Portrait of a Woman in Black

From the Times Online:

Is this Mary Tudor, England’s Catholic queen who has gone down in schoolroom history as Bloody Mary?

If it is, as some scholars believe, the painting could make a virtuous circle to delight the heart of a Home Counties Jesuit parish priest. “It could be a small miracle,” says Canon Timothy Russ. And the secrets it contains could also bear new witness to the torrid religious politics of the mid-16th century.

Canon Russ is prepared to sell the painting he inherited in order to rescue Sawston Hall, near Cambridge, the 16th-century home of the recusant Huddleston family, and turn it into a Catholic heritage centre and refuge.

This year it was seen by Dr Tarnya Cooper, 16th-century curator at the National Portrait Gallery. “We concluded that while it is undoubtedly a very interesting and important painting, it cannot represent Mary I mainly because of facial dissimilarity with other authentic portraits of her. It is more likely to be a member of the nobility, possibly from within Princess Mary’s circle,” she said.

Sir Roy Strong, former director of the NPG and an authority on Tudor portraiture, is a patron of the charity set up to save Sawston. He said he has never been convinced that the portrait is of Mary, “and I have seen nothing to change my mind. The mid-16th century was a very dark time and it is extremely difficult to be certain.” But Professor Jack Scarisbrick, the Tudor and Catholic scholar, says it is too grand a portrait to be of anyone but royalty. “There was nobody outside the royal family important enough for such a lavish full-length painting — and if it is isn’t Mary, who is it? Nobody else fits the bill,” he said.

So convinced is Linda Porter, the author of a recent biography of Mary Tudor, of the sitter that she used the image on the cover of her book. “I’m certain it’s Mary,” she said. “It was quite fashionable in the last decades of the 20th century to question the identity of sitters in several well-known Tudor portraits, but some of this scepticism has now come full circle — the portrait of Katherine Howard that was questioned at this period is now thought to, indeed, be her. My own view is that family traditions are very often reliable. Plus which, to me at least, it looks like her.”

Full article

Here’s a larger, full-length scan of this portrait


Portrait of a Woman in Black — 8 Comments

  1. Canon Tim Russ and his colleagues have been very tenacious in trying to authenticate this portrait as Mary Tudor. They even contacted me back on 28 February 2009 to solicit my opinion. The information they provided to me at that time was considerably more extensive than what is quoted in the Times article, and included a very lengthy discussion of family ties and ancestry that Russ and his colleagues believed supported identifying the portrait as one of Mary Tudor. I was not able to support their conclusion. I dated the portrait to circa 1550-1560, based on costume details … and before the portrait panel had been dendrochronologically dated (I am of course relieved that the scientific evidence supported my conclusion!). It definitely does not date to 1537 and the birth of Edward VI, as the current article suggests. The issue of “puzzle” clues “hidden” within the painting was not raised in February, but I am forced to conclude that Canon Russ and his colleagues are seeing what they want to see based on a false premise that the painting was done circa 1537. Those same “clues” woudl have been irrelevant by the early 1550s. And the painting is definitely not by Holbein! The style and technique are far too crude. Holbein possessed far greater skill than what is seen here. I totally disagree with Prof Scarisbrick on the issue of full length portraiture indicating social status. There are dozens of examples of non-royal women who were portrayed full length and lavishly in the 1540s and 1550s. I must agree with Tarnya Cooper when she says that the facial features are too much at odds with other authenticated portraits of Mary, and with Sir Roy Strong when he says that he is not convinced that the portrait is of Mary Tudor. I certainly wish Canon Russ well with his project, but I’m afraid he has a very difficult task ahead in trying to sell this portrait as a depiction of Mary Tudor before she became queen.

  2. I knew you’d have some good info to add! Even without any other evidence, just on appearance alone it would be very hard to convince me it was Mary. Or a Holbein!

    Regardless of who it is, it’s a great portrait for fashion studies, being full-length and with nice blackwork details.

  3. The lack of jewelry seems out of place for royalty – even if in mourning. The blackwork is lovely though. I also like that the fabric across the bodice is not taught and flat – also on the outer skirt. As the scan Lara has provided (thank you) does not include much of the background with its ‘clues’, it is hard to comment on the ‘puzzle’ nature of the portrait.

    I tend to agree with PhD Historian that this seems more like the 1550’s than the 1530’s-40’s. I also COMPLETELY agree that full length portraits of women were not limited to royalty. Was there any discussion of Margaret Douglas Countess of Lennox? The jaw line just does not look like Mary Tudor to me.

  4. I think somebody would have to be either extremely ignorant or capable of a great deal of self-delusion to believe this is a Holbein. It doesn’t even come close to his genius. I think the background is fascinating. It looks like a ruined castle or manor. I wonder why anybody would want their portrait painted against that. Of course it could just be the artist’s imagination — “The Fall of the House of ….?” Do these people think they will get more money for the portrait if it is Mary I and not somebody else?

  5. I agree with previous posters in the argument that this is not of Mary. Linda Porter’s claim that historians are now accepting long established identifications of portraits, like the case of the Holbein ‘Katherine Howard’ portrait, needs to be questioned. Last time I checked there was no consensus on this Holbein portrait – even the curator of the recent Hampton Court exhibit on the six wives which used the portrait to present Katherine, stated that there are ‘no undisputed portraits of Katherine’’ (BBC History Magazine, Vol. 10, no. 4, April 2009). And I believe the National Portrait Gallery still label the portrait as ‘unknown woman formerly known as Catherine Howard’.

    The argument that this is of Mary in the 1537 is significantly undermined by the dendrochronological tests. KB raises an interesting discussion about whether this may be of Margaret Douglas. Has an argument been made for this?

  6. Does this portrait look like it has been cut down? I am surprised to see that her dress is cut off, and the proportions look a little tall and skinny.

    My first impression is that this reminds me of the side of one of the two Henry VIII dynasty portraits that show Elizabeth and Mary on the edges, which might explain why it looks cut down, and the asymmetry with the door and her pose looking to the side. Could there have been another person beside her that she was looking at, or a companion painting?

    My second impression is that it looks like Dutch masters (NOT Holbein) the way it is composed with the architectural interior and the opening. The column is so realistic with the chip out of it. I don’t recall any English portraits with that kind of composition – most are monochrome in the background.

    I don’t know how people attribute portraits based on facial features. If you look at these long enough you can turn them into anybody 🙂 She is an interesting woman.

  7. Denise, I believe the photograph may itself be a cropped image of the full-sized original. For reasons of column width in the printed paper, the photo editor may have cut the image down.

    And I agree with you that the style is more consistent with a Dutch-Flemish painter than an English one. However, for sake of clarity, it should be noted that Hans Holbein the Younger was trained in Basel (then part of Germany but now part of Switzerland), not England. His style was actually more akin to the Dutch-Flemish than to the English. Nonetheless, the style is definitely not that of Holbein.

    And there are indeed other portraits of English women with this style of composition, though they were painted by artists trained in the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands, etc) but working in England. The most striking example is that of Hans Eworth’s portrait called “Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney” now in the collection at Petworth House, dating to circa 1550-1555.

  8. I have seen this portrait before on various websites being labelled as being Mary Tudor Ist of England.I have also heard that this portrait may be that of one of Mary I’s ladies in waiting.The costume with its high open collared neck came into fashion in the 1540’s and remained that way throughout the 1550’s.I can see a resemblance with the lady in the portrait and Mary I.You just have to look at it closely.There are a lot of unidentified portraits dating from the Renaissance era and other eras without a name or even without a date or without both.I have seen a portrait on a website labelled unknown woman that I think may be a portrait of Catherine Howard.Maybe from her days at Horsham or Lambeth.I would like to see the portrait at the NPG gallery to see if it is a match with the one I have in mind.I have been to the National Portrait Gallery and have seen the portraits of Henry VIII’s six wives and saw the one of Catherine if it is the same one,It is a full length portrait of her facing forward wearing a black dress and wearing no headdress.If it is then it is a different portrait all together.But if it is the same as the one I have in mind then I will need to see the portrait at the NPG gallery to compare it.Looking at the portrait identified as that as being Mary.The sitter of the portrait is wearing black which would symbolize mourning.As black was a symbol of mourning aswell as purple and white,for the royals and the nobillity that is.Everyone else wore just simple black to mourn in.I think that black was a colour worn though by the Tudors anyway.Even though black I know was for mourning and for a lady who was widowed.

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