Friday, 23 July 2010

New investigation into a portrait of an unknown "English Princess" (c. 1535)

"Back in the 1920s a portrait of a young woman was sold to Jules S. Bache in New York as 'English Princess', with the implication that the sitter was Mary. The portrait is by a unidentified Netherlandish artist and has been dated to about 1535."

A portrait painted in the mid-1530s and currently in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, is being re-examined to authenticate or dismiss claims made in the early 20th century that it was the future queen, Mary Tudor, eldest daughter of King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon.

Little Miss Sunnydale, whose blog Mary Tudor: Renaissance Queen is one of the best on-line sources for Mary Tudor's life and reign, is rightly dubious about the claims that the portrait must be Mary. It's precisely this kind of wild excitement about the Tudors which means that every time a "new" portrait emerges, people immediately assume, hope or insist that it must represent a member of Britain's most famous ruling family.

In the past, two sketches by the great Hans Holbein have (ludicrously) been labelled as likenesses of Anne Boleyn, despite the fact that neither tallies with contemporary descriptions of the Queen, nor is either sitter in sufficiently grand costumes. The same is also true of the Horenbout miniature painted in the middle of the 1520s, which is far more likely to be a member of Anne's extended family. (At other times, it's also been suggested that the miniature represented Katherine of Aragon or Jane Seymour, both equally unlikely.) Equally, a portrait which is too-often described as a painting of Henry VIII's fifth queen, Catherine Howard, is in fact far more likely to be Jane Seymour's younger sister, Lady Elizabeth Cromwell. We seem to forget that a host of other aristocrats and minor members of the Royal Family sat for portraits in the 16th century, not just the galaxy of ill-fated royal celebrities that subsequent generations became so obsessed with.

A portrait by Hans Holbein which has mistakenly been identified as Queen Catherine Howard (?1524 - 1542), Henry VIII's fifth wife. In fact, it is far more likely to be a painting of Lady Elizabeth Ughtred-Cromwell (?1511 - 1563), younger sister of Queen Jane Seymour.

Even if the claim made in the 1920s that the Metropolitan's mysterious portrait is an English princess is accurate, there were several other possible candidates than Mary, who was in disgrace in 1535 and therefore unlikely to have been painted at all. Of course, it is very possible that the portrait could date from earlier in the decade than 1535, or later, in which case Mary would have been likely to sit for a portrait. However, the gown is simple and the sitter is not wearing any jewellery, something which does not sit with what we know of Mary Tudor's lavish tastes.

The girl in the painting could have been one of Mary's half-royal cousins - Lady Margaret Douglas, daughter of the Queen Mother of Scotland, Frances, Marchioness of Dorset or Lady Eleanor Brandon. All three could, just about, be described as "English princesses" by an overzealous art-seller - after all, they were all the granddaughters of a King and the daughters of former queens.

Of course, it's just as possible that it's no-one related to the Royal Family, but rather a courtier or member of the minor nobility, whose name we may never know. If it is someone attached to the Tudor family, my money is on Lady Margaret or one of the Brandon sisters, not the future Queen.

For Little Miss Sunnydale's analysis - click here.


  1. Other than a sketch or two, I don't think they are certain if there really are any extant portraits of Queen Catherine Howard. The portraits identified as hers always end up being of someone else. It is my understanding that when she was executed every known portrait of her was destroyed but I could be wrong.

  2. Elena Maria, you're absolulely right about it being very probable that all of Queen Catherine's portraits were burned when she was executed in 1542. There is still some debate about the Holbein miniature of the lady in the gold dress, wearing jewels very similar to those sported by Jane Seymour in her portrait by Holbein, which implies they were part of the Queen's Collection. However, they may not be the same necklace and the resemblance is debated. As you say, it too has also been hypothesised as being somebody else - in that case, again either Lady Margaret or Lady Frances.

    The incomplete Holbein sketch ( MAY be Catherine, but it's impossible to tell and probably unlikely.

    The stained-glass representation of the Queen of Sheba kneeling before a Henry-like Solomon is also, I think, unlikely to be the hapless Catherine, because it would almost certainly have been hacked away once she was beheaded, as was the case with all the stained-glass inspired by her cousin, Anne Boleyn.

    I wrote a short life of Catherine when I was 19, in which I argued against the above portrait of Elizabeth Cromwell, tentatively for the Holbein miniature and the Holbein sketch, but I'm more ambivalent about the miniature now - and, to a lesser extent, the sketch.

  3. I agree, the lady in the portrait looks nothing like any recognizable Tudor royal. And how do we even know the sitter was even English? She might be a French young lady.

    Gareth - I had a look at G.W. Bernard’s ‘Anne Boleyn –Fatal Attractions’ (as I’m sure you have too). His appendix on Anne’s portraiture isn’t very enlightening I have to say. His claim that Holbein probably painted the well known ‘B necklace’ type is difficult to accept. This portrait type exists in many versions, and none as copies approach the quality of a Holbein. Lucas Horenbout - as I argued before - is a better candidate as the originator of the image.

    Also, Bernard appears to be dismissive of the Holbein Windsor Castle drawing, yet he reproduces the drawing as of Anne for his frontispiece. The problem, I believe with this drawing is that the art historians/historians who championed the sketch as being of Anne, looked at a black and white copy of it, and never bothered to examine the original or at least a reproduction in colour. The sitter is blond, while Anne Boleyn as we all know was dark haired.

  4. Roland, I agree. Although, did you check his references? Your excellent on-line article is included in his footnotes!

  5. Hello Gareth, yes I did notice Bernard's footnoting of me (though unfortunately the link is inactive as the hosting site - geocities - cancelled their web services, oh well).

    Nonetheless, as I mentioned before, Bernard is of the opinion that Holbein, not Horenbout (as I argued), originated the B necklace type portrait of Anne.

    If only more painters signed their work back then - LOL!


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