This remarkable portrait was identified as of Queen Elizabeth I when sold by Lord Willoughby de Broke in 1921. However, this traditional identification is no longer accepted. Roy Strong, in his 1966 article 'Forgotten Age of Paintings' on the Elizabethan an Jacobean portraits at Cowdray Park and Parham (op.cit.), observed that '...the features of the Queen are difficult to reconcile with those of the sitter in the single portrait [the present lot]', a view which he reiterated on re-examination of the portrait earlier this year. In his article he speculated whether 'we may be contemplating the features of her [Elizabeth I's] close and devoted friend Catherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham'; while the other three portraits in the group (lots 310-312) might be of her three daughters: Frances, Lady Kildare, later Lady Cobham; Elizabeth, Lady Southwell, later Countess of Carrick; and Margaret, Lady Leveson. The identification of these portraits as the members of the family of the Earl and Countess of Nottingham certainly seems a very plausible conclusion to draw on the basis of the later provenance of the portraits.
Catherine, Countess of Nottingham (circa 1545/50-1603), was the daughter of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon (1526-96), and his wife Anne Morgan (d. 1607), daughter of Sir Thomas Morgan of Arkstone, Herefordshire. Her parents were closely connected to the court of Queen Elizabeth I and their marriage seems to have been a consequence of this connection. Her father, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I's, had served in Elizabeth's household from as early as 1551, while her mother, Anne Morgan, was the granddaughter of Blanche, Lady Herbert de Troy, Elizabeth's Lady's Mistress from 1537-1546. After Elizabeth succeeded to the throne the Careys were treated as members of the extended royal family. Her father served as a Gentleman of Queen Elizabeth I's household and she was appointed a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber in 1560, when only fifteen. The extent of her intimacy with the Queen is indicated by a contemporary record of the Queen disguising herself as Catherine Carey in order to watch Lord Robert Dudley shoot at Windsor in November 1561.
Catherine Carey's marriage in 1563 to Charles Howard, later second Baron Howard of Effingham and 1st Earl of Nottingham (1536-1624), who also enjoyed the friendship and confidence of Elizabeth I and became one of the Queen's closest male companions, reinforced their mutual ties to the monarch. Her husband, the son of Lord William Howard, and the grandson of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, was one of the most important figures in Elizabeth I's reign and the only member of the Howard family, after the fall of the 4th Duke of Norfolk, to retain influence until the very end of her reign. Appointed Lord High Admiral of England in 1570, Howard was in command of the English fleet at the time of the Spanish Armada and its defeat, after which he was created Earl of Nottingham, was the crowning glory of his political and military career. England's success against the Armada owed much to his active role in victualling the fleet, often in the face of the Queen and Lord Burghley's parsimony. Aware of his own lack of experience as a wartime leader he was also judicious in surrounding himself with expert seamen and councillors such as Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher. In 1596 he also commanded the celebrated Cadiz Expedition which represented an enormous humiliation both militarily and psychologically for Philip II of Spain. The esteem in which he was held by Elizabeth I at the end of her reign was reflected in the fact that as she lay dying in March 1603. It was to him that she finally confirmed her successor, James VI of Scotland. Nottingham's support for the accession of King James I gave him great influence in the new reign and James I expressed his gratitude to him with the gift of Arundel House which had been forfeited by Nottingham's cousin Philip Howard.
The Earl and Countess of Nottingham had at least two sons: William, the eldest, who predeceased his father, and Charles, who succeeded his father as 2nd Earl of Nottingham. They also had three daughters; Elizabeth, their eldest, who was Elizabeth I's goddaughter and also one of the Queen's Maids of Honour by 1579, married firstly Robert Southwell, of Woodrising, in Norfolk, and secondly John Stewart, Earl of Carrick. Frances, their second daughter, married firstly Henry Fitzgerald, 12th Earl of Kildare, and secondly Henry Broke, Baron Cobham; while Margaret, their third daughter, married Sir Richard Leveson, of Trentham, Staffordshire. The Countess of Nottingham's death at Arundel House in February 1603 was bitterly mourned by the Queen and may have contributed to her own death a few months later.
The subject of this portrait is shown wearing an elaborately embroidered dress and with remarkable jewellery that emphasize her wealth and social status. The remarkable bodice, petticoat and sleeves of her dress which is such a prominent feature of the portrait are embroidered with elaborate naturalistic floral motifs, emblems and love-knots. Among the floral motifs are pansies, vine leaves (with grapes), hop leaves, honeysuckle, lilies, dog rose, strawberries, campion, sweetpeas and cobnut among others, accompanied by a butterfly (on the sleeve of the left arm of her dress). Her petticoat is embroidered with elaborate knots with small pearls and emblematic devices. The most prominent emblems are of those of 'pyramids' but alongside this is a prominent closed 'S' or fermesse (to the lower right side of the petticoat).
In her book Queen Elizabeth I's Wardrobe Unlock'd Janet Arnold explored the so-called 'Stowe' Inventory (or 'Booke of all suche Robes Apparel Silkes Jewells and other stuffe in the chardge of Sir Thomas Gorg knight gentleman of her majesties wardrobe of Robes') of circa 1600 and commented that the fashion for wearing gowns with emblems incorporated in the design of the embroidery seems to have developed in the 1580s. She also observed that 'there are a few portraits of ladies wearing clothes embroidered with motifs which seem more appropriate for Elizabeth, dating from the 1580s onwards' and suggested that in these 'we may be looking at items of the Queen's clothing in portraits other than her own without realizing it' (op.cit., p. 85). She noted that 'A surviving day book records numerous gowns given to ladies-in-waiting and others between 1561 and 1585' and that 'The Warrants for the Wardrobe of Robes list many others from 1585 until the end of the reign' and that 'several items in the Stowe inventory were given away after 1600, and the names noted in the margins'. She went on to comment that 'unfortunately the records are incomplete and the gifts cannot be linked conclusively with the portraits. However, it may be conjectured that any lady who received a piece of beautifully embroidered clothing once worn by the Queen might well decide to have a portrait painted to display the gift' (op.cit., p. 85.)
In this context Arnold made particular mention of the petticoat in this portrait commenting that it 'may have been a New Year's gift embroidered by the donor', that 'the design seems to be domestic rather than professional work' and that 'It is similar to one listed in the Stowe inventory: Item one Petticoate of white Satten embroidered allover like peramydes and flowers of venice golde and silke' ( op.cit., pp. 86-7).
Arnold pointed out that Geoffrey Whitney's A choice of Emblemes of 1586 seems to have provided the source of inspiration for the design and its emblematic significance is made clear from the poem which accompanied the emblem Whitney's book:
'A mighty spyre, whose toppe doth pierce the skie,
An ivie greene imbraceth rounde about,
And while it stands, the same doth bloome on high But when it shrinkes, the ivie standes in dowt:
The Piller great, our gracious Prince is:
The braunche, the Churche: whoe speakes unto hir this
I that of late with stormes was almost spent,
And brused sore witt Tirants bluddie bloes,
whom fire and sworde, with persecution rent
Am nowe sett free, and overlooke my foes,
And whiles though raignst, oh most renowned Queen
By thie support my blossome shall bee greene.'
The emblematic significance of the closed 'S' (fermesse) which is also a features on the petticoat is made clear in Loys Papon's Emblemes d'amour in which the emblem was accompanied by the poem:
'Fermesse dont l'Amour peint un chiffre d'honneur, Commune en l'écriture et rare dans le coeur,
Tes liens en vertu les fidele assurent.
Mais ainsi que ta forme est d'un arc mis en deux,
Le désir inconstant froisse et brise les Noeuds,
Cependant que les mains ta fermesse figurent.'
Alongside the elaborately embroidered dress another remarkable feature of this portrait is the extraordinary jewellery that the subject is shown wearing underlines her social status and is also of emblematic significance. These pieces of jewellery with their emphasis on stones, rather than figurative work, reflect the change in fashion that took place in the later years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and which reached its full expression in the reign of King James I. Among the most prominent of these pieces are a jewelled diamond and ruby crossbow, worn on her bodice, a flight of jewelled darts or arrows worn on her ruff, a jewelled anchor in her hair, and a seven pronged jewelled headdress attached to her hair. Roy Strong has pointed out that this jewelled headdress may represent an early form of coronet which might support the identificaton of the subject as the Countess of Nottingham.
Geoffrey Whitney's A choice of Emblemes also gives an insight into the emblematic significance of the crossbow in a poem that accompanied the emblem of crossbow that he illustrated:
'Man's wisdome great, doth farre surpasse his strengthe,
For Proofe, behoulde, no man could bend the bowe:
But yet his witte devised at the lengthe,
To winde the stringe so farre as it should gie:
Then wisdome chiefe, and strengthe, must come behinde,
But both be goode, and gifts from God assignde.'
While George Wither's Collection of Emblems Ancient and Moderne, published in 1635, but itself based on earlier compendiums of emblems, elucidates the underlying Christian significance of the anchor as an emblem of hope.
An intriguing aspect of the various pieces of jewellery shown in this portrait, which we are grateful to Diana Scarisbrick for drawing to our attention, is that the more significant pieces are very similar to pieces that are known to have been in the royal collection from the inventory of Queen Anne of Denmark's jewellery compiled in 1606 (National Library of Scotland; for which see D. Scarisbrick 'Anne of Denmark's Jewellery Inventory', Archaeologia, CIX, 1991).
The 1606 inventory includes for example 'A Jewell in the form of a Crossbow, bent with gold with a harte enameled redde at the string, garnished with a small Table Diamonde & one small pointed Diamond' (Scarisbrick, loc.cit., p. 201), which Janet Arnold suggested may be identifiable with that listed among Queen Elizabeth I's jewels in 1600: 'a jewel of gold like a crossbow garnished with diamonds'; which among the jewels taken by King James I after his accession and Anne of Denmark is shown wearing a similar jewelled crossbow in her hair in van Somer's portrait of circa 1617 (National Portrait Gallery).
While the distinctive jewelled headdress shown seems very similar to the description of another piece listed in the 1606 inventory as item 329:
'An armelet of Attire for the head, of VII peeces of goldsmithes worke of seuerall workes in forme of Pyramides, garnished with small diamonds & Rubies, on ye top a round pearle fixed, & at one of them a round Pearle pendant; & one greateer, with two better diamonds then the rest, hauing a knotter of blacke & white ribband ...'
(Scarisbrick, loc.cit., p.227).
The 1606 inventory also includes a number of pomander chaines of a similar nature to that worn by the subject of this portrait such as item 217, 'A Chaine threefold of Pomander, netted with gold/beades of Aggettes, plaine small gold beades ...' (Scarisbrick, loc.cit.).
The jewelled anchor on the other hand is reminiscent of that which Queen Elizabeth I is shown wearing in her hair in the iconographic type of her known as the Raveningham type (Strong, Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, 1963, p. 64, no. 38).
The pieces of jewellery shown in this portrait and the similarity to pieces in Anne of Denmark's inventory have led Diana Scarisbrick to suggest the possibility that the portrait might represent Queen Anne of Denmark at the outset of King James I's reign when the Stuart dynasty was keen to emphasize continuity with the previous reign not only in terms of policy but also in terms of the image of royalty, borrowing the formal language of portraiture that had characterised the later years of Elizabeth I's reign.
One other interesting element of this portrait is that the subject is shown on a so called 'chequerboard' carpet, most probably made in Damascus. A carpet of this type with a green field, as in this portrait, was featured in the celebrated Whitehall mural portrait of King Henry VIII and his family by Holbein. This type of carpet is now extremely rare; one known example is in the Bayriches Landesmuseum, Munich, while another, the so-called 'wind carpet', was sold at Christie's London, 20 October 1994 (lot 519).