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Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh)

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Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh)

by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, 1588
36 in. x 29 3/8 in. (914 mm x 746 mm)


The sitter’s right hand was initially placed on his hip, but the artist altered the composition during the painting process.

The portrait is presumably the ‘good piece (an original) of Sir W. in a white satin doublet, all embroidered with rich pearles’ that was recorded in Downton House in Salisbury, the home of Ralegh’s brother Sir Carew Ralegh, in John Aubrey’s Lives, c. 1669-1696. Aubrey’s description also mentions ‘a mighty rich chaine of great pearles about his neck’, which may be a simple error, but it is possible that there were two versions of the portrait at Downton. The portrait descended with the house to John Gibbs Bailey, from whom the Gallery purchased it in 1857.

Historical context
This portrait was painted in the year of the Spanish Armada, when Ralegh’s reputation and influence soared. The motto ‘AMOR ET VIRTUTE’ (by love and courage) may be a later addition as little can be seen of any original text in x-ray. The crescent moon and waves in the upper-left corner are probably a play on Ralegh’s relationship with Elizabeth I, with the queen as the moon goddess Cynthia, controlling the water, a pun on Walter.

Notes on attribution
The lettering of the inscription in the upper-right corner is similar to that seen in a portrait of Sir John Shirley, dated the same year, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York. There are some similarities in handling, but the condition of the portrait of Ralegh hinders a secure attribution.

Justification for dating
The age of the sitter and the date are inscribed in the top right-hand corner: ‘AETATIS SVAE 34’ and ‘AN 1588’. The technique and materials in use are entirely consistent with a work of this date; dendrochronological analysis confirmed that the tree used for the panel was felled after 1572.

The paint surface has suffered considerable abrasion and there have been several campaigns of restoration. The technical analysis was undertaken before the painting underwent full treatment in 2013.

Painting technique
The condition of the painting before treatment in 2013 made assessment of the original paint in some areas problematic. Nonetheless, it is evident that the original paint layers were thinly applied, using soft brushwork and subtle colours in order to create a cool, pearly tonality. Thin underlayers were applied over the priming in several parts, before the modelling and detail were applied. The use of blue pigments contributes to the cool tone, with both azurite and smalt used in the costume paint mixtures. This was subtly enhanced with warmer accents, such as the yellowish mid-tone applied to individual pearls, and the brown used for detail on the grey doublet. In some areas the tonal balance has been affected by the discolouration of pigments; for example, the collar would have originally appeared purple, but the smalt in the underlayer has lost its colour and the red lake over this mixture has faded.

Drawing and transfer technique
Fine lines of carbon-based underdrawing mark the position of the hand on the table and the line of buttons on the doublet. The sitter was initially posed with his hand on his hip.

Other known versions
There are no known contemporary versions of this portrait; later copies are at Oriel College, Oxford and the Middle Temple. The likeness may relate to the small surviving group of half-length portraits of Ralegh in armour:
- Government Art Collection
- Colonial Williamsburg

Cust, Lionel ‘The Portraits of Sir Walter Raleigh’, Walpole Society, VIII, 1920, p.4
Cooper, Tarnya, ‘Sir Walter Ralegh’ in T. Cooper, Elizabeth I and Her People, exh. cat. National Portrait Gallery 2013, cat. no. 22, p. 92
J. H. H. ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’s Portrait’, Wiltshire Notes and Queries, no. 68, September 1908, pp. 97-98
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London, 1969, pp. 256-7

Exhibition history
‘Elizabeth I and Her People’, National Portrait Gallery, 2013-2014
‘A New World: England’s First View of America’, British Museum, London, 2007
‘Claim to Fame: Pictures from the National Portrait Gallery’, Museum and Winter Gardens, Sunderland, 2004
‘Elizabeth: The Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum’, National Maritime Museum, London, 2003


Micro 01. Detail of eye on the left (7.1 x ma…
Micro 03. Detail of white in eye on the right…
Micro 04. Detail of lips (7.1 x mag).
Micro 05. Detail of the edge of the collar an…
Micro 06. Detail of collar (50 x mag).
Micro 07. Detail of sleeve (7.1 x mag).
Micro 08. Detail of button on doublet (7.1 x…
Micro 09. Detail of button on doublet (40 x m…
Micro 10. Detail of the edge of the doublet a…
Micro 11. Detail of peals on the cloak (7.1 x…
Micro 13. Detail of tablecloth (7.1 x mag).
Micro 14. Detail of fingers (7.1 x mag).
Micro 16. Detail of moon (2.5 x mag).
Micro 20. Detail of inscription, showing orig…
Micro 21. Detail of brown underlayer during c…
Micro 23. Detail of the moon's reflection on…
Micro 25. Detail of moonrays during conservat…
UV 01. Front of the panel in ultra violet lig…

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The panel appears to be in a stable condition. The horizontal members of the cradle, attached to the back, can no longer move. The paint and ground layers have a long history of flaking and paint loss but appear to be secure at present. The surface is uneven with raised old fillings and raised paint, and it is possible that some of these might be a little unstable. There is extensive restoration throughout, which is adequate enough to hold the portrait together visually but much of it is rather freely applied with little attention to any fine detail. The water below the moon in the upper-left corner is partly obscured by old brown overpaint. The varnish is reasonably clear but with a very uneven matt surface and a heavily sprayed appearance.

The painting underwent a full treatment in 2013.


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 3

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

A cradle has been attached to the back with eight fixed vertical members and eight free horizontal members, but the latter no longer move. Narrow fillets of wood are attached to the side and lower edges and the position of the cradle members suggest that there was formerly a similar fillet along the top edge.

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: 3

Last date of tree ring: 1564


For analysis the boards were labelled A to C from the left (from the front). All the boards contained sufficient rings for analysis. The absence of sapwood means that a terminus post quem can be applied to the panel. The series of rings on boards A and C match visually quite closely and appear to come from the same tree, and the two series of rings were combined for analysis. All boards match the data for eastern Baltic oak. The last ring identified on board A was dated AD 1557, the last ring on board B was dated 1532, and the last ring on board C was dated 1564. Adding the appropriate minimum expected number of sapwood rings suggests that boards A and C were felled after 1572, and board B after 1540. Boards B and C are typical widths for eastern Baltic boards and this suggests that they are unlikely to have been trimmed.

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.

This analysis was undertaken before the painting underwent a full treatment in 2013.

The cradle and the panel joins are prominent in x-ray (see x-ray mosaic 01). There is a noticeable craquelure over most of the paint surface, caused by movement in the panel, and a number of small flaked paint losses. The numerous pearls are very evident in x-ray and the pentiment at the edge of the hose can also be seen. At the upper left, below the moon, there are brushstrokes with a similar density to the moon, which represent waves on water or the sea. On the upper left-hand side, the inscription (in lower case letters) can be seen below the damaged letters (in capitals) of the current inscription. On the upper right-hand side an inscription can be seen parallel with the one on the left side, which is now overpainted but can be seen in photographs taken during the 1976 restoration.

The position of the arm on the left was changed during painting and the hand placed on the table. Initially the hand was placed against the left side of the waist, as can be seen with the light area for the wrist that is visible in the x-ray. Wavy lines of a different pattern can be seen in x-ray at the lower edge of the hose; their function is not clear.

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.

No underdrawing was detected using the Hammamatsu Infrared Vidicon camera in January 2011. It was evident that the paint surface is extensively restored.

In 2013 the painting underwent Scanning Multispectral Infrared Reflectography, which revealed fine lines of carbon-based underdrawing marking the position of the hand on the table, the line of buttons on the doublet and the initial position of the arm on the left (see SMIRR 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 January 2011.

The panel was prepared with a thick chalk ground with a warm grey priming over it, made with white lead, with a little red lead and plant black (Sample 9).

Sample 6: Cross-section shows the underlying background layer is a greenish grey made with yellow and black. A layer over this, containing yellowish earth pigments, might be overpaint or possibly the background was intended to be yellow.

Black and white hose
Sample 1: The priming layer is present in the cross-section, followed by two layers of grey paint, and a thick layer of lead white. The lower grey layer contains a greater proportion of lamp black, with some yellow ochre and perhaps sienna. The upper grey layer appears to contain only lamp black and lead white. The thick white layer above is the white pattern over the black.

Green table cloth
Sample 2: Cross-section shows that the underlayer for the copper green glaze is made with yellow and black, which would have provided a green-coloured base for the copper glaze. The dispersion showed some azurite, which may have been scattered within the underlayer.

Black cloak
Sample 7: Dispersion shows what appears to be lamp black, and seems to have a yellow lake associated with it, from surface examination. Each pearl has a shadow of a lead-based yellow.

Pink Collar
Painted with a strong red lake with vermilion and occasional particles of azurite.

Blue Pigments
Azurite was found in the cuff and larger azurite particles were found in the white of the eyes. Smalt was present in the white decorative details on the cloak. Both azurite and smalt are present in the pearl earring.

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.

This analysis was undertaken before the painting underwent a full treatment in 2013.

Painting style and method
The paint has suffered considerable damage during past conservation treatments, making interpretation of the layer structure and original technique problematic. There are extensive passages of retouching, particularly in the background and flesh paint, covering abrasion and prominent craquelure (see micro 01). Despite this, the quality of the original paint is fine, with soft, subtle, wet-in-wet blending in parts. The facial features are particularly softly defined.

Preparation layer
The panel was prepared with a chalk ground. There is warm grey priming layer of variable thickness over the ground, containing lead white, with a little red lead and plant black (See Paint sampling).

It appears that a lead white layer was thinly applied beneath the flesh paint. A pale flesh tone composed of lead white, black, red (likely to be vermilion) and a little azurite was applied over the whole face above this. Deeper flesh tones were smoothly blended above this using a similar mixture, with the addition of some earth pigments, red lake and a high proportion of opaque red and black. A prominent craquelure pattern is evident in the face, although much of this - and additional abrasion caused by past cleaning - has been disguised with heavy restoration.

The features were softly defined above the flesh paint using a semi-transparent dark brown paint (see micro 01). This appears to be composed of earth pigments, black, vermilion and red lake. The whites of the eyes are heavily restored, but where visible, the cool original paint contains some azurite, lead white, black, vermilion and a small amount of earth pigments (see micro 03). The irises were thinly applied using a dark grey/green mixture of black, earth pigments, azurite and a little red and are very abraded and restored. The dark pupils also contain a little azurite in addition to black and earth pigments. The whites contain large particles of azurite.

The lips were softly blended above the flesh paint, using a mixture of lead white, vermilion and red lake. For the deepest shadows, a thin glaze containing red lake, black and vermilion was applied using a soft brush (see micro 04).

The hair was very thinly painted, using a semi-transparent mixture of black, earth, vermilion, red lake and white pigment. This was applied above a pale lead-based layer, which resembles the cool flesh tone of the face. Although the hair has clearly suffered abrasion during past cleaning campaigns, the thin nature of the original paint allows the pale underlayer to show through in parts. A higher proportion of black was added in areas of shadow and definition, and more white for highlights. The shadows and highlights were used to describe the curls. At a later stage, the outline of the hair was further defined by brushing the background paint across in to the edges of the hair. Much of the hair is heavily restored.

The pearl contains both azurite and smalt.

The cloak was thinly laid-in using a mixture of lead white, lamp black and earth pigments. The thin nature of the paint allows the pale priming to show through as a warm mid-tone. The black passages were then applied using smooth, flat brushstrokes. The majority of the black areas of the costume have been overpainted, leaving very little original paint visible on the surface. The pearls were painted above the pale, warm grey laying-in layer, using a mixture of lead white, smalt, black and red pigments (red lake perhaps)(see micro 11). The highlights in the pearls were then applied using the same paint mixture, with a higher proportion of white added. Warm yellowish mid-tones were applied to individual pearls, using a mixture with a lead-based yellow, lead white, black and earth pigments. The fur collar was thinly applied using a medium-rich layer of earth pigments, black, white and red lake. Following this, a darker and more opaque application of a similar paint mixture was applied with a soft brush, to create soft fur hairs and areas of shadow. The very fine brown hairs that overlap the doublet were then applied at a later stage (see micro 10).

Doublet and sleeve
The grey doublet appears to have been thinly laid-in above the priming, using a mixture of lead white, black, smalt, azurite, earth pigments and a little red pigment. The paint was reasonably broadly applied, with white highlights added above. The buttons on the doublet were applied using a similar technique to that used on the cloak, with a high proportion of white and smalt used for the highlights (see micro 08 and micro 09). Details on the doublet were then applied wet-in-wet to the grey, using a medium-rich brown paint. The buttons were also defined in a similar manner, using a dark grey.

The arm was initially positioned with the hand on the hip, this appears to have been changed at an early stage and is clearly visible using infrared reflectography (see Infrared reflectography). The sleeve was very broadly painted, with the paint built up in a series of broad, multidirectional, wet-in-wet brushstrokes (see micro 07). The sleeve appears to have been first underpainted using a thin layer of pale grey, composed of lead white, charcoal black and earth pigments. Above this, a stiff brush and reasonably viscous paint composed of lead white, black, smalt and a little red pigment was used to thinly add form and definition to the painted fabric.

The thin off-white/grey lower collar appears to have been painted using a pale grey containing lead white and smalt (see micro 05), which has almost entirely lost its colour. However, given the apparent high proportion of the pigment here, its inclusion is likely to have made the lower collar quite blue. The pink upper collar has suffered from considerable pigment fading and abrasion. Paint sampling revealed that the pink collar (see micro 06) was painted with a strong red lake together with vermilion, and occasional particles of azurite (see Paint sampling). The combination of the paint layers in the two collars is likely to have appeared quite purple in tone.

The hose are very abraded and restored, making an assessment of the original paint problematic. Both x-ray and surface examination have revealed that the width of the hose was extended at a reasonably late stage of the painting process. On the left side, the hose were made fuller by extending them over the edge of the green tablecloth. Paint sampling revealed that the hose were painted with two layers of grey paint with the white decorative detail applied over the upper layer. The lower grey layer is darker than the upper layer (see Paint sampling).

The tablecloth was broadly underpainted with greenish grey containing yellow (possibly lead-tin yellow) and black with some azurite. A copper green glaze was applied above this in layers of varying thickness to create areas of shadow and highlight (see micro 13). Black pigment appears to have been added to the copper green glaze in areas of deepest shadow.

Background with moon and sea
Very little original paint can be seen in the background because it has been overpainted with modern restoration, which covers severe abrasion and partially removed old restoration. Where small areas of original paint can be seen, it appears to have been applied in a single layer above the priming; this was confirmed following treatment in 2013 (see micro 21). The pale brown mixture appears to be composed of lead white, yellow ochre, earth pigments and charcoal black.

In the upper left-hand corner, above the background, a moon was thinly painted using a mixture of lead white, azurite, charcoal black and a little red earth pigment (see micro 16). Treatment in 2013 revealed brushstrokes depicting rays of light emanating from the moon (see micro 25). Below the moon, disguised beneath both old and modern restoration, a symbolic seascape was painted. Despite having been abraded and disguised by restoration campaigns, much of the original paint is visible using microscopy, and more was revealed following treatment in 2013 (see micro 23). The seascape was painted using the same azurite-rich paint mixture as the moon, with a higher proportion of white added in the areas depicting breaking waves; occasional particles of red lake also appear visible.

The hand appears to have been laid-in before the sleeve was painted in its final position; a reserve was left in the tablecloth. In the later stages of the painting process, the fingers were then lengthened above the tablecloth and defined using a mixture of earth pigments (see micro 14).

Despite the fact that both inscriptions have been almost entirely reinforced with modern restoration, some original paint is visible in areas (see micro 20). Where the original paint can be seen, it appears to have been painted using lead-tin yellow, with the addition of a little azurite and earth pigments. Remnants of old restoration can be seen above the abraded original paint, with modern restoration on the surface. In some areas, a brown glaze was applied during the most recent restoration campaign, to age the appearance of the restored areas (see X-ray).

Order of construction
- Chalk ground
- Pale grey priming containing lead white, with a little red lead and plant black
- Face
- Hair and beard
- Pearls in ear
- Costume:
- Collar
- Black and white pearl cloak laid in
- Fur collar on cloak
- Doublet and sleeve, forearm initially curved at elbow to place hand behind left side hip
- Position of left side sleeve changed, and hand placed on table
- Background
- Fingers extended over table cloth
- Hose extended over table cloth
- Inscription
- Moon
- Sea

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

Changes in composition/pentimenti
Initially the arm on the left was depicted bent at the elbow, with the hand hidden behind the hip (see IRR). During the painting process the position of the arm was changed, with the hand moving from the hip to the table. At a reasonably late stage in the painting process the hose were made fuller, by extending them over the edge of the tablecloth. In addition, the fingers were lengthened above the green tablecloth paint (see micro 14).

Restoration observations
The paint surface is heavily restored in many areas. The worst affected areas are the face, hose, inscriptions and fur edge to the cloak, which have been heavily restored. The background has also been overpainted.

In 2013 the painting underwent a full conservation treatment.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

This analysis was undertaken before the painting underwent a full treatment in 2013.

There are considerable areas of restoration which appear dark in UV (see UV 01). Extensive restoration can be seen along the panel joins and in the forehead; there are also numerous small areas of retouching in the rest of the face and in the grey constume. The black cloak appears to be less restored but there may be restoration that is now obscured by the somewhat opaque varnish, which covers the whole painting. In the background some restoration is evident over the waves below the moon but the rest of the background appears opaque.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: Late 20th century.