Described by Scharf, in his List of the Pictures in Blenheim Palace, as ‘A very excellent picture’, this portrait dates from the artist’s second English period. Van Dyck first visited England in 1620-1. By the time he returned in 1632, he had firmly established his pre-eminent position as one of the leading portraitists in Europe. He remained in London until his death in 1641, acting as ‘Principalle Paynter in Ordinarie’ to King Charles I.
Scharf identified the sitter as Penelope, only surviving child of Sir Robert Naunton (1563-1635) and Penelope Lowther, née Perrot. In 1634, Penelope married Paul, the 2nd Viscount Bayning (c. 1616-1638). Viscount Bayning died in 1638, at the age of 22, and a year later Penelope married Philip, Lord Herbert (1621-1669), later 2nd Earl of Montgomery and 5th Earl of Pembroke. Penelope’s son, William Herbert (1540-1674), became the 6th Earl of Pembroke upon his father’s death in 1669. The Pembroke family were among van Dyck’s most important patrons. The 4th Earl both collected and commissioned works of art and architecture, and was a great patron of van Dyck. In circa 1635, van Dyck painted the monumental group portrait of The Pembroke Family, which constitutes the largest surviving painting of his career and remains in situ in the Double Cube Room at Wilton House, near Salisbury (O. Millar, et al., Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, New Haven and London, 2004, pp. 572-3, no. IV.184).
Penelope sat for van Dyck on a number of occasions. Two portrait types were painted of her when she was married to Viscount Bayning. These only survive in copies: a double portrait of Lord and Lady Bayning, a version of which sold at Bonham’s, New York, 9 May 2013, lot 20, as ‘School of van Dyck’; and a three-quarter-length portrait of Lady Bayning, a small early copy of which is preserved at Burghley House, Lincolnshire (ibid., p. 638, no. IV.A28). The latter type is also recorded in an engraving by Pierre Lombard for the Countesses series of circa 1660 (fig. 1). In 1639, shortly after Penelope’s marriage to Philip Herbert, van Dyck produced a full-length portrait of Penelope standing in a pose originally devised for Queen Henrietta Maria (Salisbury, Wilton House; ibid., p. 575, no. IV.187).
The present portrait shares a number of similarities with the Burghley House portrait and Lombard engraving, and if it indeed shows the same sitter it is likely to date to circa 1636-7. Van Dyck presents the sitter turning to the viewer in a three-quarter pose. This is a characteristic pose employed by Rubens and van Dyck in their portraits of Genoese women, such as van Dyck’s Portrait of a Genoese Noblewoman of circa 1625-7 (New York, Frick Collection). Her elegant hand gesture, as she lightly touches a gauze scarf, features in a number of van Dyck’s female portraits, including Portrait of Anne Kirke of circa 1637-8 (San Marino, California, The Huntingdon Library).
This portrait was in the celebrated collections of the Dukes of Marlborough at Blenheim, similarly to Rubens’s magnificent painting of Lot and his Daughters (lot 12 in this sale). In 1886, some 270 paintings from the Blenheim collection were sold by the 8th Duke of Marlborough at Christie’s. There were more paintings attributed to van Dyck at Blenheim Palace than at any other house in the country, besides Wilton, and thirteen of these featured in the sale, including Chronos clipping the wings of Cupid, circa 1630-2 (Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André) and Study for Saint Sebastian (Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland).
The portrait later returned to the Herbert family, when it was acquired by the Hon. David Herbert (1908-1995), second son of the 15th Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, who was brought up at Wilton, but spent most of his life in Tangier. Upon his death in 1995, the painting entered the collection of his acquaintance in Tangier, Claudio Bravo (1936-2011), a Chilean-born artist, whose paintings hang in a number of museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum Boymans-van-Beuningen in Rotterdam.