Mary, Queen of Scots

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Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Mary, Queen of Scots

by Unknown artist
oil on panel, circa 1560-1592
9 7/8 in. x 7 1/2 in. (251 mm x 191 mm)
NPG 1766


New Date: circa 1560-1592

Key findings: Dendrochronology revealed that the painting dated from the sixteenth century rather than the eighteenth century, as was previously thought.

Historical summary
This portrait was purchased by the Gallery in 1916 after it had been sold anonymously at Christie’s on 17 March 1916, lot 110. The painting was previously in the collection of Henry, 3rd Earl Cowley (1866-1919).

The composition is identical in terms of costume to a miniature in the Uffizi, dated to c.1560-65, which is probably a copy of another, now lost, painting. NPG 1766 was thought by Strong to be an eighteenth-century copy painted after the miniature (Strong, 1969, p.215). However, dendrochronology carried out by Ian Tyers in November 2005 found that the panel is likely to date from the period 1560-92. No print exists of this image but Mary is shown wearing similar costume in a double portrait, with Lord Darnley, at Hardwick Hall.

In 1561 Mary presented her portrait to Elizabeth I; the picture was completed and sent by 1 December and, therefore, before she was widowed. The two queens exchanged portraits again in 1562 and when Sir James Melville visited the English court in 1564 Elizabeth showed him a miniature of Mary.

Notes on likely authorship
The painting is difficult to attribute to a particular school with certainty. It may once have been part of a larger group of portraits of European monarchs, perhaps set into a frame or wainscot to form a coherent group. There are four small holes running along the upper and lower edges of the panel which may have been used to pin the panel to a secondary frame or piece of furniture. The handling is linear and diagrammatic in some parts and carefully blended and subtle in others. The style probably owes more to the original source of the image than the artist who produced this painting.

Commentary on condition, painting style and technique
The panel and paint surface are in good condition and have been well restored. The background is abraded and an old split through the sitter’s face has been repaired. The painting has recently been restored and the current original background in the feigned oval was uncovered.

The painting method is straightforward and the paint layers were thinly applied, with thicker paint used for some details. The finest brushwork was used in the features, particularly the eyes, in the hair and in the black-work embroidery. Early in the painting process the reserves for the black costume and hat were painted with an initial layer of black laid in thinly. Thicker layers and modelling were subsequently worked up over this layer.

There is a dense area of paint around the head (see X-ray) which indicates that there is a thicker layer of lead-based underpaint in this area, perhaps intended to create a ground for a lighter reflective effect around the face. This method of applying additional layers of priming around the face becomes more common from the late sixteenth century onwards.

The costume and grey background were painted to the edges of the panel but were partly covered later by the feigned porphyry oval which was applied at the end of the painting process. The lead-tin yellow letters of the inscription at the right side are painted so as to appear three dimensional. The inscription at the lower left is an old inventory number which is painted with yellow ochre and is not original.

Justification for dating
The technique and materials in use are entirely consistent with a work from this period. The date for the last tree ring was found to be 1552 which provides a conjectural usage-date of 1560-1592.

Drawing and transfer technique
Very fine underdrawing has been used to define the collar, the folds of the ruff and some of the facial features.

Relevance to other known versions
Various other versions exist:
- Miniature in the Uffizi, c.1560-65
- Miniature transferred to Mauritshuis in 1822 (previously owned by the House of Orange) which is a copy probably later, maybe 19th century. Now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
- The type is reversed in a double portrait of Mary and Darnley at Hardwick Hall (recorded in the 1601 inventory), NT 1129218

Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London, 1969, pp.214-5, 219-223


X-ray 01. X-ray image of the whole painting.
Micro 02. Detail of the eye on the right, sho…
Micro 03. Detail of the pearl earring (7.1 x…
Micro 04. Detail of the inscription, showing…
Micro 05. Detail of technique in red porphyry…
Micro 07. Detail of the pearls on the hat, sh…
Micro 08. Edge of feather plume on the hat (7…
Micro 09. Blue pigment in the white of the ey…
Micro 10. Detail of the lips and nose, showin…
Micro 11. Edge of the hair, hat and face, sho…
Micro 12. Detail of the background, showing a…
Micro 13. Edge of the feather plume over the…
Micro 14. Non-original inscription in lower…
Micro 15. Underdrawing visible beneath the su…
Micro 16. Detail of blackwork on the shirt, s…
Micro 18. Detail of the collar, showing smalt…
Micro 19. Detail of the feigned porphyry oval…
Micro 20. Detail of the hair, showing craquel…
Micro 21. Edge of the collar and neck, showin…
UV 01. Front of the panel in ultra violet lig…

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The panel and paint surface are in good condition and have been well restored. The background is abraded in a number of areas. An old split through the sitter's face has been repaired and reinforced on the reverse with a strip of canvas. A small piece of wood has been lost on the lower right-hand corner (from reverse). The varnish is clear and even.


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 1

Panel Orientation: Horizontal

Panel condition observations

The panel has an old horizontal split, running through the sitter's face. This has been repaired and reinforced on the reverse with a strip of canvas. A small piece of wood has been lost on the lower right-hand corner (from reverse).

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: 1

Last date of tree ring: 1552


No sapwood was present, but the most recent heartwood ring was found to date from 1552. Adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings provides an earliest possible date for felling as 1560. This gives a conjectural usage-date range of 1560-1592.

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 features are not very distinct in the x-ray. There is a dense area around the head which shows that there is a thick lead-based underlayer in the head area, which extends beyond the present outline of the head. This might be the initial layout of the design with a larger head than in the final image. There is a dark area across the tip of the chin which does not appear in the surface paint. A line of light paint across part of the shoulder on the left does not appear in the surface paint. The purpose of this light area is not obvious. The x-ray faintly shows the dark jacket paint extending beneath the porphyry framing, following the shoulder to the edges of the panel. The horizontal wood grain is clearly visible, as are the filled pin holes along the upper and lower edges. The repaired horizontal split can be seen running through the sitter's face (see x-ray 01).

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.

Despite identifying a considerable amount of underdrawing during surface examination, this is only faintly recorded using infrared reflectography. A number of very fine lines are present in the collar, outlining the folds of the ruff, and some of the facial features are defined. The underdrawing was carried out using dry charcoal (see micro 21). Given the fine nature of the underdrawing, it is more easily identifiable using microscopy. In the lower portion of the painting, infrared reflectography shows the jacket paint extending beneath the porphyry framing. This is particularly evident on the lower right-hand side of the infrared reflectogram mosaic (see IRR mosaic 01).

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 June 2009.

Analysis of paint cross-sections reveals a ground composed of chalk, beneath a priming layer of pure lead white. The sample of black underdrawing from the cheek on the right reveals that it is composed of charcoal black. Given the large size of the black particles, it is likely that our observation that the underdrawing was applied dry is correct.

Interesting use of several black pigments
Three black pigments were found: charcoal black for underdrawing, lamp black in the costume paint mixtures and plant black in the red oval paint mixture.

The black used in the costume was found to be lamp black, and contrasts with the charcoal black in the underdrawing dispersion. A little translucent yellow was found within the dispersion taken from the black costume, which may be a transparent yellow lake used to saturate and impart a greenish tone to the black costume.

Feigned porphyry oval and background grey
Both cross-sections taken from the edges of the oval show that the red oval was painted using an opaque red above the priming, with red lake glaze above. Using polarised light microscopy, it was found that the opaque red layer consists largely of good quality red ochre mixed with a little lead white and traces of plant black. The red lake layer above has a strong colour and does not have the characteristic fluorescence of madder when viewed in ultra violet light. Instead, the lake has a purplish hue, which suggests it might be from an insect source. In sample 5, the grey background paint can be seen beneath the red oval paint. The grey here contains plant black pigment.

The flesh is painted in at least two layers, as a pale underlayer can be seen in the cheek on the left which does not appear to be the priming. The flesh paint at the surface consists of a mixture of lead white, vermilion and occasional particles of red lake.

The inscription was painted with three colours. The underlying yellow consists of large particles of earth pigments of strong yellow and orange colour; this is perhaps a mixture of ochre and sienna. The shadows were then added with a darker ochre or sienna, with lead-tin yellow above for the highlight.

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 painting method is straightforward and the paint layers are thinly applied. The white passages and flesh paint are comparatively thick and paste-like. The pearls were applied with thick lead white. The finest brushstrokes were used in the features, particularly in the eyes, hair and blackwork embroidery. Details of the paint surface show that some passages are exceptionally well painted, indicating that abrasion has caused considerable wear.

Preparation layers
The panel has a chalk ground layer. Over this, there is a pure lead white priming layer. The light priming can be seen in several areas, noticeably in the hair.

Some underdrawing can be seen under the paint surface, particularly on the face on the right side, along the edge of the nose next to the eye on the right, along the outline of the cheek and chin, and under the collar along the chin and neck edge on the right side (see micro 02 and micro 15). This dry underdrawing was carried out using charcoal black, which has a slightly sparkly appearance (see Infrared reflectography and micro 21).

The flesh is finely painted with smooth brushstrokes. Brushstrokes around the eyes and in the hair are slightly blended (see micro 02 and micro 20). The flesh paint is composed of a mixture of lead white, red lake, black and vermilion. The surface flesh paint has been applied over a paler underlayer, which appears to be composed of lead white, black and perhaps a little vermilion. Sampling was not possible in this area. The shadows around the contours were added towards the end of the painting process, after the background, white collar and ruff were painted. The lips are painted with red lake and vermilion, with the line between the lips painted mostly with red lake (see micro 10).

Azurite is mixed into the whites of the eyes and in the corner of the eye on the left near the nose (see micro 09).

Hair and hat
The brown hair is particularly thinly painted, with thicker brushstrokes with numerous vermilion particles mixed in to the highlights. The initial thin brown paint layer for the hair was evidently applied beneath the hat decorated with pearls; this can be seen around and beneath the pearls. The black paint for the hat was applied over the brown layer, leaving exposed lines of brown paint to indicate the position for the pearls (see micro 07 and micro 11). A similar technique, with a brown underlayer, was observed in the chain of William Butts (NPG 210). The pearls and the feather were added last, when the background and the feigned porphyry oval were already painted (see Micro 08). The fine craquelure in the hair (see micro 20) can be compared with the craquelure in the fur collar of William Butts (NPG 210).

Lead-tin yellow is used for the highlight on the gold of the pearl earring. This is painted over a brighter application of vermilion (see micro 03).

A thin black/brown layer of costume paint appears to have been applied first, leaving reserves for the white puffs of the lining fabric. This can be seen at the edges of the black costume and the puffs. The thicker darker paint layer was applied over this. The white puffs were painted into the reserves left in the dark costume paint and the blackwork embroidery was painted onto the white puffs using bristly brushstrokes (see micro 16). The collar below the ruff is thinly painted. The grey and white mixture was applied with a stiff bristled brush and the thin warm flesh tone beneath can be seen between the brushstrokes (see micro 15). Large particles of charcoal black can be seen, with microscopy, in the grey paint (see micro 21). The ruffle collar edge was added over the grey. The pearls were added to the costume last. In abraded areas, the light area visible in the x-ray at the lower-left edge of the costume can be seen beneath the upper paint layers (see X-ray). Red particles can be seen in the paint mixture but the purpose of this light area is not clear. A considerable amount of smalt has been identified in the white collar, particularly in the shadows (see micro 18). This was probably added to enhance the cool tone of the white and shadow. Surface examination and paint sampling indicate that the jacket paint extends beneath the feigned porphyry oval, to the edge of the panel. The black pigment in the costume was identified as lamp black, possibly with some yellow lake.

Background and feigned porphyry oval
The grey background, composed of plant black and lead white, was applied towards the end of the painting process and the feigned oval was painted after the grey background and black costume. Surface examination and paint sampling has confirmed that the grey background extends beneath the porphyry oval, to the edge of the panel (see micro 19). The feigned oval is painted with a mixture of red ochre, lead white and plant black, with lead white for the pattern detail. Red lake glaze was applied over these layers, but this is now rather abraded. Fingerprints can be seen in a number of areas on the surface of the red lake glaze layer (see micro 05). This suggests that fingers may have been used to smooth the surface here. The red lake is well preserved around the non-original inscription and indicates that the original lake glaze was an intense crimson (see micro 14).

The letters at the right side are painted to appear three-dimensional. The varying tones of yellow were achieved using a mixture of lead-tin yellow and earth pigments (ochre and sienna), with pure lead-tin yellow for the highlights. The inscription has been abraded in a number of areas (see micro 04). The inscription at the lower-left corner, an old inventory number, is not original and was painted with lead white and yellow ochre (see micro 13). This was identified using surface microscopy.

Order of construction
- Ground
- Priming
- Underdrawing
- Thin brown paint for hair applied, and also a first thin layer for the black/brown costume
- First flesh paint layers, over neck and beneath collar
- Further flesh paint and eyes
- Black dress paint (extending to the edge of the panel beneath the feigned porphyry oval)
- Collars, and shirt puffs
- Hat
- Blackwork embroidery on puffs
- Highlight details on hair
- Grey background (extending to the edge of the panel) and then the feigned porphyry oval with red lake glaze
- All the pearls and the feather on the hat
- Final contours of flesh

Lead white, charcoal black, lamp black, plant black, earth pigments, red lake (probably of insect origin), vermilion, azurite, smalt, lead-tin yellow, possibly yellow lake

Restoration observations
The paint surface has been well restored. Well-matched retouchings can be seen in areas of minor damage and abrasion, particularly in the background and along the old split through the sitter's face (see micro 04, micro 10 and micro 12). The edge of the feather that extends over the feigned porphyry oval has been restored. During a previous cleaning campaign, red overpaint was removed from the edge of the porphyry oval to reveal fragments of original feather paint beneath. The feather was retouched back in areas where the original was lost (see micro 13).

Changes to composition/pentimenti
The shoulders were painted to the edge of the panel and then covered with the feigned porphyry oval.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

In ultraviolet light, finely painted retouchings are evident throughout; particularly in the flesh, background, feather plume and along the horizontal split. These appear dark in ultra violet light (see UV 01).


Frame type: Not original. National Portrait Gallery Tudor style drawing frame.

Frame date: Late 20th century.