1 of 20 portraits on display in Room 2 at the National Portrait Gallery
- Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database
by Unknown Netherlandish artist
oil on canvas, 1555
66 7/8 in. x 34 1/2 in. (1700 mm x 875 mm)
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New attribution: Unknown Netherlandish artist.
Key findings: Dating of 1555 confirmed. This portrait is a highly unusual early example of a full-length painting produced on a canvas and this support may have been used to allow ease of transport.
Purchased by Private Treaty Sale in July 2006; Sotheby’s 7 June 2006 (lot 209) but withdrawn from auction. Previously in the Knatchbull Collection.
This portrait, on canvas, is inscribed with the date 1555 (top left) which is considered to be extremely early for the use of canvas in northern Europe, particularly in England. Astley was travelling on the continent during that year, making it likely that the portrait was painted whilst he was abroad.
Notes on likely authorship
Stylistic evidence indicates that the portrait is by a talented unknown Netherlandish artist.
Commentary on painting style and technique
This portrait is painted thinly, with smooth blending of the paint. Much of the contrast between different areas of black has been lost because of abrasion and the disturbed surface. The face is relatively intact and shows a lot of the original fine brushwork and subtle modelling. The modelling of the features and characteristics such as the two 'moles' are created with smoothly blended glazes. The hands are very damaged but appear to be painted with the same technique. The ring on the hand on the right is also very damaged, but the remnants show that lead-tin yellow was used.
On top of a very thin chalk preparation, there is a warm pale grey priming layer, which can be seen through losses and at the edges.
There is variety and subtlety in the modelling of the blacks and dark greys, especially in the jacket. This seems to have been achieved by manipulating the thickness of the paint over the priming, and the quantities of red and white pigments mixed with black in the different areas. In places, there seem to be bands of medium-rich paint containing considerable lead white pigment. Very dark areas, such as the belt, are medium-rich black glazes, possibly also containing a little red pigment.
Although the floor appears very flat and uniform, it does not seem to have been subject to wholesale overpainting. Some areas have been retouched, but the two areas of slightly different shade to the left of the foot on the left have no variation in crack pattern. It is possible that some alterations were made early in the painting's history, or during the painting process.
Both the handwriting style and paint sampling indicate that the lower inscriptions: ‘John Astley Esq’, ‘Father of Bridget & Eleonor’ are not original. The date and the lower written inscriptions are painted with the same paint mixture (although with varying proportions of yellow to white and other earth pigments) and were probably applied at the same time. Large, very bright yellow ochre particles can be seen mixed with white; no lead-tin yellow was found in the samples taken. Detailed examination revealed that the numerals of the date were originally painted in black and only later reinforced with yellow paint.
Justification for dating
The inscription of the date ‘1555’ has original black paint with the same numerals, ‘1555’, under the yellow paint. All the materials and techniques are consistent with the portrait having been produced at this date, although it is an early use of canvas. The use of canvas might be accounted for by the fact that Astley had recently been in Italy (where canvas was more widely used) and this influenced his choice of support. He may have commissioned it in the Netherlands, or at least from a Netherlandish artist on his return journey. The choice of canvas would also have made the transportation of this picture much easier.
Drawing and transfer technique
Underdrawing was detected in the face using infrared reflectography. It showed that the nose is outlined with a strong continuous line, probably from a pattern. The visible underdrawing is probably reinforcement over a tracing, and appears to have been executed with a liquid medium. Nothing remains of the tracing lines. Underdrawing in the hair and beard was found to be more free, with fine, sketchy lines. These were probably added as freehand embellishments during the reinforcement of the lines.
Relevance to other known versions
- Inverted head and shoulders - Seaton Delaval, National Trust, NT 1276682
Sotheby's, Important British Pictures 1500-1850, Wednesday 7th June 2006, pp. 134-5 (lot 209)
Compare Images (what's this?)
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.
The canvas has a fairly recent glue paste lining, and a new stretcher. The original tacking edges are not present, and the lining canvas is attached to the stretcher with copper tacks on the sides and staples on the back. Attachment and tension are good. All keys are present and secured. There are no new losses. Some slight abrasion to the varnish around the edges from a frame rebate. There is a blanched patch around the second '5' of the date, and a small matte patch at the centre of the top edge. There is slightly raised, but stable, craquelure all over, which varies in size and network, resulting in an uneven surface. The black costume is very worn, but sensitively restored. The floor is very flat in appearance. The gloss is uneven because of the surface texture, but in general the varnish itself is good.
The painting has been very sensitively restored. There is much damage to the original surface (see X-ray), but the areas of loss are discrete and none is very large. The face is relatively intact and has little retouching, while the hands have a great deal.
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.
The painting is on a canvas support.
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-ray image indicates that the portrait is painted quite thinly. The outline of the figure can be seen, and no pentimenti are evident. The areas of flesh paint, and the cuffs, are visible because of the inclusion of lead white. Large, swirling brushstrokes seem to be visible in various places, which could be associated with the priming layer (see x-ray mosaic 01 and x-ray detail 01).
Many areas of damage can be seen clearly in the x-ray, across the whole surface, but most notably in the hand on the right. The canvas weave is very clear, and sections of the image were slightly obstructed by the stretcher.
A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.
Underdrawing, which can to some extent be seen in normal light, was detected in the face using infrared reflectography. It showed that the nose is outlined with a strong continuous line, possibly from a pattern. The visible underdrawing is probably reinforcement over a tracing, and appears to have been executed with a liquid medium. Nothing remains of the tracing lines. Underdrawing in the hair and beard was found to be more free, with fine, sketchy lines. These were probably added as freehand embellishments during the reinforcement of the lines (see IRR mosaic 01). The whites of the eyes appear dark and modelled in the infrared reflectogram because of the large amount of charcoal in the paint mixture (see Surface examination and micro 15).
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 2008.
Preparation layers and paint
Sample 1: see 'Inscriptions' below.
Sample 2: see 'Inscriptions' below.
Sample 3 shows the structure of the preparatory layers:
- sized canvas,
- layer directly over fibres - chalk skim or glue (with possible traces of pigment)
- priming - containing predominantly lead white, but with black, red and traces of orange giving it a warm pale grey colour (see also Surface examination)
Sample 6 was set as a dispersion and a cross-section. These showed that the red paint of the floor contains earth pigments - predominantly red ochre - and black, a little organic dark red, and some lead white from the ground. They also showed the red to have been painted in two layers, the upper one containing the organic red. This sample also showed a scattering of chalk particles, perhaps a layer over the canvas.
Samples 7 and 8 showed the variety of pigments and shades of black used in the clothing. The black in the flower pattern on the collar and cuffs appears to have definite particles, and is probably plant black. However, the more intense black in the costume - for example in the belt - seems to be lamp black, and also included some silicates or glass, possibly added as driers. The lighter black/grey of the doublet, just above the belt, was found to be a mixture of black and a brownish substance with the appearance of an organic black/brown.
Samples show that the background is painted in two layers over the preparation layers: a dark grey, rather lumpy paint, followed by a pure black.
The inscriptions were investigated to add to the information gained by surface examination (see Surface examination). Microscope examination had indicated that the paint is a mixture of lead white and yellow ochre, and this was confirmed by setting samples as dispersions. Energy dispersive x-ray analysis also confirmed that there was no lead-tin yellow present.
The presence of a painted black pigment date of 1555 beneath the current yellow numerals was investigated. Two cross-sections of samples from the higher inscription with the date '1555' showed the presence of a blackish resinous layer - probably an old varnish - between the dark background paint and the yellow. Samples from elsewhere in the background do not contain this layer, indicating that it is the remnant of an old varnish that was cleaned off, but preserved under the yellow paint. This crucial information indicates the presence of varnish and confirms that the lettering was added to the painting after it was painted (and varnished).
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
This portrait is painted thinly, with smooth blending of the paint. Much of the contrast between different areas of black has been lost because of abrasion and the disturbed surface. The face is relatively intact and shows a lot of the original fine brushwork and subtle modelling.
The lowest layer could be a very thin chalk ground, scraped back so that it was left only in the canvas interstices. There is possibly evidence of this scraping at the sitter's right temple, where very fine and regular parallel lines can just be seen.
On top of the ground there is a thin, warm pale grey priming layer which can be seen through losses and at the edges (see also Paint sampling). The brushstrokes of the priming layer can be seen in the x-ray (see X-ray).
The assured, comprehensive underdrawing seen in infrared reflectography (see Infrared reflectography) can be seen through the paint in places, especially in the ear and eyes (see micro 03).
Paint layer structure
Flesh paint, eyes, ring, hair, beard
A couple of isolated blue particles can be seen under magnification in the face (see Paint sampling), but the general paint mixture appears to contain lead white, a high proportion of vermilion, possibly a brown earth, and some yellow particles. The modelling of the features, and characteristics such as the two moles, is created with smoothly blended glazes (see micro 18). The hands are very damaged but appear to be painted with the same technique (see detail 05 and detail 06). Colourless and lead white soaps are visible throughout the flesh paint and other areas.
The whites of the eyes contain a few particles of azurite, but their grey/blue appearance is due to the presence of a large amount of black in the paint (see micro 02 and micro 15). At the hairline, feathery brushstrokes blend into the flesh paint (see micro 19).
The beard has an overall brown/orange layer, with individual strokes in various colours over this, delineating hairs (see micro 16). At the lower edges, it is blended very subtly into and over the jacket paint. The black jacket does not appear to extend all the way beneath the beard. Brown/orange strokes also feather the edge of the beard over the patterned collar. The pigments used here appear to be brown, yellow and red earths.
The ring on the hand on the right is also very damaged, but the remnants show that lead-tin yellow was used (see micro 13).
There is variety and subtlety in the modelling of the blacks and dark greys, especially in the jacket (see micro 17, micro 21 and micro 22). This seems to have been achieved by manipulating the thickness of the paint over the priming, and the quantities of red and white pigments mixed with black in the different areas. In places, there seem to be bands of medium-rich paint containing considerable lead white pigment. Very dark areas, such as the belt, are medium-rich black glazes, possibly also containing a little red pigment. (See Paint sampling for detail about pigments).
The surface of the blacks in particular has been broken up by lead soaps protruding through the upper layers. In the lighter areas of the clothing, there are very many of these eruptions, which could indicate that local extra layers of lead white might have been applied over the ground to indicate these areas of highlight, and to lighten the appearance of the black paint over them.
Collar and cuffs
At first glance the collar and cuffs look very bold and possibly reinforced. However, the black sections are worn, especially at the edges of cracks, and many lead soaps are visible (see micro 04), which indicate that they are not repainted. Some parts of the cuff on the left are restoration, but the grey shadows are generally original, and appear to be mixtures of charcoal and white.
Although the floor appears very flat and uniform, it does not seem to have been subject to wholesale overpainting (see also Paint sampling). Some areas have been retouched, but the two areas of slightly different shade to the left of the foot on the left have no variation in crack pattern. It is possible that some alterations were made early in the painting's life, or during the painting process. This could account for the pentiment to the foot on the right, because although in general the legs, feet and scabbard appear to have been painted after the floor, at the foot on the right orange/red paint (although very broken up) covers the altered edge. The paint of the scabbard has no layer beneath it, other than the priming, and therefore it seems always to have been intended to be black.
Based on the handwriting style, the lower inscriptions do not appear to be original. The date and the lower written inscription are painted with the same paint mixture (although with varying proportions of yellow to white and other earth pigments) and were probably applied at the same time. Large, very bright yellow ochre particles can be seen, mixed with white; no lead-tin yellow was found in the samples taken. This also makes it unlikely that the inscriptions are original although lead-tin yellow was on the painter's palette (see information on the ring above), and would have been the normal choice of pigment for an inscription in the sixteenth century.
Under the yellow paint of the date, the same numbers are written in black paint. The black numbers were shown by paint sampling to be earlier than the yellow ones over them, and contemporary with the date (see micro 06 and micro 23). Therefore, the numerals of the date were originally painted in black and only later reinforced with yellow paint.
Order of construction
- Ground (Chalk)
- Priming / Underdrawing (It was not possible to determine whether the underdrawing lies above or below the priming layer).
- Flesh paint applied early in process
- Collar and background painted after the flesh paint
- Jacket painted after background and collar
- Floor painted before legs, feet and scabbard
Carbon black - at least two different blacks: plant black (flowers of collar and cuff), intense black is lamp black (costume) and a brown black (tunic), (see Paint sampling); lead white, lead-tin yellow, azurite, vermilion, yellow ochre, red ochre, earth pigments, red lake
A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.
Overall, the surface has a fairly even green fluorescence under ultra violet light. The recent retouchings are visible as dark patches. These correspond to the damages visible on the x-ray (see X-ray). The costume has a more broken-up fluorescence, probably because of the abraded surface. There is a light vertical patch just to the right of the shin on the left. The face is well-preserved, although some retouching is evident. There is a slightly different fluorescence in the beard and hair (see UV 01).