Leicester in Oils, c.1575

Apart from the queen herself, the Earl of Leicester was the most often portrayed person in Elizabethan England. William Cecil’s likeness was also much in demand, yet he rarely sat for one, while Robert Dudley survives in many different postures and costumes. The portrait above is just such a copy, one of several of its prototype; the earl is wearing a white and gold doublet and hose, with a black jacket and a black velvet cap – his typical accessory. In 1571, on a spectacular visit to the town of Warwick, the onlookers were dazzled by the earl’s outfit, which bore some resemblance to this portrait:

apparelled all in white, his shoes of velvet, his stocks of hose knit silk, his upper stocks of white velvet lined with cloth of silver, his doublet of silver, his jerkin white velvet drawn with silver, beautified with gold and precious stones, his girdle and scabbard white velvet, his robe white satin embroidered with gold a foot broad, very curiously, his cap black velvet with a white feather, his collar of gold beset with precious stones, and his garter about his leg of St. George’s order, a sight worthy the beholding.

The chief difference being the black “robe” instead of the white, and the application of gold instead of silver, the original version of this portrait might well date to the earlier 1570s; the National Portrait Gallery in London dates this copy to c.1575. The style of Leicester’s beard is very peculiar in this painting, and by 1575 he had yet again changed it, as can be seen in the portrait below, which seems to have been commissioned for the grand Kenilworth festivities in the same year. Dudley wanted a picture “of my lord in whole proportion … in a russet satin and velvet welted”. The similarity of the dress in the picture below and the inventory, dated 1578, seems obvious. The panel was significantly trimmed at the bottom, so that it is thought to be a truncated version of a full-length likeness. The quality of the painting suggests it may be an original rather than a copy.

The portrait in russet (or red) is believed to have been intended as a companion piece to a full-length portrait of Elizabeth. Leicester did commission a further pair of likenesses of himself and the queen for the same occasion, when he invited the Italian mannerist artist Federico Zuccaro to England to do work for him. Of the results there survive only two fine drawings in the British Museum, but there were also finished oil paintings. From Zuccaro, Leicester wanted a full-length portrait in armour; one such version, possibly even by Zuccaro himself, was destroyed in a German air raid in 1940. Only a black and white photograph (reproduced badly in Alan Haynes’ biography, and very beautifully in the English Heritage Review) shows that it is based on the drawing in the British Museum. The earl’s black velvet cap also features in it, the jewelled hatband being the same as in the NPG’s white doublet painting.

Goldring, Elizabeth (2007): “The Earl of Leicester’s Inventory of Kenilworth Castle, c.1578”. English Heritage Review. Volume 2.

Haynes, Alan (1987): The White Bear: The Elizabethan Earl of Leicester. Peter Owen.

Hearn, Karen (ed.) (1995): Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630. Rizzoli.

Warwick, Frances Countess of (1903): Warwick Castle and its Earls. Volume I. Hutchinson & Co.

National Portrait Gallery: “Two Portraits of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester”. http://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain/case-studies/robertdudley.php

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
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