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Thomas Wolsey

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- subject matching 'Words and inscriptions'

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Thomas Wolsey, by Unknown artist, 1589-1595, based on a work of circa 1520 - NPG 32 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Thomas Wolsey

by Unknown artist
oil on panel, 1589-1595, based on a work of circa 1520
33 in. x 22 in. (838 mm x 559 mm) arched top
NPG 32


The portrait was originally part of a set commissioned by Ralph Sheldon between 1589 and 1595.

The painting was probably commissioned by Ralph Sheldon (1537-1613) of Weston near Long Compton, Warwickshire as part of a set of portraits made for the house between 1589 and 1595. It remained in the collection of the Sheldon family at Weston where it was recorded by George Vertue in 1737. Sold by Christie and Ansell on 3 September 1781 (lot 38) when it was bought by W. Silby. The painting was purchased by the Gallery from Messrs. Graves in 1858.

Historical context
All surviving painted portraits of Wolsey derive from the same likeness, which depicts him wearing cardinal's robes and holding a scroll. The type was probably developed during Wolsey's lifetime in around 1520.

Notes on likely authorship and justification
The portrait was produced as part of a larger set and appears to be English in style and technique. The Weston set was dispersed when the portraits were sold as individual lots in 1781. Most of the paintings are now lost but some are known to survive including portraits of Henry V and Edward IV (now at Knebworth), Henry VI and Henry VII (at Eton College) and Richard III and Edward VI (both in private collections).

Justification for dating
Dendrochronological analysis of other surviving panels from the set has indicated that the paintings are most likely to have been produced after 1584 and probably no later than 1595. According to the 1781 sale catalogue, the set originally included a portrait of Henry IV of France who came to the French throne in 1589, which suggests that the paintings were produced after this date. The technique and materials in use in the portrait of Cardinal Wolsey are entirely consistent with a work from this period; dendrochronological analysis has indicated that the wood derives from a tree that was felled after 1567.

Many areas have suffered significant abrasion and there is considerable restoration and overpaint on the damaged areas. This obscures passages of the original paint surface, especially in the grey sleeve and the lower part of the costume. The face remains in reasonable condition. The red lake glaze, which was applied overall, has suffered considerable abrasion and this has increased the contrast between areas of shadow, mid-tone and highlight.

Painting technique
The painting method is simple and unsophisticated. The flesh was evidently painted rapidly; it was applied wet-in wet with a stippling method, with minimal blending, using a medium-sized brush. The costume was painted using a wider and stiffer brush. The red cassock is simply painted with an opaque red underlayer, with white applied for the highlights, and dark grey for shadows. The original appearance of the inscription is not clear; it was first painted in lead-tin yellow, over this there is a darker, more orange mixture, and there are fragments of gold leaf over the darker yellow.

Drawing and transfer technique
The portrait was evidently made with the use of a traced pattern; infrared reflectography reveals a large amount of black underdrawing. It seems likely that the same pattern was used again to make changes in the position of the nose and the eye. X-ray shows that the position for the outline of the hand on the left was broadly marked with lead white paint at an early stage in the painting process.

Other known versions
A large number of versions of this portrait exist, some of which were probably made for sets. There are surviving versions in the following collections:
Christ Church College, Oxford, LP.7
Christ Church College, Oxford, LP.8
Christ Church College, Oxford, LP.10
Christ Church College, Oxford, PO.685
Bodleian Library, Oxford, LP.21
Knole, National Trust, 129751
Christies Sale 11 Nov. 2004, lot 217
Trinity College, Cambridge, TC Oils P 215
The iconography then changes and it becomes a half-length internal scene with landscape background and the right hand blessing – appears as though the same pattern is used; stark profile with red cardinal robes and hat, black sleeves, left hand holding scroll –
Christ Church College, Oxford, LP.13
Aukland Castle, 6
Colchester and Ipswitch Museum Service, R.1959-167
Magdalen College, Oxford, P0202
The Bishop’s Palace and Garden, Wells, 19

Daunt, Catherine, ‘Portrait Sets in Tudor and Jacobean England’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sussex, 2015
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London, 1969, pp. 335-6
Vertue, George, ‘Notebooks’, IV, Walpole Society, 24, 1936, p. 140

Exhibition history
‘Henry VIII: Man and Monarch’, British Library, London, 2009


IRR mosaic 01. Infrared reflectogram mosaic d…
IRR mosaic 02. Infrared reflectogram mosaic d…
Micro 01. Detail of the eye (7.1 x mag).
Micro 02. Detail of the nose (7.1 x mag).
Micro 03. Detail of the lips, showing pentime…
Micro 04. Detail of hairs on chin (7.1 x mag)…
Micro 05. Detail of the edge of the hat, with…
Micro 07. Detail of the inscription, with res…
Micro 08. Detail of the hat (7.1 x mag).
Micro 09. Detail of a highlight on the cassoc…
Micro 10. Detail of the thumb on the hand on…
Micro 11. Detail of papers over the cassock (…
Micro 12. Edge of the hand on the right and c…
Micro 13. Detail of the cassock, showing orig…
Micro 14. Detail of the edge of the cuff and…
Micro 15. Detail of the grey sleeve, showing…
Micro 17. Detail of background on the right,…
Micro 18. Detail of red glaze on the cassock…
Detail 01. Detail of the face.


The three board panel has a slight convex warp. Two horizontal channels have been cut into the reverse of the panel to accommodate cross members, which have since been removed. Small wooden buttons are present along the panel joins. There are considerable paint losses with a large amount of restoration throughout. The red cassock appears to have been entirely overpainted. The panel joins appear stable. There are areas of raised cracking throughout, although these appear stable. There are numerous scratches to the paint surface and many of the old retouchings appear mismatched. There are also two areas of blanching in the shadows of the cassock.


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 3

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

Two horizontal channels are present on the reverse of the panel. These are approximately 6 mm in depth and likely relate to a non-original secondary attachment which is no longer present. Small wooden buttons are present along the panel joins. Saran Resin 310 is present on the reverse of the panel.

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: 1559


The three boards were labelled A to C from the left (from the front) for purposes of analysis. The three ring sequences matched closely and undoubtedly derived from the same Eastern Baltic oak tree. As no sapwood was present on any of the boards a terminus post quem can be applied to the panel. The last ring on Board A was dated to 1559, and the unmeasured part of Board B probably ends at this ring. Adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings suggests that the three boards derive from a single tree felled after 1567. Board B is slightly narrow compared with the typical range for Baltic boards and suggests that there is some possibility that these boards have been significantly trimmed and it is therefore inappropriate to apply an eastern Baltic 8-40 LEHR-usage range to the panel.

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.

A considerable amount of paint loss and damage is visible in x-ray (see x-ray 01). This is particularly evident in the cassock, where large losses, scratches and areas of abrasion have occurred. The x-ray shows the position for the outline of the hand on the left was broadly marked using lead white at an early stage in the painting process. In x-ray this can be seen as a dense semicircle round the contour of the hand. The wooden buttons and the two horizontal grooves that have been channelled into the reverse of the panel can be seen in 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.

Using infrared reflectography a considerable amount of underdrawing was visible in the face and hands. Alterations in the position of the facial features were made at the drawing stage; the eye and nose were first positioned lower than in the final drawing and painted image (see IRR mosaic 01). The underdrawing in the face suggests that a pattern was used to transfer the drawing,with tracing, onto the prepared panel. It is likely that the same pattern was then used to alter the position of the features, positioning them higher than they were originally drawn. The tracing was then reinforced with liquid medium and a brush. The drawing that can be seen in the hands delineates the position of the fingers, wrist and scroll (see IRR mosaic 02). This appears to have been carried out freehand, again in liquid medium. It is likely that further underdrawing was carried out in the staff and folds in the costume, but these are disguised by the presence of dark paint.

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 2010

Preparation layers
The panel was prepared with a chalk ground and a thin warm grey priming was applied over it. The priming layer is a mixture of lead white with a scattering of red lead and lamp black particles.

Red costume
Sample 4: Cross-section from near the lower hand shows the chalk ground, a mixed grey layer, a light grey layer (status unclear), and a mixed red layer with red lead or vermilion.

Sample 1: Cross-section from the background, near the nose was taken to see if the red visible on the surface was beneath or on top of the black. It shows that a red ochre was mixed into the black, but no red below or above could be seen at this point. The grey priming and the chalk ground can be seen beneath this layer.
Sample 2: Cross-section from the red and black below the letter 'D' was analysed to see if there is a pentiment under the black of the background. It shows the chalk ground, the grey priming layer, a thick mixed grey layer which is perhaps a pentiment, a thin bright red layer which appears to be vermilion, and a thin black layer.

Surface examination shows that the inscription appears to be composed of a thick lead-tin yellow covered by a more orange variety of lead-tin yellow which has been gilded. This construction is slightly puzzling under gold. The order of painting is: black of background, lead-tin yellow, more orange yellow, gilding. This may imply that the lower layer of lead-tin yellow is the inscription and that the upper more orange layer is the mordant for the gilding above, which was added later.

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 method of painting is simple and unsophisticated. Large areas have been significantly abraded and restored with overpaint which is now mismatched.

Preparation layers
The panel was prepared with a chalk ground, followed by a pale lead-based priming. The underdrawing was carried out with a carbon medium and can be seen under some passages of the paint surface, such as the face and hands.

The flesh appears to have been rapidly applied using wet-in-wet technique (see detail 01 and micro 04). The flesh mixture is composed of lead white, charcoal black, vermilion (or red lead) and perhaps some earth pigments and red lake. The shadows and definition were then applied above with a thin, medium-rich application of the same pigment mixture, with a higher proportion of black added (see micro 02 and micro 03).

The position of the eye was altered between the drawing and painting stages (see Infrared reflectography). The poor condition of the eye makes the interpretation of the original paint problematic (see micro 01). The white of the eye appears to be composed of a mixture of lead white and earth pigments. There is a small amount of green pigment present in the white of the eye, although this is probably not original. The pupil was painted using a mixture of black, red, a little white and some red lake pigments.

Underdrawing is visible through the abraded surface in a number of areas and this is particularly evident in the hands (see micro 10 and micro 12).

Costume and hat
The red cassock was applied in a number of layers. The first layer was broadly applied using an opaque red, containing vermilion or red lead and black. Individual brushstrokes are clearly visible in this layer. In areas of highlight in the lower part of the cassock, lead white was added to the opaque paint. In the upper part of the cassock, large passages of highlight were created in a slightly different manner: first the opaque red layer was applied, followed by a second layer composed primarily of lead white with a little black and vermilion or red lead. This layer was very broadly painted with wide brushstrokes, applied in a number of directions when the opaque red layer was still wet. Above this, a thin red lake glaze was applied over the entire costume (see micro 09). This glaze layer is now much abraded (see micro 13). In areas of shadow, the glaze was more thickly applied with some black pigment added. The same technique was used to create the shadows in the hat (see micro 05 and micro 08). In the darkest folds of the drapery, a very dark grey containing predominantly black with some red and possibly earth pigments appears to have been applied above the red lake glaze layer. Finally, a second layer of red lake glaze was applied above the dark grey folds, creating rich, deep shadows. The red lake glaze present on the surface of the costume has been heavily abraded through past solvent cleaning (see micro 18). The loss of glazing here has meant that the contrast between shadows, mid-tone and highlight has become far more extreme than was originally intended. This is further increased by the presence of non-original dark reinforcements in the shadows and folds in a number of areas.

Sleeve and cuff
The grey sleeve is very damaged and overpainted and therefore difficult to interpret (see micro 15). Many of the dark outlines and shadows present on the sleeve are non-original reinforcements, particularly the dark black line between the sleeve and upper part of the red cassock. Where original paint can be seen on the surface, it appears that a grey layer was first applied above the priming using a mixture of lead white, charcoal black and a little red lead or vermilion. Above this, a darker grey was applied in areas of shadow, using the same paint mixture with a higher proportion of black. Using microscopy, there is evidence that the original surface has been scraped in many areas, including the sleeve. Given the fine nature of the scratches seen, it is likely that a wire wool type material was used to do this, before overpaint was applied above. The black cuff is less restored than the grey sleeve, although also abraded (see micro 14). Black paint, composed of black pigment and some red lead or vermilion was applied directly above the priming. Using microscopy, small remnants of a red lake glaze were found on the surface, above the black paint, suggesting an overall glaze layer was originally present.

Papers in the hand
The papers were applied at a late stage in the painting process, directly above the cassock (see micro 11). The red cassock paint can be seen beneath the papers due to surface abrasion in the white paint.

The background appears to have been applied in two layers, above the pale priming. The first is a mid-grey layer composed of lead white, charcoal black and red. A darker grey, containing a higher proportion of black and perhaps some vermilion was then applied above. The background is heavily abraded and restored with mismatched overpaint (see micro 17). Surface microscopy suggests that the original background has been scraped back in parts.

The inscription has been heavily abraded and restored. Surface examination suggests that lead-tin yellow was first applied above the background. This was then followed by a darker orange mixture containing a more orange tone of lead-tin yellow and a little black. Above this, fragments of gold leaf are visible. It is unclear whether the gold leaf covered the lead-tin yellow entirely, or was present in areas of highlight (see micro 07).

Order of construction
- Chalk ground
- Pale priming
- Drawing
- Flesh paint
- Staff
- Opaque red underlayer for cassock and hat
- Sleeve
- Background
- Red lake layer on cassock, hat and black sleeve
- Hair
- Folded papers
- Inscription

Lead white, vermilion or red lead, red lake, charcoal black, yellow ochre, lead tin yellow, gold leaf

Restoration observations
A considerable amount of restoration is present throughout; isolated retouchings and wholescale overpainting have been observed in various areas. The grey sleeve, for example, is particularly overpainted, leaving little original paint visible on the surface. The restoration was applied in thin glazes and thick opaque passages (see UV 01).

Changes in composition/pentimenti
The lips were reduced in size after the background was applied (see micro 03).

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

The painting has an old natural resin varnish which fluoresces green under ultra violet light (see UV 01). The varnish layer has been partially cleaned in the area of the red robe and hat. Extensive retouching is visible on top of the varnish as dark passages across the surface. The retouching is visible in all areas of the panel, especially in the lower half of the panel in the red costume. In the sitter's sleeve the retouching appears as broad, crude brushstrokes.


Frame type: Not original. Carved arched frame. Possibly walnut with polished and waxed finish.

Frame date: 20th century