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Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

4 of 29 portraits by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

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Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1597 - NPG 4985 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
oil on canvas, circa 1597
85 7/8 in. x 50 in. (2180 mm x 1272 mm)
NPG 4985


The only version of this portrait type to show Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, in his Garter robes.

This portrait was likely commissioned by Sir Henry Lee, and remained in the collection at Ditchley by descent to Harold Lee-Dillon, 17th Viscount Dillon. It was subsequently owned by Mr and Mrs Eric Bullivant and was seen at their home, Anderson Manor, Blandford Forum, by Roy Strong on a visit in 1966. It was purchased by the Gallery from Sotheby’s (lot 10) in 1974.

Historical context
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex was a talented soldier who shared the command of a naval expedition to garrison Cadiz in the summer of 1596. A Venetian observer described how, in November 1596, Essex ‘on this last voyage ... began to grow a beard, which he used not to wear’. This portrait is based on a likeness that was painted soon after his return from Cadiz and shows Essex in the robes of the Order of the Garter, to which he had been elected in April 1588.

Notes on attribution
Sir Henry Lee was one of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s major patrons and may have introduced the sitter to the artist. Gheeraerts and his studio produced a number of portraits of the Essex in the late 1590s, two of the most important of which are the full-length portrait in white (Woburn Abbey, Duke of Bedford) and the three-quarter length portrait in black (Trinity College, Cambridge). Gheeraerts’ face pattern was used for all subsequent large-scale portraits of Essex. The preparation layers and paint handling technique used in this portrait compare closely to other works by Gheeraerts, including the full-length portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales (NPG 2562), and like that work, the portrait appears to have been painted with some studio assistance.

Justification for dating
This portrait was probably commissioned to celebrate Sir Henry Lee’s election to the Order of the Garter in 1597, which Essex had supported; the technique and materials in use are appropriate for a work of this period. However, Lee subsequently commissioned full-length portraits of both himself (1602) and the young Henry, Prince of Wales (c. 1603), in Garter robes (Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers, London and NPG 2562) from Gheeraerts. It is therefore possible that this portrait of Essex was produced when his reputation was rehabilitated in the early years of James I’s reign.

The paint surface in the face, hands and tassel is thin and abraded, and the grey underlayer is very evident. The smalt in the tassels has discoloured considerably and now appears grey rather than blue. There are extensive passages of overpaint in the mantle that appear to contain indigo. Some of the retouchings are a little mismatched. A later inscription in the lower-left corner was removed in 1975.

Painting technique
The portrait was painted on a wide piece of medium weight canvas with a plain weave that compares closely with the canvas used for the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth I (NPG 2561), although it is not an exact match. The canvas was prepared with a pale grey ground. A grey underlayer was then applied in the face, mantle, collar, cuffs, shoes and hose, with a darker grey underlayer in the background. The face has a grey tonality because the underlayer was used for the mid-tone in the thinly painted flesh. A red layer containing vermilion was laid in as an underlayer in the robes and was also used as a mid-tone, whilst the sleeves have a pale brown underlayer. The underlayer for the rush matting was painted with mixed brownish earth colours that darken in tone towards the back of the composition to show recession in the floor.

Fine details were painted in with delicate brushwork, using wet-in-wet blending in some areas. The blending in the mantle lining was carried out with a fine wet-in-wet combing technique. The original paint on the mantle contains large blue particles mixed with lead white, bright opaque red and red lake, which suggests that the cloak was originally purple.

Drawing and transfer technique
Extensive underdrawing in the face was visible during surface examination and using infrared reflectography. The outline of the face, the features and the line of the ruff were marked in with a matt black material. Small regular dots along the nose, neckline and beard may be pouncing, and would indicate that the underdrawing reinforces a transferred pattern. Other lines have a more freehand appearance. Underdrawing can also be seen in other areas, including marking the position for the hands. The grid pattern for the rushes was outlined in a grey sparkly material that was applied in a fluid manner with a brush; this appears similar to material usually found as underdrawing and it is notable that the rushes on the portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales are marked out with the same material.

Examination using infrared reflectography suggests that the canvas may have been reused, or that the portrait was repositioned, as two eyes from an underlying portrait can be seen in the beard and ruff. It is not clear how finished this portrait may have been and it is difficult to see in x-ray.

Other known versions
There are no other versions of this portrait in which Essex wears the Garter robes.
The two most important versions of the portrait type:
- Woburn Abbey (Duke of Bedford), full-length in white
- Trinity College, Cambridge, ¾ length in black - TC Oils P 52
See also:
- Birmingham Museums Trust, 2002PL11

Cust, Lionel, ‘Marcus Gheeraerts’, The Walpole Society, III, 1913-1914, pp. 32-3
Viscount Dillon, A Catalogue of Paintings in possession of the Rt Hon Viscount Dillon at Ditchley, 1908, p. 19 (no. 24)
Rae, Caroline, ‘Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, John de Critz, Robert Peake and William Larkin: A comparative study’, in T. Cooper, A. Burnstock, M. Howard and E. Town, eds, Painting in Britain 1500-1630: Production, Influences and Patronage, 2015, pp. 171-9
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London, 1969, pp. 115-117

Exhibition history
‘Elizabeth to Victoria: British Portraits from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery’, State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia, 2016
‘Les Tudors’, Musée du Luxembourg, 2015


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 showing underdrawing and too…
Micro 04. Detail of eyebrow, showing blending…
Micro 05. Detail of the lips (7.1 x mag).
Micro 06. Detail of the gold setting of the l…
Micro 07. Detail of azurite blended into edge…
Micro 08. Detail of blue cloak showing overpa…
Micro 09. Detail of lettering on cloak (7.1 x…
Micro 10. Detail of Garter chain (7.1 x mag).
Micro 11. Detail of St George on the Garter m…
Micro 13. Combing technique used to blend pai…
Micro 14. Detail of lace on cuff (7.1 x mag).
Micro 15. Detail of red robes, showing paint…
Micro 16. Detail of the sword belt (7.1 x mag…
Micro 17. Detail of thumb, showing layer stru…
Micro 18. Detail of azurite mixed with lead w…
Micro 19. Detail of rush matting, showing gre…
Micro 20. Detail of paint mixture in the back…
DIRR detail 01. Digital infrared reflectogram…

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The lining is stiff but in reasonable condition. The stretcher is in good condition. The paint surface has a noticeable craquelure that is a little raised. There has been some flaking in the past but the paint surface seems to be stable. The paint surface in the face, hands and tassel is thin and abraded and the grey underlayer is very evident. There appears to be some warm pink overpaint on the face. The blue cloak is overpainted; this could not be removed during conservation because some of the overpaint was insoluble and could not be removed easily, and the original paint beneath is very thin. Some of the retouchings are now a little mismatched. The surface of the varnish is vulnerable and can be scratched and fractured easily by knocks during handling. The inscription at the lower left was removed in 1975 because it was decided that stylistically it was of a later date.


Support type: Canvas

Panel condition observations

The original canvas has an old glue-paste lining. It is stretched on a six-window, adjustable wooden stretcher, which is not original but probably dates from the time of the lining. The lining is stiff but in reasonable condition. The stretcher is in good condition.

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.

Last date of tree ring: n/a


The painting is on a canvas support.

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 medium weight plain canvas weave can be seen very clearly in x-ray (see x-ray mosaic 01). Cusping at the edges of the canvas can be seen at all edges, which shows that the canvas has not been trimmed significantly, even though the original tacking edges are no longer present. The canvas grade and weave compares very closely with that used in the 'Ditchley' portrait of Elizabeth I (NPG 2561). The stretcher members are evident. The paint layers appear very thinly applied, without the expected increased density in the face paint. The flesh paint and eyes for a previous face beneath the current paint layers, which are visible beneath the ruff using infrared reflectography, cannot be seen with x-ray.

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 extensive underdrawing in the sitter's face (see DIRR detail 01). The lines are quite thick and surface examination shows that the material used is matt and black. The main features have been marked in, as well as the outline of the face and ear, and the line of the ruff against the neck. Along the nose, neckline and beard there are small regular dots; these may be pouncing and would indicate that the underdrawing is reinforcing a transferred image. Other lines marking out the hair and beard, and also the small hatching lines, have a more freehand quality to them. There are some lines marking out the position of the hands. No underdrawing was seen using infrared reflectography in other elements of the costume or composition. There is also evidence of a face that has been painted over just below the face of the sitter. In infrared reflectography there is a pale area visible, which marks out the flesh and two eyes. It is unclear how finished this face is and it is also difficult to see in x-ray.

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 January 2012.

The canvas was prepared with a fairly thick layer of pale grey ground, consisting of lead white (and possibly chalk) with a little fine carbon black. In some areas there is a warm grey underlayer, consisting of lead white with a little charcoal black, reddish-orange particles (red ochre or red lead) and yellow ochre. These layers can be seen in the cross-section of sample 2.

Blue mantle
Sample 2: Cross-section shows the pale grey ground and the warm grey underlayer. The fairly bright blue in the uppermost paint layer may be indigo. It is similar to the blue found in the portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales (NPG 2562).

Background and sword
Sample 3: Cross-section from the background over the tip of the sword hilt shows the pale ground, which appears to be followed by a layer of bright orange paint for the sword hilt. The bright orange paint consists of earth pigments, including burnt sienna. Above the bright orange layer, there is a thin, pale warm grey underlayer. The upper layer contains large bright blue pigment particles. Dispersion has identified this blue as azurite.

Costume tassels
Sample 5: Cross-section shows a pale yellow layer, which seems to be lead-tin yellow, above which is a pale blue layer made with lead white and pale smalt. The upper paint layer is an optical purple glaze for the shadow made with crimson red lake with a little carbon black and lead white. Dispersion contains lead-based yellow, red lake, and a relatively colourless smalt.

Blue from the chain
Sample 6: Dispersion shows a very good quality indigo, or an unusual form of ultramarine. A similar blue was found on Henry, Prince of Wales (NPG 2562).

Sample 4: Cross-section shows the pale grey underlayer with two layers of flesh paint. The lower layer contains lead white, carbon black and a particle azurite. The upper layer contains lead white, carbon black, vermilion (or possibly red ochre) and a little yellow ochre.

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 layers have been thinly applied and have suffered from extensive abrasion in many areas.

Preparation layers
The canvas was prepared with a fairly thick pale grey ground that consists of lead white, possibly some chalk, and a little fine carbon black (see Paint sampling). Warm pale grey layers above this may be priming layers, but are more likely underlayers for the composition. Underdrawing was carried out in a matt black material.

The face has a very grey tonality, which is partly caused by wear and abrasion of the upper paint layers that has revealed the grey ground layer. The ground has been applied with a tool, creating evenly spaced regular marks in the paint layer (see micro 03), and the flesh layers have been thinly applied over this. The flesh paint contains a mixture of lead white with finely ground black and vermilion and the thin layers of paint have been subtly blended. The highlights have been applied last and blended into the flesh paint around the features. A similar build up of paint layers has been used for the hands (see micro 17). A grey paint containing a high proportion of black has been applied as an initial layer that is used for the mid-tones. Over this, a thin layer of flesh paint has been applied with the highlights painted in a thick bodied, creamy paint. The shadows around the hand have been painted in a translucent paint with a greater proportion of black pigment.

The lips have been painted in vermilion mixed with lead white, with lighter highlights and red lake blended to model the mouth (see micro 05). A red lake glaze has been used to define the parting of the lips and has been feathered at the edges to soften the contour.

The pupil has been painted in a translucent black paint. The brown iris has then been painted up around the pupil in a mixture of earth pigments (see micro 01 and micro 02). Two white dabs of lead white paint have been added to the iris as highlights while the lower layers were still wet. A grey layer is visible as the base of the whites of the eyes; this contains a high proportion of black mixed with lead white, and appears to be the grey priming layer. Fine white highlights have been added over this layer, around the iris. The shadow of the eyelid on the iris has been painted with a broad stroke of thin black paint. A pale brown paint has been used to define the upper eyelids, in the eye on the right this has been flicked out to indicate the eyelashes, with small white highlights added at a later stage.

Eyebrows, hair and beard
The eyebrows have been painted in a few strokes of pale brown paint (see micro 04). The flesh paint around them has then been dragged down over this layer and slightly feathered to create the texture of hair. A reserve has been left in the upper paint layers for the beard and moustache, which have been painted directly over the priming. The facial hair is thinly painted with stokes of translucent orange and brown made from mixtures of earth pigments. The individual strokes have been built up to create the texture of the beard. A brushy underlayer has been applied for the hair, over which brushstrokes have been added to indicate individual hairs. Lead soaps are visible in high concentrations in these thin paint layers.

The hat has been painted in black mixed with a little lead white and earth pigments. Highlights showing the folds of the cloth have been applied while the underlying black paint was still wet. The final lead white highlights have been added once the lower layers had dried. A reserve has been left in the background for the feathers of the hat, which have been applied directly over the grey priming. Thin layers of grey paint have been laid over the warm priming layer, with the individual fronds of the feathers applied on top in a lighter white paint. The fronds have all been applied at the same time, creating wet-in-wet blending. At the edges the upper layer of the background, paint has been brushed up and into the feathers to emphasise their texture (see micro 07). Large blue particles of azurite from the background paint are visible on top of the white paint. The gold settings of the jewels on the hat have been marked out in a dull orange paint containing earth pigments (see micro 06). Over this, lead-tin yellow has been applied mixed with red lead; this paint has an unusually lumpy texture. Strokes of red lake and copper green glaze have been added as final touches in a very free manner.

An underlayer of grey has been painted in for the basic shape of the ruff, with lighter paint used wet-in-wet into the grey to mark the folds of the fabric. White highlights have been applied once the lower layers were dry. There is an incised line following one of the folds on the right-hand side; however, no other incised lines have been identified and it is unclear if this is deliberate or not.

The blue areas of the mantle have extensive passages of overpaint containing indigo (see micro 08). The original paint layer contains large blue pigment particles mixed with lead white, a bright opaque red and red lake. The lettering of the Garter badge was applied over the warm grey layer and consists of a dull orange paint with carefully applied highlights in lead-tin yellow mixed with lead white. The blue of the mantle has then been applied up and around the lettering. Although this is a time-consuming method of painting, it does all appear to be original (see micro 09). The red area of the crest on the badge has been painted in vermilion with a red lake glaze over on top. A grey paint has been used to block in the lining of the mantle and is used for a mid-tone over which a darker grey has been applied for shadow and lead white added as the brightest highlights. The highlights have been broadly applied in swift brushstrokes, but a subtle combing technique has been used to blend the paint layers together and soften the contours (see micro 13).

Red kirtle, sleeves, sword belt and sleeves
As with other elements of the costume, the mid-tone of the red kirtle has been laid in first. The paint layer contains vermilion mixed with black and lead white (see micro 15). The highlights are painted in vermilion with lead white and a small proportion of black, and thin washes of black pigment has been applied for the shadows. A red lake glaze has been applied as a final layer. The red kirtle has been finished with a thin line of white paint around the hem and edges of the costume. The sleeves have a pale brown underlayer over which the shadows and highlights have been applied in broad brushstrokes. The pattern of the sleeve has been applied over these layers in dabs of grey paint. An opaque grey has been used to mark in the cuffs, with the highlights and lace details painted in lead white (see micro 14). A reserve appears to have been left in the kirtle for the sword belt; the grey priming is visible beneath the upper paint layers (see micro 16). An dull orange base layer for the sword belt has been painted with earth colours mixed with a little black. The details have been painted in thick lead-tin yellow mixed with a small amount of red lead. The darker shadows have been defined with a dark glaze containing red lake and black. The hilt of the sword has been handled in the same manner as the belt, with an orange base layer and details carefully applied on top.

Garter chain and medal
The gold setting of the Garter chain has been handled in the same manner as the lettering on the cloak, with highlights in lead-tin yellow mixed with red lead. Where the chain sits on the white lining of the cloak, a shadow has been painted in a thin layer of brown/grey paint. The centre of the Tudor rose motif is painted in orange with a few dabs of lead-tin yellow for the stamens. Over this, the red petals have been painted in vermilion, with fluid strokes of white for the highlights and a red lake glaze as a final layer (see micro 10). Between the petals there are tiny leaves painted with small brushstrokes containing azurite mixed with lead-tin yellow. The lettering around the edges is painted in lead-tin yellow applied over an underlayer of azurite, with a red lake glaze apparent in some areas giving it a purple tone. The Garter medal has been painted over the red robes and before the details of the tassels were applied. The detail of St George and the Dragon is swiftly painted but with attention to detail (see micro 11). A range of pigments has been used for this element, including mixtures of azurite and lead-tin yellow for the green, and azurite, smalt and red lake for the purple. The pearl has been thinly painted in a grey paint that allows the red to show through, indicating the reflection of the fabric on the jewel. Strokes of red lake glazes have been applied around the medal and jewels for shadows.

A reserve has been left in the red robes for the tassels and cord. The underlayer contains pale smalt mixed with lead white. The paint has a different craquelure pattern to that seen in other passages and it also has an unusual lumpy texture. The details have been applied in lead-tin yellow, with a few red lead particles and pure azurite (see micro 12). In the tassels there are remnants of a red lake glaze that has a brown appearance.

Shoes and stockings
The mid-tone of the shoes and stockings is a warm grey paint mixture with lighter passages applied over the top. The lighter paint contains lead white mixed with a little azurite (see micro 18). The shadows have been applied last.

Rush matting
A brown underlayer for the matting has been painted in a mixture of earth pigments that becomes darker in tone higher up the canvas in order to show the recession of the floor. The detail of the woven rushes has been systematically painted in parallel lines, using yellow ochre mixed with a little lead-tin yellow for areas of highlight. The shadows of the rushes have been applied in a thin dark brown paint. The individual rushes have also been defined in a paint that has been applied as a final layer and has a grey sparkly appearance (see micro 19). The material has been applied with a brush in a fluid manner and appears similar to that usually found as underdrawing.

The background has been applied in two separate layers. The first layer was applied early on the in the painting process and is clearly visible around the sword in the spaces around the hilt. The second background layer was applied when all the other elements of the composition were completed. Although the background appears dark brown, there is a large quantity of blue pigment in the final layer that is mixed with earth pigments, finely ground vermilion and black (see micro 20). Under the microscope, the blue azurite pigment appears very bright in the surrounding dark paint mixture.

Order of construction
- Pale ground
- Grey underlayer for flesh
- Underdrawing
- Flesh
- Hat and feather
- Ruff
- Warm grey underlayer for mantle
- Blue upper layer of mantle
- Sword hilt appears to have been applied over pale ground
- Warm grey underlayer for background, appears to have been applied after the sword hilt (See Paint sampling)
- Upper background layer

Azurite, smalt, charcoal black, lead white, earth pigments, red ochre, yellow ochre, lead-tin yellow, red lake, red lead, vermilion, copper green glaze

Restoration observations
There is scattered restoration on the figure, and the cloak is overpainted. There are large areas of restoration in the background. The restoration is spotty in some parts and rather mismatched but is reasonably acceptable.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

Areas of retouching can be seen as darker areas in ultra violet light (see UV 01). There are scattered retouchings across the canvas in the costume and in the rush matting. There is a diagonal scratch in the face running through the eyebrow on the left, which has been retouched. The background has been partially cleaned and residues of old varnish fluoresce green in ultra violet light. Other areas appear very dark, which is likely to be due to a combination of cleaning and retouching.


Frame type: Not original. Black painted cassetta style frame with three bands of gilding.

Frame date: 20th century.