Marcus Gheeraerts was arguably the most important portrait painter working on a large scale for the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts and his portraits defined the public image of many of the leading figures of his age. This outstanding and exceptionally well-preserved full-length portrait of the Countess of Hertford, one of the most remarkable women of her time, shown in a magnificent dress most probably worn in the context of a masquerade, is among his most brilliant and alluring achievements. One of the most significant Jacobean portraits to remain in private hands, it offers a fascinating glimpse of the elegant world of Jacobean England.
The Howard Dynasty
The Howard family was one of the most powerful dynasties in Tudor and in Jacobean England, closely entwined with the court in successive reigns through military, naval and political service, as well as by marriage.
The foundations of the family's great prominence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were laid at the beginning of the fifteenth century with the marriage of Sir Robert Howard, who had distinguished himself in France, to Margaret, daughter and co-heiress of Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. This strategic alliance was eventually to yield an inheritance of almost unparalleled landed wealth and consequent political influence, and the elevation of their son John as Duke of Norfolk in 1483. The story of how the Howard family maintained its tenacious dynastic grip on political power in the Tudor and Jacobean eras is one of political snakes and ladders, with periods of dominance often followed by near eclipse. However, successive generations were to demonstrate remarkable resilience and a capacity for revival.
The family had suffered near catastrophe at the dawn of the Tudor era as the first Duke of Norfolk, conscious of how much he owed to King Richard III, had fought against Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (later King Henry VII) and lost his life, title and lands at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. However, the family's fortunes were resuscitated by the 1st Duke's eldest son Thomas, later 2nd Duke of Norfolk, who took advantage of the political clemency of King Henry VII and established the family's position at the heart of the Tudor court in a career marked by loyalty to the new regime and military brilliance. Their grip on power was consolidated in the reign of King Henry VIII, by Thomas, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who succeeded in 1524, and managed to remain one of the dominant figures at Henry's court until the last years of the reign. The 3rd Duke displayed a ruthless commitment to his family's dynastic cause and a taste for political intrigue enabling him to outmanoeuvre both Cardinal Wolsey and later Thomas Cromwell. He also achieved the marriages of two of his nieces, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, to the King and something of the sophistication of his political antenna is evident in the way he managed to negotiate the fallout from the disastrous breakdown of both these marriages. However, Howard influence was to suffer at the end of Henry's reign with the rise of the Seymour family, who through Jane Seymour had provided the King with a long-awaited son and heir. The 3rd Duke's son, the Earl of Surrey, was executed, and the 3rd Duke only escaped execution because of the King's death. With the accession of Mary Tudor the family's power and influence was once again restored and at the outset of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Thomas, 4th Duke of Norfolk, a cousin of the Queen's through her mother Anne Boleyn, and the richest man in England, seemed destined to play a leading role in the politics of Elizabeth's reign. However, less politically agile than his father or grandfather, the 4th Duke managed to alienate significant figures at court through the scale of his ambition, and they were eventually to engineer his downfall. His secret plans to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, allowed his enemies, among them Lord Burghley, to misrepresent his intentions to the Queen, and led ultimately to his execution and the forfeit of his lands and titles.
This portrait of Frances Howard was painted in 1611 at a time when the Howards were once more established at the apex of power. The last decades of Queen Elizabeth I's reign had seen the emasculation of Howard influence with the execution of the 4th Duke of Norfolk in 1572 and the persecution of his eldest son, Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel. Other members of the family were also obliged to live in the shadow of the 4th Duke's apparent treachery with little influence and in relatively straightened financial positions. Lord Howard of Effingham, later Earl of Nottingham (the second son of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk) was an exception, retaining the Queen's favour on account of the indispensable skills he displayed as Lord High Admiral (1585-1619) at the time of the Spanish Armada.
Leading members of the family positioned themselves carefully towards the end of the reign, and crucially lent their weight in favour of the accession of King James I, a strategy which was to lead to the revival of their power. King James I was conscious of how much the Howards had suffered on behalf of his mother Mary, Queen of Scots, and on his accession Howards were rapidly brought back to the forefront of political life, their lands restored. The Countess of Hertford's first cousin, the 4th Duke of Norfolk's younger brother Lord Henry Howard, the architect of the family's revival, was created Earl of Northampton (d. 1614) and restored to half of his executed brother's estates, and after the death of Robert Cecil in 1612, he was the most powerful man in government, serving as First Commissioner of the Treasury (1612-14). Another of the Countess of Hertford's cousins, Thomas, Lord Howard de Walden, the 4th Duke of Norfolk's eldest son by his second marriage, who had served under Effingham against the Armada, was created Earl of Suffolk, and given the other half of the lands confiscated from his father as well as lucrative customs rights, becoming Lord Treasurer in 1614.
Frances Howard (1578-1639) was the daughter of Thomas Howard, Viscount Howard of Bindon (1520-1582) and his third wife, Mabel, daughter of Nicholas Burton of Carshalton. Her father was the younger son of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and the brother of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was executed in 1547. A cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, Frances Howard was also a cousin of Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton (d. 1614), and Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk (d. 1626). Elevated to the peerage as Viscount Howard of Bindon in the first year of the reign of Mary Tudor, her father had acquired considerable estates in Dorset through his first marriage to Elizabeth, daughter and co-heir of Lord Marney, who was heiress through her mother to Sir John Newburgh, of East Lulworth, Dorsetshire. However, Frances Howard's own destiny was far less secure than her paternal connections might have immediately suggested. Her parents had both died by the time that she was three years old, and as an orphan she was made a ward of her cousin, Thomas Howard, later Baron Howard de Walden and Earl of Suffolk, who inherited the estate of her half-brother, Thomas, 3rd Viscount Bindon (d. 1610). Without a dowry her prospects of a good marriage were dependent on her lineage, her family connections and her celebrated beauty.
At the age of thirteen she married Henry Pranell (d. 1599), a wealthy vintner, whose father was an Alderman of London. The marriage greatly displeased the Queen's principal councillor William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who closely monitored the activities of the Queen's Howard cousin. The resultant letter of apology from Henry Pranell to Cecil (dated 8 February 1592) is preserved among Lord Burghley's state papers.
Henry Pranell's business led him to travel abroad and his absences allowed enough space for his wife to fall in love with Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. In this context she visited the London physician and astrologer Dr. Forman in order to learn whether her husband would return from sea and if not whether she might marry Wriothesley. Later she also sought Dr. Forman's advice on whether she was pregnant. In the end her husband returned from his travels, an event commemorated in a translation by Anthony Mundayd of Leon Battista Alberti's Hecatonphila: The Arte of Love.
On Pranell's death in December 1599 his wife inherited his property and, after a year of mourning, found herself, as a lively and rich twenty-one year old, the object of the attention of many suitors. Her old love the Earl of Southampton had in the interim married Elizabeth Vernon and suffered disgrace, and she married Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford (?1539-1621), some forty years her senior, a union that promised significant social and financial advantages. News of her marriage reduced some of her other suitors to desperate measures: Sir George Rodney wrote her an Elegia using his own blood, in which he threatened suicide, which he duly carried out on receipt of her Answer, a witty verse epistle of 160 lines.
The Earl of Hertford was the heir of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset (c. 1500-1552), King Edward VI's uncle and protector. Educated with Prince Edward and knighted at his coronation in 1547, he was styled Earl of Hertford from 1547 until 1552, when on his father's attainder parliament passed a statute declaring forfeit all Seymour lands and titles. On the accession of Queen Elizabeth I he was restored to his father's lands and was created Baron Beauchamp and Earl of Hertford. However, he was to incur the Queen's displeasure by secretly marrying her cousin, Lady Katherine Grey (?1540-1568), with whom he had two children. After his first wife's death in 1568 he slowly overcame this royal displeasure and was allowed to attend court from 1571, he received few important posts from the Queen until the very end of her reign when he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire, Somerset and Bristol. He was to be shown much greater favour in the reign of King James I who sent him as an ambassador to ratify the Anglo-Spanish treaty of 1604, granted him significant lands, and made him High Steward of the Revenues to his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark (1612-19). In the year in which this portrait was painted Hertford was again to find himself under royal suspicion on account of the secret marriage of his grandson William Seymour to Lady Arabella Stuart, which seemed to point once more to his dynastic ambitions.
The Earl and Countess of Hertford's marriage was not particularly happy, and was characterised by the Earl's jealousy of his wife's popularity at court; and she was to spend much of their marriage in country, where she took solace in hunting, only rarely visiting London. King James I visited the Hertfords three times at Tottenham Lodge, their house in Wiltshire, where he was lavishly entertained in 1603, 1617 and 1620. Despite his age Hertford lived for twenty years after their marriage, but the Countess remained without children and by the time of Hertford's death in 1621, his widow was beyond child bearing age.
She afterwards married Ludovic Stuart, 2nd Duke of Lennox, and later 1st Duke of Richmond (1574-1624), by whom she appears to have been courted even before her second husband's death. The marriage took place secretly only a few weeks after Hertford's death and once married she lived in great style. A cousin of King James I, Lennox had attended the King on his journey to England on his accession in 1603, and the high regard in which he was held was reflected in his early appointment as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber. Among other duties he served as Lord Steward of the Household (1615-24), Lord Lieutenant of Kent (1620) and Joint Commissioner of the Great Seal (1621). In a long career at court he served the King loyally and was charged with numerous diplomatic missions. He was Ambassador to France in 1604-5 and again in 1613, and in 1612 attended the King's daughter Princess Elizabeth on her journey to the Palatinate for her marriage to the Elector Palatine, Frederick V. As a reflection of this, the King granted him large tracts of land including the Manor of Cobham, in Kent (in 1606), which had come into the possession of the Crown as a result of the attainder of Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham, and created him Duke of Richmond as well as Lennox in 1623. The grant of Cobham Hall, one of the finest Tudor mansions in England, was subject to the lease granted for her life to Frances, Countess of Kildare, Lord Brooke's widow, but became the principal residence of the Dukes of Lennox from her death in 1628, until 1672. The Duke's marriage to Frances Howard was to be shortlived, for the Duke died in February 1624.
The Duchess of Lennox and Richmond did not marry again. She continued to live at Exeter House on the Strand in great style until her own death fifteen years later, when she was reputed to be the richest woman in England. She was buried beside her third husband in King Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey, where she had erected a stately funerary monument.
Marcus Gheeraerts II and the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts
One of a small group of foreign-born artists who worked for the court elite, Marcus Gheeraerts produced portraits of many of the most notable figures of his day that stand out among those of his contemporaries in England for their unusual quality. Gheeraerts was one of the first artists in Britain to paint in oil on canvas rather than on panel, an innovation which was particularly suitable for full-length portraits, and his work seems to have done much to make such full-length portraits fashionable. Born in the Low Countries, he had moved from his native Bruges to London in 1568 as a boy, with his Protestant father Marcus Gheeraerts I, who was also an artist, in order to escape the religious repression which had been unleashed by the Duke of Alva in 1567. He seems to have received much of his artistic training from his father, who was part of the close knit community of intellectually distinguished Netherlandish exiles in London. His mother, who was Catholic, had remained in the Netherlands, where she apparently died within a few years of their departure, and Gheeraerts's father married Susanna de Critz, a member of an exiled artistic family from Antwerp. Gheeraerts was later to marry his stepmother's sister, Magdalen de Critz, and was thereby the brother-in-law of the painter John de Critz I. Gheeraerts's earliest known portraits date from the early 1590s, by which time his talents had clearly been recognised at court, for one of these portraits is the celebrated 'Ditchley' portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (London, National Portrait Gallery) which is thought likely to have been commissioned by Sir Henry Lee, one of the Queen's favourites. Lee was to be one of Gheeraerts's most important early patrons, commissioning from him not only a portrait of himself but also a full-length portrait of his cousin Captain Thomas Lee (Tate Britain). The latter shows an innovative aspect to Gheeraerts's approach, as it is one of the earliest full-length English portraits to be set in a landscape background. Among other notable patrons from the Queen's immediate circle were Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, Gheeraerts emerged as the favourite large scale painter of King James I's Queen, Anne of Denmark, for whom he executed a number of portraits of her and her family; the Queen also retained his brother-in-law Isaac Oliver as her miniatuarist. In 1617 Gheeraerts was referred to as 'her Majestie's painter' and following the Queen's death in 1619 he took part in her funeral procession. His status at court is confirmed by an entry in the accounts of the Treasury of James I's Chamber, which refers to Gheeraerts as 'His Ma[jes]ties Paynter' at a time when his brother-in-law John De Critz I was the official Serjeant Painter to the King. Gheeraerts was to remain in demand until the arrival between 1616 and 1618 of a new wave of Netherlandish portrait painters at court, whose innovative approach to court portraiture meant that he was supplanted by younger competitors with a new aesthetic.
Gheeraerts's portrait of Lady Hertford diplays all the qualities that appealed to his patrons. Its remarkable state of preservation reflects his technical mastery. The 'soft bushy treatment of the flesh areas' and the 'questing sympathetic approach to the subject's facial features', which Karen Hearn (op. cit.) considers one of the defining features of his work, are much in evidence in his sensitive handling of Lady Hertford's face. His attention to detail and evident understanding of her extraordinarily elaborate dress, on the other hand, fully conveys the elegance and extravagance of life at court as well as the elevated status of the sitter.
The portrait shows the evolution of Gheeraerts's work in the first decade of the 17th century towards a different form of full-length portraiture in which the sitter is shown full-length, strongly lit, beside an opulently upholstered x-framed chair, between looped shiny satin curtains, standing on a luxurious imported carpet. Sir Oliver Millar thought Gheeraerts's portrait of the Countess of Richmond 'the most elaborate of Gheraerdts' [sic] surviving works' (Treasure Houses, op. cit., 1986, p. 131) and is the one in which he comes closest in choice of costume and design to the most formal type of Jacobean portrait associated with the artist William Larkin. The hand of Gheeraerts is clearly distinguished by what Karen Hearn describes as 'the softer' and 'comparatively more naturalistic handling' of the face in this portrait.
The Countess of Hertford is shown in an adapted form of fashionable informal dress which is likely to have been worn in a masquerade, with an elaborately embroidered linen waistcoat and dark velvet petticoat. Masquerades were immensely fashionable in the early 17th century and some sense of what they may have been like can be gleaned from the background of the portrait of Sir Henry Unton (London, National Portrait Gallery). The low cut of her waistcoat, which is such a strong feature of her dress, would have been considered far too risqué in any other context and the way in which her hair is free flowing and unbound also indicates that she is in some masque role. Her linen waistcoat is embroidered in silver-gilt thread with elaborate floral motifs which include pansies, roses, strawberries and borage. Her petticoat is trimmed with silver-gilt and bobbin lace with spangles that would have shimmered in the light when she moved, while her shoes are decorated with extraordinary embroidered rosettes, and across her shoulders is draped a silk-lined velvet mantle embroidered with her initials 'F' and 'S' (for Frances Seymour). The wreath of pansies in her hair and the sprig in her left hand are symbolic of thought. The carpet on which she stands which is such a prominent feature of the portrait is an Ushak carpet, most probably woven in Anatolia, of the sort that feature in the works of Lorenzo Lotto, after whom they are often referred to as 'Lotto' rugs with a stylized cloudband-border. A similar piece with a less stylized border was sold in these Rooms, 17 October 1996, lot 432.
The portrait descended in the collection of the Dukes of Lennox, at Cobham Hall, until 1672. On the death of Charles, 6th Duke of Lennox and 3rd Duke of Richmond, Cobham and its contents passed to the latter's sister Lady Catherine O'Brien, suo jure Baroness Clifton, through whom it passed to her granddaughter Lady Theodosia Hyde, suo jure Baroness Clifton (d. 1722), who married John Bligh, 1st Earl of Darnley, in whose family it then descended until the celebrated Christie's sale in 1925. The picture collection at Cobham included other notable masterpieces from the 17th century including van Dyck's celebrated double portrait of the sitter's husband's nephews Lord John Stuart (1622-44) and Lord Bernard Stuart (1622-45) and that of their brother Lord George Stuart, Seigneur D'Aubigny (1618-42) (both London, National Gallery), who were all killed fighting for the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. The outstanding quality of Gheeraerts's portrait of Lady Hertford was recognised early on by the critic F.G. Stephens, who, in an address on the subject of the pictures at Cobham, drew particular attention to it (then in the Dining Room at Cobham) as a 'first-rate work of Marc Gerrards [sic] ... in admirable preservation'.