Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Thomas Leigh Lord Mayor of London (1504 - 1571) 1571

 English School 

Portrait of Sir Thomas Leigh Lord Mayor of London (1504 - 1571),  English School
Oil on oak panel
16th Century
22 x 19 inches 55.9 x 48.2 cm
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From the age of the sitter inscribed on the painting, this portrait of Sir Thomas Leigh, Lord Mayor of London, would seem to have been painted in 1571, the last year of his life.

Although Leigh no longer held any office by the date of this portrait, the painter according to conventional practice has shown him with the attributes of this most important dignity. The scarlet robe trimmed with brown fur and long gold chain made at this date of simple links are found in other portraits of Lord Mayors of the sixteenth century. Most notably this chain is seen in the portrait of Sir William Hewett, Lord Mayor in 1559 in succession to Sir Thomas Leigh, and in the portrait of the Lord Mayor in 1560, Sir William Chester (both portraits on file at the archive of the National Portrait Gallery). The latter also shows the sitter holding a paper in the left hand, as here.

Like Sir William Chester, Sir Thomas Leigh wears a large ring on the index finger of his left hand. In the case of the former this is a memento mori, or a mourning ring. Sir Thomas wears a signet ring, prominently displaying this coat of arms gules between four unicorns'' heads or a cross engrailed argent five hurts. The small crescent in the centre of the cross, superimposed over one of the charges, shows that he is the second son of Roger Leigh of Rushall. It is particularly fortunate that the good condition of the painting has preserved this detail, as essential to the modern scholar in confirming his identity as it was to the contemporary observer, even to the lightly brushed unicorn heads. Befitting the totemic importance of this badge of office the links of the chain are worked not in paint alone but in applied gold.

The portrait does not suggest the work of a court painter, but rather conforms to the iconic representations of mayors, judges and bishops illustrated by such contemporary examples as the portrait of Lord Keeper Sir Nicholas Bacon (National Portrait Gallery NPG 164) painted 1579, which shares the uncompromising characterisation, and a similar concern for the prominent display of easily-legible heraldic signet ring and badges of office. The portrait must communicate position and dignity, and for the sake of the subject - must be identifiable. Within that purpose character is not stressed beyond implying the seriousness even severity required of the office.

The only other recorded painted likeness of Sir Thomas Leigh is a later portrait painted on canvas (Private Collection) which was executed in the later eighteenth or early nineteenth century, although based, presumably, on an original source since the features conform to the likeness in the present portrait.
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