This terrifying study … is still hanging in Sir Henry Sidney’s manor-house of Penshurst, and is one of the … most vivid likenesses of the age. Although the painter was obviously not a great nor even a distinguished craftsman, the mingling of slyness, mockery and contempt with which the sitter eyed him gave his reproduction of these qualities an extraordinary power and conviction. Northumberland’s colouring is coarsely healthy – and suspicion is thus aroused; did he rouge to disguise the pallor caused by overwork and nervous strain? The red, pouting, sensual mouth, the high arched eyebrows … are in marked contrast to the drab, flattened aspect of his fellow-conspirators, as is the flamboyance of his dress. His black velvet surcoat is trimmed with sable, his scarlet doublet sets off the sapphire blue of his Garter ribbon; the white plume and jewelled classical medallion in his cap draw attention to the cold merriment, the sharp jaundice of his glance. The whole conveys a fearful certainty. So Northumberland must have appeared to those he bullied and subjugated.1
Thus, in 1962, the popular biographer Hester W. Chapman elaborated on the most often reproduced of the supposed likenesses of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Sadly, none is of certain provenance and hence cannot be authenticated.2 Is it at all likely that any of the portraits commonly associated with John Dudley are really showing the duke?
The painting that so delighted Hester Chapman is similar to another one at Knole, Kent. The Knole portrait is painted as an oval, like the Penshurst one. It is one of many other portraits of 16th century noblemen and statesmen in similar shape and frame for a picture gallery at Knole. Dendrochronology done in 2012 on other pictures in the set suggests that it was painted “around the early years of the seventeenth century.”3 The costume, including the small white ruff with black border, is certainly in keeping with early 1550s fashion. There is also a marked facial resemblance to portraits of Northumberland’s sons Ambrose and Robert, and thus no good reason to doubt the identification. Given its relatively early date, it seems reasonable to assume that the Knole picture was based on some lost earlier portrait or copy of a portrait.
The National Portrait Gallery, London, judged the Penshurst portrait to be ‟almost certainly copied“ from the Knole portrait, ‟though not by the same hand.“4 A comparison between the two paintings is revealing: In contrast to the Kent portrait the shoulders in the Penshurst version are definitely sloping, and there are far too few buttons; on a closer look it also becomes obvious that the neck region is unfinished, giving the sitter a bull-necked appearance. Taken together, these features produce almost an air of caricature.
Among the many common features of both paintings the full lips have caused comment: Philip Lindsay, another author of popular biographies, could not resist to use them for his own efforts at character assassination in 1951: ‟It is the lip of a sensualist, one who would appear to have had few desires beyond dalliance in a lady’s lap. A contradiction, we feel, confounding all that we believe we know about physiognomy; yet does it not suggest … ‟.5 Indeed Lindsay goes on to speculate that John Dudley, of whom no extramarital adventures are known, nor were ever hinted at by his considerable numbers of enemies, might have been a sort of suppressed womanizer after all, his happy family life being but a façade.
Another picture at Penshurst is said to be of John Dudley. The cut of the beard and the fashion are different from the other portraits though in accordance with the later 1540s up to 1550. The sitter is holding a wand of office and his Garter ribbon is discernible. Intriguingly, it is of the same kind as the ribbon in the two other pictures. John Dudley became Viscount Lisle in 1542 and a Knight of the Garter and Lord Admiral in 1543; from 1547 he was Lord Great Chamberlain and in 1550 became Grand Master of the Household, offices which would explain the staff.
At Syon House we find a portrait thought to represent John Dudley holding a flower. Such a flower can also be seen in a portrait of George Simon of Cornwall, painted by Holbein the Younger in 1536 or 1537.7 The dress, collar, and cap would suggest an earlier date than the other portraits, such as the 1530s, and in 1537 Dudley became vice-admiral, his first significant post in the government. Perhaps he marked this occasion with a portrait, which later may have served as a model for the picture at Syon. The Syon portrait and the Penshurst portrait with the wand of office bear considerable facial resemblance to each other, and in both feature the famous full lips of the two later portraits.
All portraits discussed here are identified as likenesses of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland by inscriptions. Of course that in itself does not mean anything; however, since Dudley became a case of damnatio memoriae after his downfall, it is not very likely that any portraits of other people would have been associated with him just to enhance their market or memorial value (this is what has regularly happened in connection with his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey). Two of the four presumed portraits of John Dudley are to be found at Penshurst, the home of his daughter Mary Sidney; the other two are found in houses he possessed as Duke of Northumberland, Knole and Syon. It seems not wholly unwarranted to assume that all four are ultimately based on authentic likenesses of the duke.
The Duke in Colour
1 Chapman 1962 p. 125
2 Jordan and Gleason 1975 pp. 71, 72
4 Jordan and Gleason 1975 p. 72
5 Lindsay 1951 p. 38
Chapman, Hester (1962): Lady Jane Grey. Jonathan Cape.
Jordan, W. K. and Gleason, M. R. (1975): The Saying of John Late Duke of Northumberland Upon the Scaffold, 1553. Harvard Library.
Lindsay, Philip (1951): The Queenmaker: A Portrait of John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland, 1502-1553. Williams & Norgate.
Loades, David (2004): ‟Dudley, John, duke of Northumberland (1504–1553)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.