Nicholas Heath

  • Overview
  • Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Nicholas Heath

by Hans Eworth
oil on panel, 1566
24 5/8 in. x 18 in. (625 mm x 457 mm)
NPG 1388


Key findings: Original dating and authorship confirmed. Very extensive underdrawing was revealed by infrared reflectography showing that a type of transfer technique from a pattern was employed. This evidence strongly indicates that patterns were not simply employed for copies but also - as in this case - were used for original compositions .

Historical summary
This portrait descended through the Heath family via Phillipa Heath, cousin of Nicholas Heath's father. Phillipa Heath married Ralph Sheldon (d.1546) of Weston Park, Long Compton, Warwickshire, where the painting was recorded in 1691 by Antony à Wood in Athenae Oxonienses. In 1824 it was sold to a private collector, after which it passed through several changes of ownership. It was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 1904. The painting is the only identified portrait of Nicholas Heath painted from life. It was painted in the last years of Heath's life, while in seclusion at his county house at Chobham, Surrey. A churchman under four Tudor monarchs, Heath fell from grace as Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor in 1559 as a result of his Catholicism. Consequently, he is not shown in robes of office.

Notes on likely authorship
The work is inscribed with an original monogram, 'HE', at the top left. The authorship is undisputed.

Commentary on condition, painting style, technique
Although the painting is in reasonably good condition, there are some signs of wear and paint loss on various areas, such as the lips and hairline. The inscription with Heath's name has been heavily restored. There has also been a significant loss of colour in the appearance of the chair.

The examination has shown that the orderly painting method consisted of at least four stages, as observed in other paintings by Eworth. Paint sampling and other surface observations have revealed a sophisticated application of paint with an accumulation of layers to achieve a rich, painterly effect. Despite the thickness of the paint application, however, some of Eworth's brushwork is very fine, particularly around the eyes. Some of the hairs on Heath's beard were created by removing paint, when still wet, and some were painted in. The chair was painted with a mixture of the blue pigment smalt, red lake and white. It would have been purple but the smalt has discoloured and the paint now has a blanched appearance.

Justification for dating
The technique and materials in use are entirely consistent with a work from this period. There is an inscription reading 'AETATIS 63./1566' which is supported by dendrochronology. The last tree ring identified dates from 1551. This suggests a felling date after 1559, which would indicate a possible maximum of fifteen years between felling and execution.

Drawing and transfer technique
Many parts of the underdrawing can be seen using infrared reflectography. The thick, black quality of the drawing resembles tracing which suggests that Eworth was working from a preparatory drawing. It is perhaps unlikely, in this instance, that a pattern would have been needed for many other multiple versions. The transfer/pattern-like drawing is most conspicuous in the drawing of the hands. Underdrawing has also been used to define the nose area (creating shadows), wrinkles in the forehead and lips.

A small number of changes to the final composition made by the artist are evident from x-ray and infrared analysis. In particular, the top edge of the chair was altered at a late date.

Relevance to other known versions
This is the only known likeness of Heath.

Strong, Roy, The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture, 1969, p.104 (No.49)
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp.138-9


IRR mosaic 01. Image of the hands in infrared…
IRR mosaic 02. Image of the face in infrared…
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 the edge of the beard, sh…
Micro 05. Detail of the upper lip and the sha…
Micro 06. Detail of the lips, showing underdr…
Micro 08. Detail of the monogram (12.5 x mag)…
Micro 09. Detail of underdrawing visible bene…
Micro 10. Detail of the ear and the edge of t…
Micro 11. Detail of incised line beneath the…
Micro 14. Detail of the chair arm in the lowe…
Micro 15. Detail of the thumb on the left, sh…
Micro 17. Edge of the chair back, jacket and…
Micro 19. Detail of the hairline, showing exp…
Micro 20. Detail of underdrawn wrinkles in th…
Micro 21. Pentiment at the top of the chair b…
Reverse 01. Reverse of the panel in normal li…

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 paint of the name, date and age inscriptions is abraded. There are residues of old black and grey restoration on the small worn areas over the cracks in the dark brown costume, although most of the overpaint was removed in 1983. The paint surface is a little worn in the thinly painted areas but generally in reasonably good condition. There is restoration down the panel join, in small areas in the flesh and on the inscription each side of the head.


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 2

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

The panel is in reasonably good condition, and is flat with no warp. The right-hand side has suffered woodworm damage which has weakened the upper-right corner and caused some loss to the wood. There have been some problems with the join, which was repaired in the past with four wood 'butterflies' inset across the join, and horizontal oak blocks inset across the top and bottom. In 1949 six diamond-shaped buttons were attached over the 'butterfly' insets. The initials 'F.W.C.' were written on one diamond, and 'July 1949' on another. These were removed in 1983, exposing the butterfly insets which were found to have been cut across at the join, and have been repaired by filling with sawdust mixed with glue. The wood blocks at the top and bottom were mostly removed, apart from small pieces which remain to cover the joins. A cut remains at the top and bottom where these battens were inset. There are three old cracks at the upper-right corner.

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: 1551


The boards were labelled A and B from the left (from the front) for analysis. It is not clear if the boards derive from the same tree. No sapwood was present at the outermost edges of the boards, therefore a terminus post quem can be applied. The ring sequences recovered from boards A and B were found to cross match strongly. The last tree ring identified, found on board A, dates to 1551. Adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings suggests that the tree used to make the board was felled after 1559.

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 vertical wood grain, the join in the panel and the wooden butterfly insets can be seen in the x-ray. The horizontal cuts across the back at the top and bottom, where wood battens were attached, can also be seen (see x-ray mosaic 01 and Support for details of what remains).

The paint surface was thinly applied, so there are few details in the x-ray, but the flesh paint and the paint on the chair can be seen. The change in the top-left edge of the chair back, where it has been raised, can be seen in the x-ray (see also Surface examination). The x-ray image also shows that very little of the original lead-tin yellow paint remains in the inscription on each side of the sitter's head. The incised lines under the left part of the inscription can be seen in the x-ray, but the inscription on the right cannot be seen. The inscriptions on the left with the monogram and the date are in good condition.

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.

The thick black lines of underdrawing visible through the paint surface in the hands and face (see Surface examination) show very clearly in infrared reflectography (see IRR mosaic 01 and IRR mosaic 02). The change in the position of the top of the chair back at the left is very clearly visible with infrared reflectography (see X-ray and Surface examination), as is a seemingly drawn line around the top of the right part of the chair back.

The drawn lines of the features are hard and mechanical in style, and the hands have the appearance of having been reproduced, probably from a tracing. The outline of the nose has the characteristic breaks in the line associated with following a tracing or pouncing. This process can also be seen in the infrared examination of the portrait of Mary I (NPG 4861), although the style of the underdrawing is not comparable.

It is not clear whether the underdrawing was executed with a dry medium or with a liquid medium. It has a dry appearance but this can be misleading. There are lines of parallel hatching around the edges of the beard, moustache and hair. The lower end of these lines has a slight upwards loop, which seems to indicate a liquid medium.

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 November 2007.

Ground and preparation layers
Samples show a thick chalk ground, then a thin priming which was found to contain lead white, traces of black, and red lead/red ochre (or both), (see Surface examination).

The black of the cloak seems to be painted over a very thin, slightly lighter, underlayer over the priming and ground.

The layer structure on the grey/blue edge of the chair shows an azurite layer over the priming, but the textured surface paint was found to be a mixture of smalt and some red lake, mixed with lead white. The smalt may have lost some blue colour, and the red lake may have faded, but it is difficult to determine how much the colour has been affected. The chair would probably have had a more purple appearance originally.

The background is painted in two stages (see Surface examination). The lower layer contains a mixture of pigments, including umbers, red and yellow ochres, red lake, carbon black, azurite and possibly malachite. Sheldon suggests that azurite may have been added for its drying properties as well as a cool colourant, or that the mixture could be 'palette scrapings' used for the first paint layer of paint which would be covered by the dark upper 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
Reserves can be seen at the edges of the forms, where the paint is thinner. The painting stages followed a clearly laid out design.

Preparation layers
The panel was prepared with a white chalk ground. Over this is a very thin, medium-rich priming layer containing white, black, and a little red, which would have had a warm greyish brown appearance.

The facial features are defined by allowing the underdrawing to show through the paint a little in many places, for example, in the thinly applied lips (see micro 06) and around the nose, where the painted shadows were applied very thinly, leaving the underdrawing visible beneath (see micro 05). The wrinkles in the forehead also appear to be in the underdrawing (see micro 20). A small area of damage with paint loss, at the hairline beneath the hat, has exposed the surface of the underdrawing (see micro 19).

Paint layer structure
The face and beard
The flesh was painted at an early stage, with finely blended brushwork throughout, often wet-in-wet. The flesh paint mixture contains lead white, vermilion and black, with traces of red lead.

The eyes are painted with very fine blended brushstrokes (see micro 01 and micro 02). The iris is carefully delineated, and the lower edge is softened by dragging the paint with a fine tool. The right side of the iris has very little paint, allowing the light ground and the priming layer to illuminate it, in contrast to the opaque grey of the rest of the iris.

The beard is painted with warm brown over the ground, followed by a thin opaque white layer. The hairs are created in a number of ways: some are made by removing paint (whilst wet) from the opaque layer to expose the warm brown layer (see micro 03); other hairs are put in with dark brown brushstrokes and some with white (see micro 05 and micro 10). The underdrawing (see above) is particularly evident in the beard (see micro 09).

It can be seen that the grey edge of the cuff was applied after the flesh paint of the hands, and the dark brown coat (a mixture of black and red - probably vermilion or red lead) after the grey edge of the cuff. The hat was probably applied at the same time as the coat, and the black cuffs and shadows were the last parts of this sequence to be painted.

In the chair, there are areas which appear 'blanched' and have a pale blue appearance; there is greenish blue in these areas (see micro 14) (see Paint Sampling observations for investigation). The chair was painted with a mixture of smalt, red lake and white, and would originally have been purple, but the smalt has discoloured. A light scumble layer was applied over the lower layers in some areas of the chair, with a twisting pattern of the brush, after the first layer of background paint was applied. The position of the top edge of the chair back was raised at this stage, and there is no darker layer lying beneath the lighter scumble in this altered section (see micro 21).

Background, first layer
The background was painted in two stages. A first layer of thin brown paint was applied at an early stage, in order to lay in the overall tone. This layer has many circular bubble shapes in the surface (see micro 18). The paint in this layer is made from a mixture of earth pigments, red lake, and azurite (see Paint sampling).

Background, further layer
A final darker layer of brown background paint was applied in some parts in order to modulate the tone (see micro 17).

The inscriptions were applied last. There is an inscription at the top left with the monogram 'HE'. The paint has the appearance of lead-tin yellow pigment (see micro 08). There is a lightly incised line under the letters for the name and under those for the date and age of the sitter (see micro 11).

The 'HE' inscription is in reasonable condition and there is an original brush hair across it. The inscription with the date and age is in good condition. However, the inscription with the name, on both sides of the head, is abraded and is much restored (see micro 11).

Order of construction
- White chalk ground
- Thin warm brown/grey priming layer
- Underdrawing
- Flesh paint
- Background, first layer
- Cuffs
- Brown costume and hat
- Black cuffs and costume shadows
- Blue chair areas
- Background - further darker paint layers in some parts
- Light scumble to chair areas over darker paint layer
- Inscriptions

Lead white, carbon black, vermilion, red lead, azurite, possibly malachite, smalt, red lake, lead-tin yellow

Changes of composition/pentimenti
The top edge of the chair back was raised a little, towards the end of the painting process. Final changes in the outlines of the costume and chair were made with paint.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

The folds in the dark costume are more evident in ultra violet than normal light (see UV 01). The 'blanched' areas of the chair (noted in Surface examination) fluoresce and appear more opaque than the surrounding areas. The change in the height of the chair back can be seen at the left. The costume and background show uneven opaque areas where old varnish residues remain, and probably also residues of the overpaint which was removed from the costume in 1983. Restoration down the panel join can be seen in ultra violet, as can some small areas of restoration in the flesh paint and along the lower edge.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: Late 19th century.