in sample 6 only. The priming contains lead white with some black and red lead.

The green jewel contains a little azurite, and green earth was found in dispersion, which is an interesting combination used to depict green. Copper green was used as a glaze.

The central jewel on the pendant is painted with intensely blue, good quality azurite. It was intended to be a blue colour and a brownish substance is more likely to be discoloured varnish than a discoloured copper glaze. The red surrounding the blue jewel is painted with a dull red and translucent red which was identified as red ochre and red lake.

The black and red paint under a jewel on the purse is painted with bone black mixed with red lake which is a relatively common combination found elsewhere.

It is difficult to be sure of the colour of the background, although the presence of the lower layer of smalt suggests that it was blue. The brown probably represents an early layer of retouching over the discoloured smalt layer. The mixed green on one side contains bright yellow and bright blue pigment which was identified as cobalt blue and dates from the nineteenth century. Angular particles of smalt are visible in cross-sections and the dispersions are presumably from the original background paint layer.

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
Many elements of the painting have been crudely handled, especially the hands, face and black fabric of the dress. In contrast some of the jewellery is finely painted and convincing, in particular the cameo brooch discreetly positioned at the very bottom of the painting in the skirts.

Preparation layers
There is a chalk ground layer. The priming layer contains lead white with some black and red lead, to make a pale warm grey. The broad brushstrokes of this layer can be seen in x-ray. The wood grain is very clear in x-ray and also in the paint surface, which indicates that the preparation layers are very thinly applied.

A second grey coloured preparation layer is visible in many areas. It is uncertain if this is a continuous layer covering the panel. In the face the flesh paint has been thinly applied, and the grey underlayer adds a cool tone to the flesh and in certain areas is left to act as shadow, for example around the nose.

No infrared reflectography has been done. Some possible underdrawing can be seen under the paint surface around the iris of the left eye.

Paint layer structure
Face and flesh paint
The eyes are painted in a simple manner. The irises are painted with one colour around the black pupil, and a simple dab of white paint has been applied for the highlight (see micro 01 and micro 02). Only a few eyelashes have been painted with strokes of brown paint on the upper lid of the eye on the right. On the lower lid a brush has been dragged through the wet flesh paint to create indentations suggesting eyelashes. The flesh paint is thinly painted over a grey underlayer which shows through giving the flesh a cool tone. Large black pigment particles can be seen in the flesh paint as well as very large red particles. The lips are simply painted using a very orange/pink colour containing vermilion, with a deeper red lake marking the line between the lips (see micro 03). The parting in the hair has been painted over a thin layer of brown for the hair. In x-ray the hands appear to have a lot of brushstrokes and to be heavily worked up. Strokes of flesh paint go over the top of details such as the rings (see micro 13).

Black paint has been used for blocking in the black fabric of the dress. The black is a mixture of bone black and red lake (see Paint sampling). Broad strokes of thick grey paint have been applied over the top of this to model the folds of the fabric. This has a distinctive craquelure (see micro 10). A good red lake was used in the lighter passages modelling the sleeves, and large pigment particles can be seen with microscopy. An underlayer of white paint has been applied to mark out the area of the cuffs with a darker grey for the shadows. The pattern on the cuffs appears to have been loosely marked out with a very fluid grey paint which has then been reinforced and extended with a thicker, more intense black paint (see micro 17). The headdress was painted after the hair, and some of the brushstrokes overlap. The background was painted after the headdress. The headdress is painted with shell gold and dull red.

It appears that leaf gold was used rather than shell gold, with a white mordant. Around the blue jewel on the collar there are small white brush strokes under the gold. Very thick, lumpy shell gold is also seen on the jewelled ring. The gilded angel and figure on the jewel hanging from the sitter's collar and the grisaille figures on the cameo brooch on the purse at the bottom of the picture are very finely painted compared to the rest of the painting. A very fine brush has been used and subtle variations in flesh tones are achieved with different pigment mixtures (see micro 09, micro 19 and micro 20). Some of the stones also have very fine lines painted to show the cut of the gem and to add highlights (see micro 15). Around the areas of jewellery remnants of a red lake glaze is visible (see micro 08). There is a row of green stones around the cameo on the purse at the bottom of the painting. The opaque underlayer is verdigris with lead white with a copper green glaze (see micro 18) (see Paint sampling).

The background has a greenish blue tone and a grey priming layer underneath can be seen clearly. At high magnification the greenish paint has lots of red and black particles.
Paint samples show a layer containing smalt beneath a brown upper layer. The original background seems to have been blue which has discoloured and was retouched in brown (see Paint sampling).

The inscription appears to be painted in shell gold with an orangey red mordant underneath (see micro 06).

Order of construction
- Chalk ground
- Warm grey priming layer
- Grey underlayer for flesh and other layers
- Flesh paint
- Dress
- Headdress painted after the hair
- Background painted after the headdress
- Details of jewellery
- Inscription

Lead white, red lead, bone black, smalt, azurite, verdigris, copper green glaze, green earth, red lake, red ochre and earth pigments

The mixed green in the retouching of one side of the background contains nineteenth-century pigments: bright cobalt blue and bright yellow.

Other observations
A vertical line of abrasion is visible on closer inspection, and with the microscope, running through the crossed thumbs of the sitter's hands. The damage appears as very small circular marks in the upper layers surrounding an island of paint. It is not known when or how this damage occurred.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

A thick coating covering the painting can be seen fluorescing bright green in ultraviolet light which is an old resinous varnish layer. Areas of retouching can be seen which show up very dark against the bright varnish and probably lie on top of this layer. These retouchings are mainly located along the right-hand panel join but there are also small passages on the right-hand side of the headdress and areas of the nose and eyes. Other retouchings which are clearly visible in normal light as discoloured, darkened and matt areas are only faintly visible under ultra violet light. These are presumably old retouchings that lie under the thick varnish (see UV 01).


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: 19th century.