This picture belongs to a set of portraits of the family of Thomas 'Customer' Smythe (1522-1591), the collector of customs duties in the Port of London and one of the wealthiest merchants and financiers of his day. Karen Hearn highlighted the significance of this group in the exhibition catalogue to Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, which included three portraits from the set, stating that: 'no comparable contemporary group of English paintings, of such extent and quality and by a securely identified artist has survived' (exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 1995, p. 108).
The attribution of this group to Ketel was first suggested by Dr. Malcolm Rogers, who noted that the inscriptions began with the artist's very distinctive serpentine 'A' for 'Anno'. Each portrait bears the date '1579' and the sitter's age. While the present inscription and date clearly reads '1573' it would appear to have been mistranscribed from '1579' when the background and inscription underwent restoration.
The portrait of Thomas Smythe only survives in a copy, however the portraits of his wife, Alice; three of their sons, Thomas (b. 1558), Richard (b. 1563) and Robert (b. 1567); and three of their daughters, Ursula (b. 1555), Joan (b. 1560) and Alice (1564), have descended in the sitters' family; while portraits of their eldest son, John (b. 1557) is in the Yale Center for British Art and daughter Mary (b. 1554) is in a private collection. Given this sitter's recorded age in 1579, this portrait almost certainly depicts Thomas and Alice's youngest child, Elizabeth (b. 1572).
Born and trained in Gouda, and later in Delft, Cornelis Ketel worked in England between 1573 and 1581, before moving to Amsterdam. He specialized in portraits of the nobility and wealthy merchants with their wives and children, and is recorded as having executed a portrait Queen Elizabeth I in 1578 (now lost). Ketel and Smythe were neighbours in the mercantile heart of the City of London. Smythe's mansion extended from Gracechurch Street to Philpot Lane, while Ketel owned property in nearby Bishopsgate. They may have been introduced in 1577, when Ketel carried out a significant commission for nineteen portraits for the Cathay Company (Oxford, Bodleian Library).
We are grateful to Karen Hearn for her thoughts on this portrait and for her assistance in compiling this catalogue entry.