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Sir Thomas Chaloner

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Sir Thomas Chaloner, by Unknown Flemish artist, 1559 - NPG 2445 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Sir Thomas Chaloner

by Unknown Flemish artist
oil on panel, 1559
28 in. x 21 1/2 in. (711 mm x 546 mm)
NPG 2445


New attribution: Unknown Flemish artist.

Key findings: The picture has been damaged in the past and the current condition does not allow a secure assessment of authorship. However the portrait was clearly painted by an extremely skilled Flemish artist.

Historical summary
Purchased in 1929 at Christie’s from an unknown source. No other provenance is known.

This unusual portrait shows Chaloner in contemplation of the brevity of human life. He holds a pair of scales in his right hand. The scales are weighted on the side of the blazing book (a symbol of intellect and learning) (see detail 02) against the riches of the world, shown on the other side (see detail 01). He is also shown in the process of clicking the fingers of his left hand to emphasise that life passes as quickly as a finger snap (see detail 03). Throughout his life Chaloner wrote Latin verses, and his pastoral poems were much admired. The Latin inscription is probably of his own design and refers to Sardanapalus, the legendary exemplum of the vice of intemperance. The inscription and date at the bottom left ‘Tho. Chaloneri eqestris oraninis viri Effigies Anno 1559’ indicate that the portrait was a true portrait from the life in 1559.

Notes on likely authorship
Strong considered the portrait to have been painted in the Low Countries (Strong, 1969, p. 45), and stylistically it appears to be Flemish. It is likely that it was painted in Brussels or Antwerp but the current poor condition does not allow an attribution. Parts of the painting are extremely finely painted and the picture was probably once an outstanding portrait. Close examination shows that the flesh paint technique and other areas can be compared to the work of some of the best Flemish artists of this period.

Commentary on condition, painting style, technique
There is considerable abrasion across the costume and much of the existing black paint is restoration. The regular dark lines of pattern or embroidery in the costume are only visible in strong light. Parts of the painting lack definition and are now difficult to read, such as the bar of the weighing scale. The beard and the shadows in the face and hands are also significantly abraded. The layers in the flesh paint are finely blended and there is delicate detail in the collar ruff and the cuffs, and in the scales with the book and winged orb.

The surface of the background has a blanched pale appearance which would not have been originally intended. The paint was applied thinly over the pale priming and there would have been some luminosity reflected through from the priming.

Justification for dating
The technique and materials in use are entirely consistent with a work from this period. The x-ray image of this portrait appears almost completely white and opaque; this appearance is probably due to the thick priming layer. Analysis by dendrochronology revealed that the wood derives from a tree which cannot have been felled before 1534. Two of the three boards used for this panel derive from the same tree.

Drawing and transfer technique
No underdrawing was detected using infrared reflectography.

Relevance to other known versions
A seventeenth-century copy of this portrait is also owned by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1274)
A portrait of a man identified as Chaloner was engraved by Hollar in 1655 after a portrait by Holbein of 1548 (in the collection of Lord Guisborough). This identification can no longer be sustained.

Cooper, Tarnya, 'Portraiture and the Rhetoric of Hope in Sixteenth-Century England', Sharp, on-line journal University of Sussex, 2000
Hailstone, Edward, Portraits of Yorkshire Worthies. Selected from the National Exhibition of Works of Art at Leeds, 1867, I, p. 145 (no. XI)
National Exhibition of Works of Art at Leeds, Leeds, 1868, p. 147 (no. 3016)
Scharf, Sir George, A List of the Most Noteworthy Pictures in the National Portrait Exhibition at South Kensington, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1866 (no. 297)
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp. 45-6


Micro 01. Eye on the right (7.1 x mag).
Micro 03. Letters from the inscription in the…
Micro 04. Blended paint where hair meets ear…
Micro 05. Fingertips of the hand on the left…
Micro 06. Detail of scales with winged orb (7…
Micro 07. Fine brushstrokes on wing (7.1 x ma…
Micro 08. Detail of book (7.1 x mag).
Micro 11. Date inscription, showing lead-tin…
Micro 12. Detail of ruff (7.1 x mag).
Micro 13. Very smoothly blended paint at hair…
Micro 16. Cuff on the left (7.1 x mag).
Micro 17. Orb showing technique (7.1 x mag).
Micro 18. Top of the book scales, showing abr…
Micro 20. Detail of jacket, showing original…
Detail 01. Detail of the treasure.
Detail 02. Detail of the book.
Detail 03. Detail of the hand on the right.

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It is evident that there have been disjoins and splits in the past, and the substantial paint loss associated with these has been restored. There are other isolated losses, also restored, mostly in the lower half of the painting. There are no new losses, although there is some abrasion at the far left of the top edge. The black costume has suffered considerable abrasion and much of the detail is now lost. Milkiness and blanching noted and treated in the past are still present in the costume and background. Fine, slightly raised craquelure gives an uneven surface, and makes the varnish gloss uneven. The old splits and joins are visible but stable. Retouchings are good, and varnish is not discoloured.


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 2

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

The panel has split and been mended in several places. The structure outlined above is still sound. There is no noticeable warp and there are no new damages. The edges of the panel are fragile. The back of the original panel cannot be inspected because of the treatment outlined above.

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: 1526


For the purpose of analysis the boards were labelled A and B from the left (from the front). The two boards were found to derive from the same eastern Baltic oak tree. No sapwood was present and a terminus post quem date can therefore be applied. The date for the last heartwood ring is 1521 on board A, and 1526 for board B. Adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings suggested that the tree used for the boards was felled after 1534.

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.

The aluminium honeycomb board was removed before x-ray and replaced afterwards (see Support). The x-rays clearly show the texture of the panel, where it has been thinned on the back (see x-ray mosaic 01). The overall image is quite opaque, possibly indicating a lead-containing priming. The face, hands and cuffs - all containing a large amount of lead white - all show up very clearly, as does the cup of the scales containing the book, because of its halo of lead-tin yellow. The inscriptions appear light for the same reason. Some of the modelling and brushwork in the jacket can be faintly detected in the sleeves. There is a possible alteration of the position of the shoulder on the left.

The x-ray also shows the old splits and joins, and several areas of paint loss.

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 detected with infrared reflectography, and therefore, no images were captured. The examination did suggest that the painting has a streaky priming.

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 2008.

Eyes and Flesh
Tiny particles of azurite can be seen in the grey iris of the eye on the left. The pupil itself is pure charcoal black. Azurite, with very fine particles, seems to define the pupil.
Charcoal black, red lead and crimson lake can been in the white of the eye. These three pigments can be seen also in the flesh.

The intense black is lamp black.

White cuff and collar frill
There seems to be a mixture of translucent white and a more opaque pigment, dispersions suggest lead white and chalk.
There may be glass in sample 1.
The white of the lace collar frill is shaded with charcoal black.

Scales, Orb and the Book
Azurite is visible in the centre of the orb, with a greenish tone.
Red lake seems to be in the shadows of the book and dispersion appears to show that the opaque red is red ochre. Dispersion also shows vermilion on the book. Lead-tin yellow is used in the decoration and highlights on the scales and around the book.

The paint mixture contains lamp black and warm earth colours.

In 2005 Libby Sheldon took a number of samples to determine the paint layer structure and nature of the blanching and deterioration of the black clothing.
Samples showed a thick white chalk ground with a lead white priming over it. There was no obvious cause for the pale deposits within the paint surface - they might be residual varnish or salts formed by former cleaning treatments.

The surface blanching is not limited to the black of the costume. It seems to conform to cupping in the paint and there is no obvious explanation for it. In some parts the paint has dried into small islands, revealing the white priming beneath. The relationship between the lead priming and the paint may be the cause of some of the damage. Lead soaps may have a part in disrupting the surface but do not seem to be the cause.

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 paint was thinly applied with fine brushwork. The layers in the flesh paint are finely blended and there is delicate detail in the collar ruff and the cuffs, and in the scales with the book and winged orb. These are the best preserved parts of the composition and the lettering is also well preserved. The surface has a generally slightly blanched appearance and most parts have suffered some abrasion but the black costume is extremely abraded and damaged and very little detail remains on it. The bars of the scale are worn and lack some of their definition. The beard and the shadows in the face and hands are abraded, but close examination shows that the flesh paint technique can be compared to some extent with passages in the paintings of Hans Eworth, for example the fine blended brushwork modelling on the ear.

Preparation layers
The panel was prepared with a thick chalk ground. There is a pale grey priming made with white and black. The priming is uneven and lead soaps have formed and disrupted the paint surface, in the black costume in particular (see Libby Sheldon's paint sample report, 2005). The chalk ground and the priming can be seen at the edges where they were exposed when the edges were trimmed. Infrared reflectography suggests that the priming was applied unevenly and appears streaky. This also seemed to be evident in the x-rays (see Infrared reflectography and X-ray).

Paint layer structure
The eyes are very delicately painted with fine brushwork (see micro 01). Very finely ground particles of azurite can be seen, with microscopy, in the whites of both eyes. There is a small amount of azurite in the grey of the eye on the left, but this could not be seen in the eye on the right.

Flesh and hair
The beard and shadows in the flesh are abraded and the red in the flesh has probably faded. The flesh and hair are painted with very finely blended brushwork (see micro 04 and micro 13). The shadows in the flesh paint are painted with red and brown earth pigments. Fingertips on the hand on the left have been extended with flesh paint applied over dark costume paint (see micro 05), and the upper edge of the hand on the left and lower edges of the hand on the right have been altered slightly. The line where the lips meet is painted with red glaze.

Black costume
The surface of the black costume is now very worn and fractured, and disrupted by the lead soaps in the priming mentioned above. A pale deposit has formed in pockets on the surface of the black paint, with a milky blanched appearance. Sheldon (see 2005 report) suggested that this may be residual varnish which has broken up, or salts formed by former cleaning or other treatment. The black costume has lost almost all detail but must once have been finely painted. The brushwork in the black costume can be seen a little more clearly in x-ray. The dark lines of detail in the costume are hardly visible on the painting (see micro 20).

White cuffs and ruff
The cuffs are painted with black and white. The highlights are painted relatively thickly with lead white and the shadows were thinly painted with a grey mixture of black and white (see micro 12 and micro 16).

The scale, with orb and book
The scale bars are very abraded but are painted with black and white to represent a cool-toned metal, such as steel. The lead white highlights are the best preserved parts. The scale cups are painted to represent a warm-toned metal, such as brass, with lead-tin yellow used for the highlights. The cups are suspended from straps (probably leather) which are painted red where they are attached to the steel bars at the top (see micro 18) and painted reddish (probably a red earth) with brown earth and grey over them where light falls, and with a darker tone, probably containing some black, when in shadow.

The red ring attached to the top of the scale bars, and held in the sitter's right hand, has evidently faded.

Lead-tin yellow was used in the jewels next to the orb and in the rays around the book (see micro 06 and micro 08). The book and the wings of the orb seem to be painted with red ochre with a red glaze over it. This glaze has probably faded to some extent. The highlights of the wings are painted with lead white (see micro 07). The blue of the orb (see micro 17) is azurite. The book appears to be painted with a grey layer under an abraded pink/red, with white lines for detail which are also abraded.

The lettering is finely painted with lead-tin yellow. A lightly incised guide line can be seen above and below the letters at the lower left (see micro 11). The incised lines at the upper right are less easy to see (see micro 03), but are most visible on the lowest two lines of lettering.

The surface of the background has a blanched pale appearance which would not have been originally intended. There appear to be two layers in the background: a lighter grey layer (containing some red particles) over the priming and then a darker layer containing brown, black and red was applied over this.

Order of construction
The order of painting is difficult to assess due to the abraded and deteriorated condition of many areas of the paint surface.
- Chalk ground
- Lead priming, light grey with white and black
- No underdrawing was detected
- The first layers for the flesh paint and the collar and cuffs were painted at an early stage
- Fine modelling in the flesh was added and also the thicker white passages and the grey shadows of the cuffs and collar
- A reserve seems to have been left for the scale cups and their contents when the black costume was painted, but the straps holding the cups seem to be painted over the black costume paint
- The scale cups with the orb and book were then painted in after the black costume
- The lead-tin yellow round the book, and the jewels round the orb were painted in after the other details: the dark glazes over the scale straps are painted over the lead-tin yellow
- The white highlights on the book cover were painted in last, with brushstrokes ending at each side of the scale straps
- The final layers of the background were painted towards the end of the painting process but this was painted over a previously applied paler first layer
- The lettering was painted in lead-tin yellow, following the lightly incised guide lines in the background
- Some fine final details of hair and beard can be seen to overlap background paint and were evidently added near the end of the process
- Some final details of the hands were probably added at the same time, such as where the finger tips of the proper right hand are painted over the black costume paint and where the upper edge of this hand and the lower edge of the other hand have been altered slightly

Lead white, charcoal black, lamp black, azurite, lead-tin yellow, vermilion, red lake, red ochre, earth pigments

Changes in composition/pentimenti
Some changes are evident:
- Finger tips on the hand on the left (see micro 05)
- Upper edge of the hand on the left and the lower edge of the hand on the right
- The line of the shoulder on the left proper appears to have been changed (see x-ray mosaic 01)

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

There is a patchy overall fluorescence in ultra violet light. Retouchings are visible as dark spots/areas over the varnish, particularly down old splits/joins, and as spots throughout the costume and background (see UV 01). The crazing/blanching in the clothing can be seen as a yellow/green fluorescence. There is some cloudiness on the right-hand side. The background fluoresces green.
The scales, hands and most of the face are fairly intact.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: Possibly 20th century.