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Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset

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Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, by Unknown artist, 1601 - NPG 4024 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset

by Unknown artist
oil on panel, 1601
43 1/2 in. x 34 1/2 in. (1105 mm x 876 mm)
NPG 4024


The attribution of this work to John de Critz the Elder can no longer be sustained.

The portrait was first recorded in the collection of Colonel Frederick Arthur Irby of Boyland Hall, Norfolk in 1907. It passed by descent to Mrs Victor Ramsay Fairfax of Brook House, Great Waldingfield, Suffolk, and was sold to the National Portrait Gallery via Leggatt Brothers at Christie’s in April 1957.

There is an unidentified impression of a seal on the back of the panel, in the upper-left corner, and a Christie’s stencil ‘964 LG’.

Historical context
Sir Thomas Sackville was a poet, playwright and statesman, and the owner of Knole house in Kent. He was created knight of the Garter in 1589, Lord Treasurer in 1599 and Lord High Steward in 1601. The rod of office that he holds probably refers to his appointment as Steward. Sackville was created Earl of Dorset in 1604. The inscription ‘1601 aeta : 63’ in the upper-left corner is inaccurate, as it was noted in the sermon preached at Sackville’s funeral following his death at the council table on 19 April 1608 that he had lived ‘seventy and two yeeres’.

Infrared reflectography and x-radiography revealed that there is another painting beneath the portrait. The underlying painting is a copy of the Flagellation of Christ by Sebastiano del Piombo in the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, 1518. This was known more widely through an engraving by Adamo Scultori (British Museum 1856,0712.1053).
X-ray shows that there are some dark scratches on Christ’s torso in the underlying painting, but it does not seem it has been intentionally defaced. It is likely that the reuse of the panel relates to the pragmatism of the artist’s studio, by repurposing the materials from a work that had not sold, rather than to Protestant iconoclasm, as religious images were permitted in secular contexts during Elizabeth I’s reign.

Notes on attribution
The portrait has previously been attributed to John de Critz the Elder due to the compositional similarities with the one known portrait type of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (see catalogue entry on NPG 107). However, technical analysis of this portrait, and another version at Knole shows very different paint handling technique to the works that are firmly attributed to de Critz, such as the portrait of Anne of Denmark (NPG 6918). Without the type of documentary evidence that associates Robert Cecil’s portrait type with de Critz’s studio, it is not possible to make any link to the artist, and the portrait of Sackville must therefore be attributed to an unknown artist.

Justification for dating
The portrait is inscribed with the date ‘1601’ and the techniques and materials in use are appropriate for a work of this date; dendrochronological analysis suggests that the tree used to make the panel support was felled after 1590. The inscription is very thinly painted and has the appearance of a glaze layer, which makes it difficult to determine whether it is original to the portrait; however, the hand compares well with other early sixteenth-century inscriptions, such as in NPG 107, and the craquelure pattern runs through the black paint. The discrepancy between the date of the painting and the age of the sitter does not necessarily imply that it is a later addition as the age of the sitter could easily be inaccurately recorded, particularly if the portrait was not commissioned by Sackville himself.

There are numerous small spotty, opaque and slightly mismatched retouching across the surface that obscure the fine quality of the paint handling and brushwork. A horizontal scratch that runs across the face just beneath the eyes has been restored.

The ribbon appears pale in x-ray and using infrared reflectography but dark in normal light. This is due to the fact that it was first painted with azurite mixed with lead white, to create the light blue colour that is seen in other versions of the portrait and in other portraits in which the sitter wears the Lesser George of the Order of the Garter. The brown mottled glaze that now conceals the blue in normal light may not be original and could have been applied to conceal evidence of the underlying painting if it had begun to show through the pale paint layers.

Painting technique
Paint sampling identified that the panel support was prepared through the application of a priming layer over the first painting. The portrait was skilfully painted, with the paint applied in thin layers using fine glazes. The blending in the flesh is very subtle, with no obvious brushwork texture. The dense dark glaze on the black costume appears to have been blotted and paint sampling identified that there is a yellow lake in the paint mixture. Detail in the clothing, such as the buttons, is simply but effectively handled.

Drawing and transfer technique
Black underdrawing in the face and the hands of the portrait can be seen during surface examination and using infrared reflectography. The drawing appears to reinforce traced marks, with freehand hatching for details. The paint layers closely follow the underdrawing.

Other known versions
There is only one known portrait type of Sackville, of which a number of versions survive at Knole, the house that he redeveloped:
- Knole, National Trust, NT 129728
- Knole, National Trust, NT 129911
- Knole, National Trust, NT 129777

Other versions include:
- Christie’s 18 October 1946 (lot 40)(ex. Duke of Sutherland, Ellesmere Collection)
- D. Minlore (purchased at Sotheby’s 25th March 1936, lot 147)
- Bodleian Library (presented by the 1st Duke of Dorset in 1735) - LP61
- A full-length portrait of the same type in which Sackville is presented with a letter by a secretary is at Sissinghurst Castle (ex Northwick and Countess Delawarr Collections)
- New College, University of Oxford, bust length
- Christie’s, 5 July 2013, bust length (lot 26)
- Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, copy of a Knole version painted in 1904 by Charles Fullwood
- Kingston Lacy (National Trust), copy by Henry Bone
- Bonhams, 20 May 2009 (lot 24), copy by Henry Bone
- Abbott Hall Art Gallery, AH 2309/81

The face-pattern was also used for Sackville’s portrait in The Somerset House Conference, by an Unknown artist in 1604 (NPG 665).

Abbot, George, A sermon preached at Westminster May 26 1608 at the funeral solemnities of the Richt Honorable Thomas Earle of Dorset, 1608, p. 16
Rae, Caroline, ‘Anglo-Netherlandish Workshop Practice in the 1580s and early 1600s with a focus on the works of John de Critz the Elder and Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’, unpublished PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, 2015
Singh, F. Duleep, Portraits in Norfolk Houses, 1927, p. 27 (no. 28)
Strong, Roy, The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture, 1969, p. 260
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London, 1969, pp. 67-68

Exhibition history
‘The Elizabethan Image: Painting in England 1540-1620’, Tate, London, 1969-1970


Micro 01. Detail of the eye on the left (7.1…
Micro 02. Detail of the eye on the right (7.1…
Micro 03. Detail of deliberate tool scratches…
Micro 05. Detail showing blending of the fles…
Micro 06. Detail of the lips (7.1 x mag).
Micro 07. Detail of the beard (7.1 x mag).
Micro 08. Detail of the ruff (7.1 x mag).
Micro 09. Detail of the inscription (7.1 x ma…
Micro 10. Detail of the edge of the fur colla…
Micro 11. Detail of cuff (7.1 x mag).
Micro 12. Detail of gold thread on costume (1…
Micro 13. Modelling used in the dark fabric o…
Micro 15. Detail of Garter medal ribbon, show…
Micro 16. Detail of Garter medal (7.1 x mag).
Micro 17. Detail showing the pigment mixture…
Micro 18. Detail showing red lake visible ben…
Micro 19. Detail of fingernail (7.1 x mag).
Micro 20. Detail of tablecloth (7.1 x mag).
UV 01. Front of the panel in ultra violet lig…
Reverse 01. Back of the panel in raking light…

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There are numerous small spotty, opaque and slightly mismatched retouchings that were evidently carried out with oil paint. These obscure the fine quality of the paint handling and brushwork and affect the impression of the painting's quality. There is a restored horizontal scratch that runs across the face just under the eyes and seriously detracts from the fine meticulous handling of the eyes. There is mismatched opaque restoration down the panel joins. The varnish layers have discoloured.


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 3

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

Both joins have been rejoined and the back of the left join is reinforced with a strip of canvas attached with glue. The canvas has subsequently been partially removed from the back of the join on the right in order to carry out further consolidation of the panel join. There is a repaired split running up the centre of the board on the right from the lower edge to halfway up the board. The back of this split has been reinforced with a strip of canvas attached with glue.

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: 1582


The boards were labelled A to C from the left (from the front) for analysis. There is no sapwood present on the outermost edges of any of the boards, which means that a terminus post quem can be applied to this panel. The boards do not appear to be derived from a single tree, although they match strongly. The last heartwood rings in the three boards are dated 1582, 1575, and 1574. The tree-ring series were combined into a composite series, which matched against eastern Baltic reference data. Adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings to these suggests that the boards derive from trees felled after 1590. Board C is slightly wider than typical eastern Baltic boards and there is little chance that it was significantly is therefore appropriate to apply an eastern Baltic 8-40 year LEHR-usage range to this panel, which gives a conjectural usage-date range of 1590-1622.

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.

X-ray revealed that the painting beneath the current paint surface is a copy of the 'Flagellation of Christ' by Sebastiano del Piombo in the Borgherini chapel in Rome; the whole composition can be seen in x-ray (see x-ray mosaic 01). There are parallel marks across Christ's torso that could be deliberate score marks intended to damage the paint surface. The lead bearing paint in the portrait of Thomas Sackville is also clear in the x-ray, especially in the face, hands and the staff. The ribbon for the Garter medal is very much more obvious in x-ray than in normal light because the paint mixture contains lead white and azurite. The left-hand panel join can be seen to be in very good condition, but the right-hand one has been rejoined.

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 revealed that there is another painting beneath the current paint surface (see DIRR 01). The contrast between dark and light is different in the two different paintings; for example, heads from the underlying composition can be seen in the chest area, beneath the brown paint of the fur edges down the front of the outer robe. The black paint of the robe obscures the rest of the scene. Black underdrawing for the face and the hands of the portrait can also be seen using infrared reflectography. This appears to be strengthening over a tracing, with freehand hatching for details. There is a slight change in the size of the ear. Vertical parallel lines in the cheek may relate to brushstrokes in the cheek, perhaps in the priming or the build up of the shadow of the flesh. There is a change in the length of the fingers of the hand on the right. There are black outlines for the white staff of office drawn with black lines, but the position has been changed a number of times at the painting stage. It is possible that the hat was initially painted as a skull cap but changed to a brimmed hat.

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 for analysis in November 2011.

X-ray and infrared reflectograpy revealed that there is another painting beneath the portrait. Samples were taken to examine the complex layer structure. A cross-section from the right edge of the red tablecloth (sample 5), shows that the panel is prepared with a chalk ground. Above the ground there is a layer of pale grey priming made with lead white and carbon black, and above this there is a dark grey paint layer from the underlying painting. A second pale grey priming lies above this, with the red paint of the table cloth over it.

The underdrawing appears to have been carried out with graphite. This is supported by examination of a dispersion, which shows that it has many shiny and reflective particles.

The black costume has a marked texture of small dots as if applied with a blotting technique. This does not appear to be retouching.
Sample 1: Cross-section from the brown/black costume at the lower edge showed several layers, including what is assumed to be the paint of the lower image. The chalk ground has a pale grey priming over it which is paler than seen in Sample 5. A pale warm grey paint layer lies over the priming. There is a slight distinction between the layers of each of the paintings. A second grey priming lies over this paint layer, with a thin brown layer over it (probably a modelling layer), this is followed by the brown/black costume paint. Dispersion found that the black layer contains yellow lake.

Sample 3: Cross-section from the brown fur on the sitter's chest is inconclusive but probably shows only the upper priming layer and the red and red/brown paint of the portrait.

The ribbon appears light in x-ray and infrared reflectography. There is a textured brownish black over the ribbon similar to that on the cloak. Examination revealed that the ribbon is painted with azurite with lead white. Some reddish paint can be seen beneath which may be associated with the underlying painting.

Azurite can be seen inside the rim as a background to the circling strap with lettering. It has been covered with a dark paint, perhaps a red glaze.

Table cloth
Sample 5: Cross-section shows the chalk ground, a pale priming, a dark grey paint layer, a second pale priming, and three layers of red paint. The lowest red layer contains vermilion and red lake, followed by a translucent layer (like a red glaze), with a further solid red layer with a translucent brown over it. The way in which the sample has separated a little from the lower layers suggests that there is some division between the two paintings. Ultra violet showed no visible layer between the underlying image and the upper image.

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 panel has been reused and the portrait is painted over a fully worked-up depiction of the flagellation of Christ, after Sebastiano del Piombo's painting in the Borgherini Chapel in Rome.

Preparation layers
The panel was first prepared with a chalk ground and a pale grey priming layer and the 'Flagellation of Christ' was painted over this. A pale grey priming layer was subsequently applied to cover the original composition, with the underdrawing for the portrait above this carried out in a sparkly grey material.

A cool grey underlayer is present beneath the upper flesh layers. The underdrawing is clearly visible beneath the paint layers in the face; the oil paint has not properly adhered to the material of the underdrawing and it can be seen that the paint has beaded in areas as it has dried, which has revealed the underdrawing material beneath (see micro 05). The flesh paint contains lead white, red lake, an opaque red pigment and large, sparsely scattered black pigment. The application and blending of the flesh is very subtle, with no obvious textured brushwork. The nose and inner ear have been emphasised with red lake. Small parallel marks are visible in the inner ear, which appear to have been made deliberately with some type of tool (see micro 03). The marks are very small and were scored into the paint when it was almost dry. The profile of the cheek on the right and the ear on the left have been outlined with a brushy black line of paint to mark out the face from the ruff. The lips closely follow the underdrawing beneath and have been painted in the same paint mixture as the pink flesh (see micro 06). A red lake glaze has been applied to the upper lip and the hairs of the moustache have been painted into this while it was still wet.

The eyes have suffered from loss and damage including a horizontal scratch running through the face along the bottom of the eyes. The position of the iris has been marked in with a dark grey underlayer, with brown and black applied over the top and loosely blended. The pupil has been painted in a fluid black paint that has also been used at the top of the iris to show the shadow of the eyelid (see micro 01 and micro 02). A highlight of pure lead white has been painted on to the pupil and iris after the lower layers had dried. The whites of the eyes have been blocked in with a pale grey paint containing lead white and black mixed with a small amount of opaque red and finely ground blue, which is possibly azurite. Fine brushstrokes of lead white have then been painted around the iris for highlights. The corner of the eye has been painted with vermilion and lead white blended wet-in-wet, with a thin layer of vermilion mixed with red lake applied over the top. The eyelashes on the upper lid have been indicated by texturing the flesh paint while it was still wet.

Beard, hair and eyebrows
A reserve has been left in the flesh paint for the moustache and beard. The shape of the beard has then been blocked in with large, brushy strokes of white and brown loosely blended together. Individual hairs have been defined in a thicker white paint applied with a thin brush (see micro 07). The moustache is also painted with fine brushstrokes of brown and white. The hair visible around the temples has been loosely painted in over the flesh in thin strokes of cream and brown. The shadow of the eye socket below the eyebrow has been laid in with a thin brown paint and the texture of the priming is clearly visible beneath this. A few brushstrokes of white and pale brown have then been applied for the eyebrow. The overall technique is very economical and subtle.

The ruff has been simply painted with loose and textured brushwork (see micro 08). A pale grey paint has been applied as a base layer for the shape of the ruff, with lighter highlights indicating the folds of the fabric. The shadows have been indicated with a thin, pale brown paint. Small dabs of white paint have been added to the ruff to show the lace edging. Later overpaint has been liberally applied in this area to strengthen the shadows and the folds of the ruff; it was executed in a fluid dark paint that can be seen to be covering cracks.

Examination suggests that the sitter was originally painted with a skull cap but during the painting process a large wide-brimmed hat has been painted. The skull cap was painted in a thick layer containing black mixed with a little lead white. Along the outline between the cap and the head there are localised and pronounced lead soaps. The larger hat has been painted with a grey/brown paint applied thinly over the initial background layer. The details have been added over this layer in a fluid black paint. There is a lot of overpaint in the hat, especially along the original outline of the skull cap.

Black costume
The general shape of the costume has been blocked in with an initial layer of warm, dark brown paint containing a mixture of earth pigments (see micro 13). Highlights have been painted in a mixture containing an opaque red pigment, lead white and large black particles mixed with earth pigments. This paint mix has also been used for the shadow of the beard. The gold thread details have been painted directly over the initial brown costume layer. The pattern of the threads have been painted, with orange earth pigments with lead-tin yellow highlights added on top (see micro 12). A dark glaze layer has been applied over most of the costume, which is painted up and around details such as the gold threads; this may have been applied at a later date to conceal evidence of the underlying composition. The glaze is a fluid, dense black that has a mottled appearance as though it has been blotted (see Paint sampling). The buttons are a good example of the simple but effective handling of the paint in the costume: they have been indicated with a short line of light brown paint for the highlight painted directly over the brown of the costume, and a second line of dark, translucent brown for the shadow.

Fur collar
A reserve has been left in the black costume for the fur collar, into which a thin warm brown paint has been laid in (see micro 10). The texture of the fur is suggested by a few broad brushstrokes of earth pigments. Darker brushstrokes of dark red glaze have also been applied to create texture. Where the fur collar overlaps the black costume, the dark glaze has also been used in small strokes brushed into the black of the costume.

Garter medal and ribbon
The ribbon has been painted in a thick layer of paint containing azurite. There is a translucent brown paint layer over the blue which partially obscures the original colour. This is likely to be a later addition as the Garter ribbon was required to be blue, and it may have been added to cover evidence of the underlying composition that may have begun to show through the upper paint layers. The brown paint has a mottled appearance similar to the dark layer in the black costume. The ribbon has been outlined in translucent black which also has a mottled texture (see micro 15). A reserve in the brown underlayer of the costume appears to have been left for the Garter medal. A thin black layer has been painted in for the base of the medal and where this has become worn a pale underlayer is visible. The gold setting of the medal and the detail of the chain are painted with earth colours. with highlights applied on top in lead-tin yellow. The surround of the medal has been painted in azurite. The garter motto has been painted in lead-tin yellow mixed with lead white. A red glaze has then been applied over the azurite which partially covers the lettering. St George, his horse and the dragon have been painted with a fine brush (see micro 16). Mixtures of azurite and lead-tin yellow have been used for the shield and also for the dragon, with a red lake glaze as a final layer (see micro 17).

Cuffs and hands
A reserve has been left in the black costume for the hand and cuff on the left; the cuff slightly extends over the black of the costume. The cuffs have been quickly painted in a grey underlayer, with white highlights applied over the top and loosely blended wet-in-wet (see micro 11). The paint has been effectively manipulated to create the illusion of light falling onto the folds of the cloth. Small daubs of lead white have been applied at the edge of the cuff for the lace. The hand on the right appears to have been painted over the grey underlayer of the tablecloth. The back of the hand has a thin creamy layer beneath it. The flesh paint has been applied quickly with visible brushwork and texture; it contains large black pigment particles mixed with lead white and finely ground vermilion and red lake. A higher proportion of finely ground black has been used in the shadows. A pinker flesh tone has been used to define the knuckles. Shadows in the flesh have been applied in a pale brown paint layer and translucent black. The grey underlayer has been left visible for the shadows around the fingernails. Pink highlights have been added to the fingernails with touches of red lake (see micro 19). A red lake layer is visible in losses around the hand, which appears to mark the outline of the hand (see micro 18).

A reserve has been left for the staff. It has been simply painted, with a brownish grey underlayer with lighter cream highlight applied wet-in-wet.

A dark grey underlayer has been painted in as a base for the red tablecloth. In areas of shadow a layer of opaque red mixed with red lake has been thinly laid in (see micro 20). The top of the table and highlights have been painted in an opaque red mixed with lead white with a red lake glaze applied over the top. The red layers of the tablecloth have been painted up and around the hand and fingertips creating the illusion of the fingers pressing into the cloth of the table. There are numerous small circular losses in the red of the tablecloth, which may be related to lead soaps.

Background and inscription
The background has been painted in two layers and there is a lot of wear, abrasion and later overpaint in this area. The lower layer is a pale brownish grey containing lead white, black and earth pigments. Over this there is a translucent brown paint layer that has been brushed up and around features such as the larger hat. The inscription is very thinly painted and has the appearance of a glaze layer; it contains very large particles of black pigment (see micro 09). Due to the thinness of this layer it is difficult to determine whether it is original or a later addition.

Order of construction
- Ruff blocked in
- Flesh
- Skull cap
- Initial background layer
- Larger hat
- Brown layer of costume
- Garter medal ribbon
- Fur of collar and detail of ruff
- Detail of costume
- Cuffs and hands
- Staff
- Tablecloth
- Final background layer
- Inscription

Azurite, vermilion, red lake, lead-tin yellow, earth pigments, carbon black, lead white, yellow lake

Changes in composition/pentimenti
Examination suggests that the sitter was originally painted with a skull cap but during the painting process a large, wide brimmed hat has been painted in.

Restoration observations
There is abrasion in the background and darker paint passages which have retouched. There is a horizontal scratch across the sitter's face which has been retouched but is still visible and distracting.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

In ultra violet light old varnish layers fluoresce green across the surface of the panel (see UV 01). Old retouchings are visible beneath this varnish layer and the variation in the tone of the restoration indicates several retouching campaigns. The variation between the skull cap and the brimmed hat that was extended during painting can also be seen.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: 20th century.


The design of the frame is based on the Entablature style, typical of those found in the Tudor and Stuart periods. It would appear that the frame has been made from jelutong. The main body of the frame has a stained (black) and polished finish. There is a gilded, inner section fitted within the main body of the frame; it appears that there is a gesso layer underlying the gilded finish.