Oliver St John, 1st Baron St John of Bletso

1 portrait on display in Room 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

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Oliver St John, 1st Baron St John of Bletso

by Arnold Bronckorst
oil on panel, 1578
18 7/8 in. x 15 1/2 in. (478 mm x 395 mm)
NPG 6919

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Key findings: The signature and date are original, which allows this painting to act as a comparative for other works attributed to Bronckorst.

Historical summary
Purchased by the gallery in 2011 from Cheffins Auctioneers. The portrait came by descent from the sitter in the St John family to the Lady Luke St John who married George Lawson Johnson in 1902.

Oliver St John made his career in Parliament and Bedfordshire politics. Serving both in national and county affairs, St John consistently demonstrated his allegiance to Elizabeth I. He was created first Baron St. John of Bletso in 1559. His claims to the peerage were probably strengthened by his familial connections to the line of the barony of Beauchamp of Bletso. In the National Art Library there is a book collated by the herald John Guillim (1551-1621) which includes a copy of a treatise on the technique of manuscript illumination that is noted as being in Baron Bletso’s possession. He therefore appears to have been interested in painting and the arts, which may explain this commission from a talented émigré artist.

Notes on likely authorship and justification
Very unusually, the portrait is signed and dated ‘A BRONCKORST FECIT 1578’ vertically down the right-hand side. This is the only signed portrait by Bronckorst which survives and is used as the principal guide for identifying other works by the artist.

Commentary on condition, painting style and technique
The panel has a thick lead white priming layer which was applied with broad brushstrokes over the chalk ground. The portrait was painted with an orderly method and appears to have been executed quite rapidly. The beard and face are thinly painted with very fine brushwork and the texture of the priming is particularly evident in these parts. The black paint layers in the hat and costume are simply managed. The tones and textures of the fabrics are varied with two types of black pigment, some with red added, and with some white added for the grey pattern and folds. The background is painted with a mixture made with most of the pigments used in the portrait, including red and azurite.

Justification for dating
The date ‘1578’ is inscribed with the artist’s name and the technique and materials in use are entirely consistent with a work from this period. Dendrochronological analysis confirmed that the tree used for the panel was felled after 1568.

Drawing and transfer technique
No underdrawing was revealed using infrared photography or infrared reflectography.

Relevance to other known versions
No other versions of this portrait are known to exist.

Auerbach, Erna, Nicholas Hilliard, 1961, pp. 265-71
Murrell, Jim, ‘John Guillim’s Book: A Heraldic Painter’s Vade Mecum’, Walpole Society, 1993/4, pp. 1-51
Strong, Roy, The English Icon, 1969, pp. 135-8
Thomson, Duncan, Painting in Scotland 1570-1650, Scottish National Portrait Gallery,1975, pp. 22-23


Micro 02. Detail of the eye on the right (7.1…
Micro 06. Detail of embroidery on the rim of…
Micro 07. Detail of the edge of the eye and e…
Micro 08. Detail of the edge of the nose, wit…
Micro 09. Detail of the edge of the beard and…
Micro 10. Detail of the lips (7.1 x mag).
Micro 11. Detail of the ruff (7.1 x mag).
Micro 12. Detail of the edge of the ruff and…
Micro 13. Detail of a button on the doublet (…
Micro 14. Detail of the monogram (20 x mag).
Micro 15. Detail of the date (7.1 x mag).
Micro 19. Detail of the pigment mixture in th…
Micro 20. Edge of the white of the eye and th…
Micro 21. Detail of flesh, showing broad brus…
Micro 22. Detail of grey hair over flesh pain…
Micro 23. Detail of the pigment mixture in th…
Micro 24. Detail of the hat, with restoration…
UV 01. Front of the painting in ultra violet…
Reverse 02. Back of the panel in raking light…
Detail 01. Detail of the signature and date.

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 wood panel is in good condition but there are repairs to the wood losses at the upper-right and lower-right corners. The horizontal short crack above the signature on the right is stable. Abraded areas in the thinly painted parts, such as the beard, flesh and background, have fine restoration which is well matched. The varnish is clear, even and fairly glossy.


Support type: English oak

Number of boards: 1

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

There is a loss at the top-right corner which has been repaired with a piece of wood, and a smaller loss at the lower-right corner which was repaired with a piece of wood during the recent conservation. The losses are in the area of sapwood. Woodworm holes can be seen in the sapwood. There is a short horizontal crack at the right edge, just above the signature.

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: 1568


The single oak board has fifteen sapwood rings along the right side edge, which means that a felling date range can be applied to the panel. Adding the minimum and maximum expected number of sapwood rings for English oak to this suggests that this board derives from a tree felled between 1568 and 1599. The 1578 date on the panel shows that this is a good example of a panel where the tree-ring result implies the board was relatively fresh when it was used.

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-ray is dominated by the dense broad brushstrokes of the thick lead-based priming layer (see x-ray mosaic 01). There are some thicker more dense areas, particularly at the right edges of the hat and the ruff, which appear to be part of the priming. By contrast the thinly painted portrait appears very faint and in some parts hardly visible. The decoration round the hat is the most evident part of the portrait. The vertical wood grain, and the repaired wood loss at the upper right and lower right corners can be seen. Some knocks can be seen at the edges, and there is a short horizontal crack in the upper part of the right edge.

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.

There is no visible underdrawing using infrared reflectography or infrared photography (see DIRR 01). The broad brushy application of the priming can be seen very clearly. A change in the right side of the crown of the hat is clearly evident, where the edge was painted initially a little to the right of the present outline.

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 2012

Preparation layers
The wood panel is prepared with a chalk ground and there is a thick lead white priming with occasional vermilion particles included.

Surface examination shows that the flesh paint contains lead white, vermilion and carbon black. The black particles are probably plant black as they are quite large and rounded.

The whites of the eyes are painted with lead white with some azurite. There are also two types of black: plant black and finely ground charcoal black, and occasional particles of vermilion. There is a very small amount of azurite in the grey iris, and the pupils are painted with intense plant black, with rounded particles.

Black costume
Sample 1: Cross-section shows the chalk ground, the white priming, and the black costume paint which contains occasional lead white particles. There is a thin skim of unpigmented substance which may be a glue layer to seal the preparation layer.
Sample 2: From the black pattern. Dispersion shows that the black pattern consists of pure plant or bone black pigment with rounded particles. Probably the same plant black found in the flesh paint.

Sample 4: Cross-section shows that the white parts of the ruff are painted mostly with lead white. There are some very small blue/green particles which appear to be azurite. There are small glassy particles that could be discoloured smalt.

Sample 3: Cross-section shows the white priming with the purplish grey background paint over it. This layer is a mixture of carbon black, lead white, crimson red lake and azurite, occasional vermilion or red ochre, and brown earth pigments.

Surface examination gives no indication that it is not contemporary with the portrait.

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 appears to have been painted quite rapidly using medium-rich oil paint and the style is orderly. The beard and flesh paint is painted with very fine thin brushwork. The texture of the thick brushstrokes of the priming layer beneath is evident in these parts of the painting. The black paint layers for the costume and hat are simply managed with dense black used for the deep tones and black with some white for the grey pattern and folds. The yellow patterned hat band is finely painted. The grey/brown background paint was applied quickly using a general mixture of the pigments used in the rest of the painting.

Preparation layers
The panel was prepared with a chalk ground. A thick lead white priming, which contains the occasional vermilion particle, was applied over the ground with a broad brush. The texture of the priming is visible through the paint surface.

The flesh paint was thinly painted over the priming. It was applied up to the edge of the area around the eyes and up to the edge of the shadow area around the nose. The flesh paint is a mixture of lead white, plant black, some charcoal black, vermilion, occasional red lake particles and possibly a little earth pigment (see micro 23). The whites of the eyes were then added, followed by the irises and pupils. The warm shadow in the the flesh paint, and the brown paint defining the outlines of the features were applied after the eyes were painted. The paint mixture in the shadows is very similar to the rest of the flesh paint but contains more red: both vermilion and red lake. The pigment particles are very small throughout. The thin dark medium-rich brown defining the eyes and nose contains a large proportion of black, with some vermilion and red lake (see micro 07 and micro 08). The deepest shadow inside the nostril contains mostly red lake and black with a little vermilion. The surface of the flesh paint is a little abraded. This has emphasised the brushy nature of the priming which has become more evident on the surface (see micro 21).

The whites of the eyes are painted with lead white with some azurite, a little vermilion, two types of black: charcoal black and plant black (see Paint sampling), and earth pigments (see micro 02 and micro 20). The grey/blue irises are painted with a mixture of lead white, charcoal black, a little azurite and possibly some earth pigment, which appears to be sienna. The pupils are painted with plant black, lead white, and some vermilion and red lake. The paint mixture is a thicker and darker version of the medium-rich mixture used to define the eyes.

The pale flesh colour appears to have been applied very thinly in the beard area and then the beard paint applied thinly over it. Due to the extent of the abrasion in this thinly painted area, it is difficult to assess clearly the technique employed. However, it appears that a very thin layer of grey/brown may have been applied in this area for the beard tone and then the individual hairs were applied over it. The brushstrokes for the hairs are soft and fine. The beard paint appears to be medium rich. The fine final hairs, which are painted over the ruff on the right side, were applied wet-in-wet at a late stage after the ruff was painted in (see micro 09). Some of the grey hairs, such as to the right of the ear, were painted with a mixture of black, lead white, azurite and vermilion (see micro 22).

The lips are abraded but appear to be very thinly painted over the priming layer (see micro 10). The lower lip seems to have been applied first, with the dark upper lip over it. The paint in the lower lip contains mostly lead white, charcoal black, vermilion, and a little red lake. There is a higher proportion of black, vermilion and red lake in the shadow of the top lip. It is clear that there are many metal (lead) soaps from the priming which have been abraded and this has left a mottled white surface. There is restoration over this abrasion.

The paint mixture in the dark black rim of the hat is composed of charcoal black, with some red lake and a little vermilion. The mixture appears to be quite medium rich and there is evidence of poor drying in the rim of the hat, where the black mixture has been applied over the flesh paint. This can be seen at the edge of the hat where there are very fine drying cracks which have exposed the flesh paint beneath (see micro 24). Once the hat rim had been painted in, the rest of the hat was painted with a very dark grey (with more white added to the mixture). The dark black folds were applied above this when the grey was still wet. The paler grey highlights were added above the dark folds. The yellow detail was added, using a very fine brush and fluid paint, when the grey and black paint were dry. Lead-tin yellow was applied with a very fine brush and fluid paint. The lead-tin yellow highlights were applied and allowed to 'pool' in the centre over the brushstrokes (see micro 06).

The costume was applied after the background, using the same paint mixtures as the hat. The paint appears to have been applied wet-in-wet (see micro 13). The black in the patterned passages is made with pure plant or bone black. The black is probably the same black as used in the flesh paint (see Paint sampling). The greyish black is made with black with some lead white.

White paint for the ruff was laid in thinly. The paint mixture for the white parts of the ruff is made almost entirely with lead white (see micro 11, micro 12 and micro 13), but also contains very small azurite particles and small glassy particles which might be smalt (see Paint sampling). The lace detail, grey shadows and very fine black detail were applied over the white. The black costume was painted before the final white lace detail was applied to the ruff.

The background was painted at a fairly late stage, after the flesh painting but before the final details for the hat and ruff were applied. The background was applied thinly and unevenly with broad brushstrokes and a uniform colour. The paint mixture contains charcoal black, lead white, vermilion or red ochre, red lake, earth pigments and azurite (see micro 19). A few particles of what appears to be malachite have also been noted. These may be naturally present with the batch of azurite used, rather than an intentional addition to the paint mixture. In some areas the same mixture appears to have been applied in a further layer.

Signature and date
The inscription was painted with charcoal black and white, with perhaps a little lead-tin yellow (see detail 01, micro 14 and micro 15).

Order of construction
- Ground
- Priming
- First layers of flesh paint, followed by the eyes, and then the warm shadows in the flesh and brown defining outlines
- White ruff
- Beard
- First layers for hat painted after flesh
- Costume
- Grey tones applied to ruff
- Background
- Final details for the hat and ruff
- Final small hairs in beard

Azurite, possibly smalt, lead white, charcoal black, plant black, possibly bone black (see Paint sampling), lead-tin yellow, earth pigments, vermilion, red lake

Changes in composition/pentimenti
There is a change to the outline of the right side of the crown of the hat, which is visible using infrared reflectography, where the outline was painted initially a little to the right of the final outline.

Restoration observations
There is an old repair to wood loss at the upper right corner, and a recent repair to a small wood loss at the lower right corner. The wood losses have been retouched. There is quite a lot of fine restoration in the thinly painted parts where the paint has been abraded, in the beard and background.

Ultra violet examination (what's this?)

Ultra Violetclose

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

The recent restoration can be seen clearly, mostly as small dark areas in the face, beard and background (see UV 01). There is a larger darker area over the wood repairs at the upper and lower-right corners. The dark areas which are more pale indicate areas of older restoration. There are a few pale opaque areas where old varnish residues remain after careful cleaning.


Frame type: English Cassetta style. Oak, stained dark brown with a gilt sight edge

Frame date: Not original. 21st century