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Portrait of John Astley (c.1507-96)

John Astley
by Unknown Netherlandish artist
NPG 6768

John Astley (c.1507-1596) was a well educated courtier who became Master of the Jewel House to Elizabeth I in 1558. At the date this portrait was painted Astley was travelling in mainland Europe, almost certainly to escape religious persecution in England, under the Roman Catholic monarch Queen Mary I.

This portrait is particularly important as it is one of the earliest full-length portraits of a non-royal Briton. The portrait was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 2006 from a collection which had previously been owned by Astley's descendants. As a result of detailed new research and technical analysis on this picture we have found out new information about the dating and construction of the portrait which can be explored by clicking on the links below.


Question 1: How can we date this picture?

X-ray showing the canvas weave

X-ray showing the canvas weave

The portrait is painted on canvas and is dated at the top left 1555 . The use of canvas was unusual in Northern Europe in the 1550s and only became popular in the 1590s. However, the material was widely used in Italy (see examples by Moretto da Brescia (c.1498-1554) and full-length portraits by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1520-78) in the National Gallery).

As Astley was abroad at this date, it is possible that he commissioned this portrait to be painted on canvas in order to allow it to be sent to England more easily. He would have seen portraits on canvas in Italy and they certainly would have been much easier to transport than heavy wooden panels.

Dating the picture: Technical analysis has been used to explore the authenticity of the date. Could it date from 1555 or was it a later seventeenth century copy? The results were reasonably conclusive and centred on examination of the inscriptions.

It was clear that the lower inscription citing family names (in a later handwriting style) dated from the eighteenth century. It was painted in a yellow pigment and careful examination proved the paint used on the date ‘1555' also used the same pigment. Therefore we knew that the yellow painted date was a later addition.

However, microscopic examination confirmed the presence of another set of numerals painted in a black pigment beneath the yellow over-paint. The use of pigment sampling clearly indicated that between the yellow date and black painted date was a layer of varnish. However, no layer of varnish exists between the background and the black date which shows that the black date is original to the paint surface. We can therefore be fairly certain that this painting dates from 1555.

Detail of the inscriptions on the portrait
Detail of the inscriptions on the portrait

Magnified detail of the number ‘1’ in the inscribed date: a black pigment is just visible below the yellow.
Magnified detail of the number ‘1’ in the inscribed date: a black pigment is just visible below the yellow.

Question 2: What information can underdrawing provide?

The use of infra-red reflectography revealed a significant amount of underdrawing, particularly in the face. The drawing seen in this image is both sensitive and carefully applied. It includes a considerable amount of detail to allow the painter to work up the features of the face.

Infrared reflectogram of the face
Infrared reflectogram of the face
Image: Tager Stonor Richardson

Photomicrograph of ear showing visible underdrawing on the surface
Photomicrograph of ear showing visible underdrawing on the surface

The strength of the lines indicates that it was probably transferred from a pre-established pattern, which would have been drawn from the life. The nose is outlined with a strong constant line which implies a confident approach. There are other marks, particularly in the hair which appear to be freehand additions to the pattern.

Some of the underdrawing can also be seen in normal light. For example, the drawing around the ear and eyes is evident on the paint surface as the paint has become more transparent over time.


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