The Gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. Search over 215,000 works, 150,000 of which are illustrated from the 16th Century to the present day.

Advanced Collection search

Sir Francis Drake

  • Overview
  • Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Sir Francis Drake, by Unknown artist, circa 1581 - NPG 4032 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Sir Francis Drake

by Unknown artist
oil on panel, circa 1581
71 3/8 in. x 44 1/2 in. (1813 mm x 1130 mm)
NPG 4032


The unusual construction of the panel support indicates that this portrait was extended from a bust-length to a full-length at some point very early in its history.

This portrait was in the collection of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family at Shardeloes, who descended from a junior branch of the Drake family; their ancestor was Richard Drake, equerry to Queen Elizabeth I. It is presumably the ‘large picture’ of Sir Francis Drake listed in an inventory of Montague Drake’s personal estate (d.1698) drawn up in around 1703-1708. The portrait was sold at Christie’s 26 July 1957 (lot 121) and purchased by the Gallery.

Historical context
Francis Drake completed his circumnavigation of the globe in 1580 and was knighted by Elizabeth I the following year. He was described by John Stow in his Annals as: ‘lowe of stature, of strong limbe, broad-breasted, round-headed, brown hayre, full-bearded, his eyes round, large and clear, well-favoured fayce, and of a cheerful countenance’.

The elaborate impresa includes a red wyvern on a ship in full sail. The ship is drawn around a terrestrial globe by a cable held by hand issuing out of the clouds, with the motto: ‘Divino Auxilio’ on a scroll. The motto ‘Sic Parvis Magna’ (Thus great things from small things [come]) is inscribed beneath the coat of arms.

There is a partial cargo mark, smoothed during panel repair, on the back of one of the large boards.

Notes on attribution
The panel has been constructed in an unusual manner: the face and torso are painted on a single board that has been inserted into a larger panel using grooves cut into the edges of the central boards. Modifications were made to the heads in a number of portraits in the Tyrwhitt-Drake collection; however, the materials in use in both sections of the painting are of the same period and it is evident that the larger panel was carefully constructed in order to accommodate the panel with the head. There is therefore no evidence to suggest that the two sections of the painting are not of the same, or very similar, date.

Different artists may have been responsible for the inset bust-length portrait and the extension, although the variation in technique between the two sections could also be due to the change in scale. The priming layer was applied much more rapidly in the larger panels, and the texture of the broad brushstrokes is evident on the surface. The details, such as the buttons and braid, have also been painted in a looser manner on the extended panels. It has not been possible to attribute this portrait, but it is evident that it is a contemporary work and not a later copy, as was suggested in the 1969 catalogue.

Justification for dating
The coat-of-arms included in the painting were granted to Drake on 20 June 1581 and the likeness of the sitter compares well with the miniature by Nicholas Hilliard that is dated 1581 (NPG 4851). The materials and techniques in use are entirely appropriate for a work of this date; dendrochronological analysis suggests that the tree used for the inset panel was felled after 1560, whilst the trees used for the larger boards were felled after 1564.

The wooden battens on the reverse have caused stresses in the panel that have resulted in paint loss, and there are also restored paint losses along the joins, particularly around the inserted panel. There is considerable overpaint in the head and in the floor, while parts of the background, such as the coat of arms and the globe, are in reasonable condition. The grey mottled appearance of the hose is due to degradation of the red pigment vermilion.

Painting technique
The central section and the extended panel were prepared differently; this is particularly evident when the painting is examined using infrared reflectography, where the head and chest appear much brighter due to variation in the reflectance of the mixture in the preparatory layers. The paint surface on the head section is considerably smoother than the surface on the rest of the panel, where the upper paint layers have a marked wrinkling and drying craquelure, which gives the surface a very uneven texture. However, the pigments employed in both sections are very similar; for example, the mix of dry process vermilion, lead white and red lake that is used in the doublet and hose. The lace on the cuffs and collar were treated in a very similar manner, with a second, crisp white layer applied over a more fluid layer with a yellow tinge.

Drawing and transfer technique
Infrared reflectography reveals that there may be some basic drawn outlines around the eyes and hands. The globe has been drawn using a compass; the hole from the compass points can be seen in the middle of the globe.

Other known versions
There are no other known versions of this portrait.

D-DR/9/12, Buckinghamshire Record Office, Aylesbury
Ribeiro, Aileen and Cally Blackman, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 61
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London, 1969, pp. 69-70

Exhibition history
'The Face of Britain', National Portrait Gallery, London, 2015


Micro 01. Detail of the eye on the left (7.1…
Micro 03. Detail of the corner of the eye on…
Micro 04. Blending and modelling of the flesh…
Micro 06. Detail of lace ruff (7.1 x mag).
Micro 07. Detail of lace cuff (10 x mag).
Micro 08. Detail of fingernail (7.1 x mag).
Micro 09. Detail of the layer structure used…
Micro 10. Detail of sword hilt (7.1 x mag).
Micro 11. Detail showing overpaint (7.1 x mag…
Micro 12. Detail of button, from the central…
Micro 13. Detail of button from the panel ext…
Micro 14. Detail of costume trim, from the ce…
Micro 16. Detail of helmet on crest (7.1 x ma…
Micro 17. Detail of sleeve (10 x mag).
Micro 18. Detail of degraded glaze on trouser…
Micro 19. Detail showing layer structure and…
UV 01. Front of the panel in ultra violet lig…
Reverse 01. Back of the panel in raking light…
Detail 04. Detail of motif on top of crest.
Detail 10. Detail of cargo mark on the back o…

Compare Images (what's this? )

Compare Imagesclose

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.

Open compare viewer Open compare viewer Open compare viewer

Open viewer


The panel has a strong flex when moved, especially the edge boards. There are restored paint losses along the joins. The filling and restoration are extensive along the joins around the head section of the panel. The surface texture around these joins is smooth and very different from the surrounding areas. The painting appears to be very damaged in the central areas of the upper costume and head. There is considerable overpaint in this area, and also in the floor. Some areas in the beard and hair have been repainted. Parts of the background, such as the coat of arms and the globe, are in reasonable condition. The paint surface is uneven, with a matt, textured surface in several areas. There is raised paint craquelure in several parts but it appears to be stable.


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 6

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

The wood battens on the reverse have caused stresses in the panel and there is a vertical split at the lower left that runs up the side of a batten, and another long vertical split running up to the right of the leg on the right. Stresses in the panel appear to have caused the old paint losses. There is extensive filling and restoration in the joins along the edges of the head section of the panel and it is evident that there have been considerable flaked paint losses in these areas. Losses on the joins of the main panel have also been restored. There are small bumps in the paint surface where nails in the battens at the back have pierced the paint surface.

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: 6

Last date of tree ring: 1556


The panel is constructed from five principal boards that were labelled A to E (from the front) for analysis. The head and chest are painted on a separate board that was labelled F. All six boards were suitable for tree-ring measurement. No sapwood is present, which means that a terminus post quem can be applied to the panel. The series obtained from boards A and B match strongly, which indicates that they derive from the same tree. The series from boards C, D and E also matched strongly and derived from another single tree. The latest rings on the outer edges of the three different groups of boards are dated 1556 from board E, 1550 from board B, and 1552 from board F. Adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings to these suggests a felling date after 1564 for the main panel, and after 1560 for the board with the head. The board widths are within the typical range for full width eastern Baltic boards and there is little chance that they were trimmed. The conjectural usage date, using the LEHR -usage range, for this panel is 1564-1596 for the main boards, and 1560-1592 for the board with the head.

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 shows the construction of the panel and it can be seen that the main parts of the panel were aligned with wood dowels (see x-ray mosaic 01). There are no dowels at the joins with the part with the head, but small nails are evident in x-ray. Areas of damage with paint losses can be seen and also dense areas with thick paint drips in some parts.

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 reveals that there may be some basic drawn outlines around the eyes and hands (see DIRR 01). The compass hole in the middle of the globe can be seen. In the infrared image, the costume painted on the inset panel appears paler than the rest of the costume that is painted on the larger part of the panel. This difference in tone is related to variation in the reflectance of the mixture in the preparation layers.

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 2000.

The panel is prepared with a thick chalk ground with a grey priming over it. There is a slightly translucent layer between these, which indicates that a glue or oil size was laid on to seal the chalk. The priming contains lead white (loosely bound) and fine carbon black, which is probably lamp black. The priming in both the main part of the panel and the head section appear to be the same.

Green cloak
Azurite, lead-tin yellow with copper glazes and lead-tin yellow highlights.

Azurite with a layer with yellow ochre over it.

Pink mix contains dry process vermilion, red lake and white lead.
Silver braid on hose contains azurite.

Dark grey over priming. Difficult to say whether paint over grey is original, but pigments were available in 16th century. There is a translucent layer between the priming and the grey.

Coat of arms
Blue is azurite with occasional yellow ochre.

Overpaint layers appear in some cross-sections.

In July 2011 further samples were taken for analysis.

Thumb on the globe
Sample 1: Cross-section shows that the shadow on the thumb of the hand resting on the globe is painted with solid mixed red with a translucent glaze over it. It seems that there was a slight gap between painting the globe and painting the shadow of the thumb because a brownish translucent layer seems to separate the globe paint from the flesh paint.

Yellow in scroll beneath the coat of arms
Sample 2: In cross-section, the yellow is a mixture of lead-tin yellow (probably) with a translucent yellow lake, and with some traces of a red earth and a little red lake. This is painted over the white of the scroll. Beneath the white layer there are traces of a brownish red (containing fine red, black and yellow pigments) over the grey priming, which might be drawing to mark the scroll. A thin translucent brown layer lies over the ground beneath the priming. This indicates that a glue or oil size applied to seal the chalk, as observed in 2000.

Sample 3: The light green on the globe is a mixture of azurite and lead-tin yellow, identified in dispersion. The yellow has a mustard colour on the surface and a darker appearance in dispersion than is often the case with lead-tin yellow.

Green floor tile
Sample 4: There is a dark grey underlayer over the grey priming and an intermittent red layer that might be the original uppermost layer. There appears to be a varnish layer over this that appears resinous in ultra violet light. This uppermost pale green layer is probably retouching but might replace an original final 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
The texture of the paint differs between the two panels (the bust-length inset and the larger composition). This is due to variation in the application of the preparation layers and the marked wrinkling and drying craquelure in the upper paint layers in the larger panel, which give the surface a very uneven texture.

Preparation layers
The panels were prepared with a chalk ground and a grey priming containing lead white and fine carbon black, which is probably lamp black. In the main part of the panel the priming has been rapidly applied with a broad brush and the texture is evident in the paint surface. The head section does not have the thick brush texture of the main part and the surface is smoother. There may be some drawn outlines around the face and hands.

In many areas of the face, small black dots are visible which are associated with retouching of the dark background (see micro 04). The flesh has been applied directly over the pale ground, which is visible in many areas. The flesh paint contains finely ground vermilion, lead white and varying proportions of black. The lighter passages of paint and highlights have been applied in a thicker paint blended into the main flesh paint. Fine brushwork and blending can be seen around the eyes and nose (see micro 04). The pink of the cheeks contains red lake and has been applied over the cooler flesh tones used for the rest of the face, with evidence of blending between the layers in some areas. The outline of the nose is emphasised in red and the nostril has been painted in brown. The ear has been very loosely painted but does not appear to be extensively retouched. It is possible that some modelling layers have been lost.

Beneath the irises there is a grey underlayer containing azurite and vermilion, over which the black of the pupil has been painted (see micro 01). The irises have a green appearance that looks original and contains copper green mixed with yellow ochre. The outline of the iris has been defined in black with a thick highlight of lead white. The whites of the eyes have been painted with a grey underlayer containing azurite, which is likely to extend beneath the irises. Textured brushstrokes of white have been applied over this layer. The corners of the eyes have been marked in with a vermilion-based paint. Small brushstrokes containing vermilion and red lake with white highlights have been applied wet-in-wet over the top (see micro 03). The upper eyelid has been defined in a reddish brown paint with eyelashes painted on in a translucent fluid medium.

The lips have been painted using vermilion with lead white blended in for areas of reflected light. The parting of the lips has been defined with a brown paint mixture. The lips appear to have been painted after the moustache was laid in.

Beard, moustache, eyebrows and hair
Around the ear the hair has been applied at the same time as the flesh. Wet-in-wet blending in this area creates the texture of the beard against the flesh. The main beard has been applied in two layers with a light brown tone blocking in the shape of the beard, and individual strands have been applied in darker brown brushstrokes. The moustache has also been depicted with individual brushstrokes of translucent brown, yellow and grey, which have been built up to create the overall shape. A pale brown layer has been applied for the basic shape of the eyebrows, with flesh paint loosely blended up and around it. Strokes of reddish brown and black have been applied for individual hairs, with a few grey and yellow strokes added over the top. The hair is very worn and abraded, with some retouching covering the wear. A translucent warm brown underlayer has been applied directly over the priming to mark out the basic shape. Broad brushstrokes of grey and brown paint have then been applied to build up the texture of the hair.

The pink doublet is painted on both the smaller face panel and the larger panel. In paint sampling the pigments were found to be very similar and composed of dry process vermilion mixed with lead white, with a little red lake found in some samples. In many areas the pink doublet has been broadly overpainted with a thin layer of paint (see micro 11). In general the details on the face panel have been painted in a crisper manner, while those on the larger panel are more fluid; for example, the buttons and the braid (see micro 12 and micro 13). The differences are only apparent on close inspection. The buttons on the face panel have been painted with a thin layer of dark grey, with highlights applied over the top with small brushstrokes in a thick-bodied lead white paint. A red lake glaze shadow has been applied beneath the buttons. The braid has been applied in the same manner but with the addition of a stripe of blue running through the decoration painted with azurite (see micro 14). The pearls have been painted in grey with white highlights. The large jewel is very worn and the spattered retouching in this area makes it hard to read. The jewels are painted in black with highlights in lead white set in a gold framework painted with lead-tin yellow. The trousers and hose are painted in a brighter red composed of vermilion and red lake. A line of red lake has been used to outline the back of the legs; this was applied over the hose and before the green floor was painted in (see micro 19). Grey on the surface of legs is probably due to discolouration of the vermilion pigment (see micro 18). The white sleeves have been painted with an underlayer of pale grey blocking out the basic shape, with variation in tone for areas of highlight and shadow. The grey pattern has then been painted over this layer with white details applied wet-in-wet (see [micro 17|img/4032_2011_micro17.jpg}). The brightest highlights of the sleeves have been applied as final touches in loosely applied brushstrokes. The green cloak has an underlayer of grey, with a layer of verdigris and lead-tin yellow painted over the top followed by a thick glaze of copper green. The braid around the edges has been painted in lead white and lead-tin yellow. Ruff and cuffs There is a pale grey underlayer present beneath the ruff, over which the pattern of the lace been applied. The lace has the appearance of being strengthened but microscope examination reveals it has been painted twice in the original scheme (see [micro 06|img/4032_2011_micro06.jpg}). The initial paint layer has a yellow tinge and the paint has a fluid appearance. The whole lace pattern was then painted again in a crisper, whiter and more textured paint. Craquelure in the paint suggests that the two layers were applied not long after each other. The cuffs have been treated in the same manner, with a double paint layer marking out the detail of the lace (see [micro 07|img/4032_2011_micro07.jpg}).

Sword hilt
The sword hilt has been painted in a dark grey paint mixture composed of black and lead white. A lighter grey layer was applied over this but it does not cover the whole area of the darker grey. The pattern of the hilt has been scratched into the paint layers while still wet and highlights have been applied in lead white (see micro 10). The handles of the sword are painted over the red of the costume. Remnants of a red lake glaze are visible on the handles, which may have been applied to indicate the reflection of the fabric on the metal.

The hand on the left appears to have been painted after the globe, as flesh paint can clearly be seen covering a blue paint layer in some areas. It seems likely that a reserve was left for both hands. The flesh paint has been applied in a broad brushy manner and contains finely ground vermilion, lead white and black, mixed with a little red lake. The shadows have been defined in a shade of dark orange that contains earth pigments. On the fingernails, a highlight of lead white has been applied while the surrounding paint was still wet (see micro 08).

A layer of azurite mixed with a little lead white has been applied in the area of the globe. The green of the land masses has been created by applying a thin layer of yellow pigment mixed with azurite over the thicker underlayer of azurite. A copper green glaze has then been applied to define the outlines (see micro 09). The white land mass in the middle has been painted in white mixed with a little black. Remnants of a discoloured coating are particularly visible in this area. The pink areas have been created by applying a red lake glaze over a pale paint layer.

The texture of the paint in this area has the most extreme wrinkling and is a difficult area to read. A dark red layer has been applied overall, onto which the highlights have been applied in a brighter red. The tassels are painted in a thick-bodied paint containing a yellow pigment.

A grey underlayer has been applied and the squared pattern has then been applied on top. The main tiles have a copper green glaze applied over the top in varying brushstrokes that mimic the appearance of marble. The green glaze is very abraded and worn in many areas (see micro 19). The rectangular tiles between the main tiles have been painted in black applied over the grey underlayer. The shadows of Drake’s legs have been painted in translucent glaze layers. It is difficult to establish how much of the floor is original. Paint sample analysis identified a translucent layer, most likely to be varnish, between the priming layer and the grey layer above it. A sample from a green tile identified a red layer with a varnish layer over it. The pale green lies over the varnish and appears to be restoration, although it might replace an original final layer (see Paint sampling).

Coat of arms
Examination suggests that a reserve was left for the basic shape of the crest in the background. The ship motif and elements around the edges of the crest extend over the dark background layer. The hand has a pale pink grey underlayer over which flesh paint has been modelled in a brighter pink, with final touches of red lake for the fingers. The sleeve has a purple appearance that was achieved with a mixture of red lake mixed with white, with a little white cuff. The clouds around the hand have been painted in lead white with the addition of azurite (see detail 04). The scrolls have all been painted in lead white with yellow applied for the reverse; traces of a red lake glaze are also visible in areas of shadow. The lettering has been painted in black. The metal of the helmet has been painted with a mixture of lead white, black and azurite. The details have been carefully painted in yellow ochre, lead-tin yellow and red lake, with lead white for the highlights (see micro 16). The main shape of the shield has been painted with a mixture of earth pigments and black. The white band across the middle has been blocked in with a dull white, with brighter white stripes applied over the top. Particles of azurite are visible between the bright white stripes but it is unclear if these are incorporated into the lower layer or applied as separate stripes. The stars have been painted in a fluid white paint with thin lines of black applied on top.

The background has a reddish hue and has been painted with a mixture of earth pigments and a little lead white. It appears to have been painted in one layer that was applied directly over the textured grey ground.

Order of construction
- Flesh
- Beard, moustache and hair
- Lips
- Green cape blocked in
- Pink costume
- White sleeves
- Detail on green cape and costume
- Tablecloth
- Globe
- Hands
- Table
- Floor
- Background
- Crest

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

Changes in composition/pentimenti
The unusual construction of the panel support suggests that it was initially intended to be a bust-length portrait, which was then extended to a full-length. This appears to have occurred at an early date.

Restoration observations
Extensive restoration is present on the joins, and there is considerable overpaint in the head section and on the floor tiles. There are small spatters of retouching across the painting, which are evident as small black and pink dots.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

Old varnish layers fluoresce over much of the paint surface in ultra violet light, especially in the lower half (see UV 01). Much of the old varnish appears to have been removed from the face and doublet and in the upper background round the figure. Relatively recent restoration appears dark in ultra violet light and can be seen down the joins. There are also large dark areas on the doublet and scattered areas on other parts of the costume, in particular the lower hose; small dark areas can be seen on the face, especially below the nose.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: 20th century.


Entablature style frame with black stained and polished finish and gilt sight edge.