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King John

1 of 30 portraits of King John

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King John, by Unknown artist, 1597-1618 - NPG 4980(5) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

King John

by Unknown artist
oil on panel, 1597-1618
22 3/4 in. x 17 3/4 in. (578 mm x 451 mm)
NPG 4980(5)


The portrait set is the product of a number of workshops; within this set, this portrait is linked to the portraits of Henry I, Stephen and Edward II.

This portrait is part of a set of sixteen portraits of English kings and queens. The set was previously at Hornby Castle near Bedale, the North Yorkshire seat of the Duke of Leeds, where it was recorded hanging in a corridor gallery in catalogues of 1898 and 1902. Its previous history is unknown but it was possibly acquired for Hornby Castle by the Darcy family. The set was on loan to the Gallery from 1930, following the death of the 10th Duke of Leeds in 1927, and was purchased in 1974 from the 10th Duke of Leeds Will Trust.

Historical context
This portrait relates closely to the woodcut of John in Thomas Talbot’s A Booke Containing the True Portraiture of the Kings of England (London, 1597) and appears to be derived directly from this source. It is possible that the design is based on the king’s thirteenth-century effigy at Worcester Cathedral.

Notes on attribution
This portrait is the product of an English workshop. The sixteen portraits in the set appear to have been sourced from several different workshops. Similarities between this painting and the portraits of Henry I (NPG 4980(2)), Stephen (NPG 4980(3)) and Edward I (NPG 4980(6)) indicate that all four portraits came from the same source. In addition, the wooden panels used for the portraits of Stephen, John and Edward I all contain wood from the same tree.

Justification for dating
The likeness, along with the portraits of Henry I, Stephen and Edward I, appears to be derived directly from Talbot’s 1597 publication so it is likely that the set was produced after this date. Unlike the majority of sets of English kings and queens made after 1618, none of the portraits are based on engravings from Henry Holland’s Baziliologia, which was published in that year. It is likely, therefore, that this set was produced before the Baziliologia was published. The materials and techniques used to produce this portrait are entirely consistent with paintings from the period; dendrochronology indicates that the tree used for the panel is likely to have been felled between 1592 and 1603.

The panel has suffered considerable woodworm damage and as a result the paint surface has a history of flaking. The sleeve on the left now appears blue because the red lake has faded but originally it would have been purple.

Painting technique
Stylistically the portrait is very similar to the portraits of Stephen and Edward II, and also to the portrait of Henry I; the style of the lettering in the inscriptions is closely comparable in all four paintings. A cool grey underlayer can be seen beneath the flesh paint in the face and hand and this layer appears to extend beneath the whole figure. The modelling layers for the flesh were applied in broad brushstrokes over the grey layer. The costume is simply painted.

Drawing and transfer technique
The painting has the most extensive underdrawing of any of the works in the set. The style of underdrawing can be linked to the portraits of Stephen and Edward I. The confident and simple lines around the eyes and the nose may indicate reinforcement of a transferred pattern. There are confident lines in the hand with some slight changes in the fingers. The drapery has a considerable amount of underdrawing, which establishes the exact position of the folds of cloth and uses hatching to indicate areas of shadow. The lines in the costume are very loose and free, especially along the sleeve, where there is a sense of trying to describe the form of the arm. The size and shape of the beard has been changed at the painting stage. The original shape was drawn with a variety of freehand lines and there are also faint marks showing the final position of the beard. These are likely to have been made using the same method and material as the initial underdrawing but were applied at a later stage in the painting process, on top of paint layers.

Other known versions
There are no other known versions of this portrait type. A painting of John in the collection of Dulwich Picture Gallery is based on an engraving from the Baziliologia. It was produced in 1620 as part of a set.

Cooper, Tarnya, ‘The Enchantment of the Familiar Face: Portraits as Domestic Objects in Elizabethan and Jacobean England’ in Hamling, Tara and Richardson, Catherine (eds.), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings, 2010, pp. 157-177
Daunt, Catherine, ‘Portrait Sets in Tudor and Jacobean England’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sussex, 2015
Daunt, Catherine, Heroes and Worthies: Emerging Antiquarianism and the Taste for Portrait Sets in England', in T. Cooper, A. Burnstock, M. Howard and E. Town, eds, Painting in Britain 1500-1630: Production, Influences and Patronage, 2015, pp. 362-75
Gibson, Robin, ‘The National Portrait Gallery’s Set of Kings and Queens at Montacute House’ in The National Trust Yearbook, 1975, pp. 81-87
Gibson, Robin, ‘A Jacobean Gallery of the Kings and Queens of England’, Folio, Spring 1995 (The Folio Society, London), pp. 9-16


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 lips (7.1 x mag).
Micro 04. Detail of inscription (7.1 x mag).
Micro 05. Detail of fingernail (7.1 x mag).
Micro 06. Detail of gilding, showing underdra…
Micro 07. Detail of red lake glaze remnants o…
UV 01. Front of the panel in ultraviolet ligh…
Reverse 01. Back of the panel in raking light…

Compare Images (what's this? )

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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.

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The panel appears to be stable, although it has suffered considerable woodworm damage. The paint surface has suffered a history of flaking, which is related to the woodworm damage. The flaking has been consolidated on a number of occasions. It will continue to require careful checking for unstable paint but appears stable at present. The sceptre and the costume above have a gritty and blanched surface that appears to be due to overheating during past treatment. The restoration is reasonably well matched but the surface is lumpy. The background paint has a slightly opaque appearance. The varnish is semi-matt.


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 2

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

The panel has suffered considerable woodworm damage, which has affected the paint surface. The damage has been filled at the back with wax or resin and appears to have been sanded a little. There are two shallow insets of hardboard at the top of both boards that have been attached as repairs to the weakened wood. Restored damage can be seen on the paint surface in these areas. The join has been repaired. Damage at the back of the top edge has been filled with sawdust mixed with glue. There is a hole in the centre at the top that pierces the paint surface at the edge of the centre point in the crown. This is probably a nail hole related to an old hanging method. The hole in the paint surface has been repaired.

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: 1581


For analysis the boards were labelled A and B from the left (from the front). There is no sapwood present. Board A matched with data from board A in the portrait of Stephen (NPG 4980(3)) from the same set, and these boards appear to derive from the same tree. There is a further link to the portrait of Edward I (NPG 4980(6)) from the set, as there is a wood match between board B of Stephen and board B of Edward I. The dates for the last measured rings were 1575 for board A and 1581 for board B and these can be interpreted using the sapwood present on the boards of Henry III. Adding the minimum and maximum expected number of sapwood rings suggests that the three panels were derived from trees felled between 1592 and 1603. Board A is 282 mm wide, a typical width for an eastern Baltic board, and is unlikely to have been trimmed significantly.

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 x-rays are rather pale, but considerable woodworm damage can be seen, with large filled and restored paint losses at the upper parts of each side (see x-ray mosaic 01). It is evident that the panel joins have been repaired. The hole in the top centre, probably for a nail for hanging, is evident. There is a hole in the beard at either side of the panel join, which appear to be nail holes. These were perhaps caused by an old repair across the back that is no longer present.

The blended brushwork in the face can be compared with other paintings in the group: Stephen (NPG 4980(3)). Henry I, (NPG 4980(2)) and Henry III (NPG 4980 (6)). The mordant was applied in a very similar broad, brushy manner to Stephen and Henry I.

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 painting has the most extensive underdrawing of the set (see DIRR 01). Confident and simple lines have been drawn around the eyes and nose, which may indicate reinforcement of a transferred pattern. The hand is also confidently drawn, although there are slight changes to the positioning of the fingers. The drapery has an astonishing amount of underdrawing working out the exact position of the folds of cloth and hatching to indicate areas of shadow. The lines in the costume are very loose and free, especially along the sleeve, where there is a sense of the artist trying to describe the form of the arm. The size and shape of the beard has been changed at the painting stage. The original shape has been drawn in with a variety of freehand lines but there are also faint marks showing the final position of the beard. This is likely to have been made using the same method and material as the initial underdrawing but applied at a later stage in the painting process on top of paint 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 April 2011.

The panel is prepared with a chalk ground. A warm pale grey priming lies over the ground.

Red costume
Sample 1: Cross-section shows a chalk ground with a thin pale grey priming over it, which contains lead white mixed with carbon black and a little red lead. Over this lies a thick layer of bright red paint, containing mainly vermilion with a little red lake and traces of red lead. Some large translucent particles appear to be metal soaps that have migrated up from the priming layer. A thin red glaze made with deep red lake lake lies over the bright red underlayer.

Shadow on the blue sleeve
Sample 2: Cross-section shows the chalk ground and the thin grey priming. Over this lies a blue/grey layer containing lead white, carbon black and possibly indigo. There is a deep red lake glaze over the blue paint layer. Scattered particles above this are probably restoration.

Sample 3: Cross-section shows a chalk ground with the thin grey priming over it. Above the priming there is a blackish brown paint layer containing fine particles of carbon black, red ochre and lead white.

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
Dendrochronology has linked this painting with the portraits of Stephen (NPG 4980(3)) and Edward I (NPG 4980(6)) from the same set and stylistically they are very similar.

Preparation layers
The panel was prepared with a chalk ground. The pale grey priming contains lead white mixed with carbon black and a little red lead. The extensive black underdrawing is executed in a sparkly carbon medium and is visible beneath the paint layers in certain areas.

A cool grey underlayer is visible beneath the flesh paint; the extent of this layer is unclear but it appears to be present under the central figure (see micro 03 and micro 05). The modelling layers have been broadly applied over this layer and the brushstrokes follow the contours of the face and features. The flesh paint contains finely ground vermilion and red lake with varying proportions of white and black pigments. Finer highlights have been added around the eyelids. The mouth is painted with vermilion, red lake and white, and the parting of the lips has been defined with a line of dark brown paint that has also been used on the eyes, nose and fingertips (see micro 03). The hands have been painted in the same manner, with broad brushstrokes loosely painted over a grey underlayer (see micro 05). The grey layer extends beneath the gilded staff, following the position of the thumb, and traces of mordant can be seen lying on top of this layer.

The thick underdrawing is clearly visible through the whites of the eyes; it has a sparkly appearance under magnification (see micro 01 and micro 02). The irises have been painted in a dark grey paint with a small highlight in lead white. The pupil has been painted in black mixed with earth pigments and vermilion. The whites of the eyes have been thinly painted around the iris and a dark brown paint has been used to define the iris and the upper eyelid as finishing touches. Small strokes of translucent brown paint mark out the eyelashes on the lower eyelids

Beard, eyebrows and hair
The hair and beard have been blocked in using a thin brown paint that has been quickly and loosely applied. Individual strands of hair have then been painted over the top of this layer in a thicker paint blending browns, black and white to create definition and texture. The beard was originally painted in a neat rounded shape but during the painting stage this has been changed to a beard with a parting and two pointed ends. The underdrawing corresponds to the original shape of the beard and sparkly material can be seen through the paint layers. Marks outlining the second shape of the beard can also be seen using infrared reflectography; however, they appear to have been made later and lie above the initial paint layer. The changes to the beard were made with a thin paint that has become increasingly transparent. The position of the eyebrows has been marked in with a pale brown paint blended into the surrounding flesh paint. Individual hairs have then been painted on top.

Crown and staff
The gilding was applied over a warm light brown mordant containing charcoal black, lead white and red lead pigments (see micro 06). The mordant can be seen under some parts of the staff but this area has been extensively retouched and it is unclear whether the mordant has been applied under the whole area. The jewels on the crown were painted with red lake for the rubies and black with white highlights for the diamonds. The gilding, jewels and brown details of the crown were painted before the hair and background.

The red tunic is painted with a mixture containing vermilion mixed with a small amount of black and white. The shadows have been defined with a medium rich brown paint; traces of green are also present but it is unclear if the pigment is mixed in with the brown, or if it originally formed a more coherent layer on top. At a later stage a red lake glaze was applied over the vermilion layer. The green cloak is very simply painted, with white blended in to create the highlights and browns added to the darker passages. The sleeve is blue, probably containing indigo. Remnants of a red lake glaze can be seen near the lower edge of the panel, which indicates that the sleeve would originally have appeared purple (see micro 07).

Background and inscription
The background has been extensively overpainted due to issues with flaking that the panel has suffered in the past and the pale priming layer is visible. The original background paint contains red ochre particles mixed with black, white and other earth pigments. The inscription has also suffered from damage and has been largely retouched with an attempt to mimic the degraded varnish seen on the original lettering (see micro 04). The inscription is painted in lead-tin yellow mixed with lead white.

Order of construction
- Ground
- Priming
- Underdrawing
- Grey underlayer beneath the figure
- Mordant for gilding
- Gilding applied
- Brown detail and jewels on gilding
- Blocking in layer for hair and beard
- Flesh modelling
- Details of beard, eyebrows and hair
- Vermilion underlayer of cloak
- Green cloak and blue sleeve
- Brown fur
- Red lake glaze applied to blue sleeve and red cloak
- Background
- Inscription

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

Changes in composition/pentimenti
The shape of the beard has been changed during the painting stage.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

There is a very uneven old varnish layer which appears opaque in ultra violet light (see UV 01). The most recent restoration down the join and along the upper and lower edges appears dark in ultra violet light. There are scattered areas of older restoration that appear less dark in the face, hair and in the lower part of the sceptre.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: Late 20th century.


Carved and ebonised frame with Egg and Dart motifs.