Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake (c.1540–96), c.1580 

 Anglo-French School 

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake (c.1540–96), c.1580,  Anglo-French School
Oil on Panel
16th Century
12¾ x 10¾ in (32.4 x 27.3 cm)
Anonymous sale, Christie's, London, 22nd November 1968, lot 4, 120 gns; bt. J.B. Gold, Richmond; Sotheby’s, London, 28th July 1976, lot 51, £280.
Plymouth, The City Art Gallery & Museum, no. 126.
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This small panel portrait shows Sir Francis Drake, the legendary circumnavigator of the world, defeater of the Armada, and Britain’s most illustrious seafarer. He is depicted in armour, with a shield showing two English galleons firing broadsides before a city in the distance. His appearance echoes the description given by John Stow in his Annals, portraying Drake as ‘lowe of stature, or strong limbe, broad-breated, round-headed, brown hayre, full-bearded, his eyes round, large and clear, well-favoured fayce, and of a cheerful countenance’. Such was Drake’s fame that there was considerable demand for his portrait in his lifetime, a feat most unusual for a commoner, and especially one not involved in politics.

The present portrait appears to be one of the earlier likenesses of Drake, and probably dates from the early 1580s, thus pre-dating the Armada. It relates to an engraving by Thomas de Leu after a portrait by his then master, Jean Rabel, a French painter and engraver. The engraving was reportedly dedicated to Sir Edward Stafford, the English ambassador in Paris from 1583-90. There is no record of Drake visiting France at this time, nor of Rabel being in England, but earlier likenesses, such as Nicholas Hilliard’s 1581 miniature may have been used (Hilliard too, it should be noted, had worked in France in the 1570s). One other relevant source may be the record of the Spanish ambassador in London writing in September 1586 that the 'French Ambassador has sent an account of Drake's voyage in Latin...accompanied by a portrait of Drake sent to Secretary Villeroy, who values it very highly, and copies have been ordered to be made from it for presentation to Joyeuse, Epernon and other favourites of the King'.

The Leu engraving states that the sitter’s age was 43, thus dating the likeness to c.1583. Intriguingly, the engraving is reversed from the present composition, and while it is not known whether Rabel’s original portrait was a painting or a drawing, it is almost certainly the case that the present painting was derived from that original likeness rather than done later from the engraving. The green background, such as that used in similar portraits by French artists such as Corneille de Lyon, may also point to a French origin. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak panel on which it is painted confirms an early date, with a plausible usage date of the panel of 1558 onwards. Conservation by Philip Mould Ltd has removed a modern layer of over-paint that had been applied to such large areas of the armour, background and drapery that it had previously been assumed that the picture dated from the 17th Century.

Drake was born c.1540 in Crowndale, Devon. His career at sea began as a result of him moving to Plymouth to live with his kinsmen, the Hawkins family, among whom was Sir John Hawkins, later another Elizabethan naval hero. The Hawkins’ were actively involved in piracy, then one of the main businesses in Plymouth, as well as slavery. It was on a slaving ship that Drake undertook one of his first major sea voyages in 1560. Drake’s first important command was the Judith in John Hawkins’ ill-fated 1567 expedition to the Americas. His later, more openly piratical, voyages proved more successful; in 1572 he burnt Portobello, while in 1573 he captured Spain’s annual treasure shipment from Peru. In the same year he sacked Santa Cruz.

His most impressive achievement, however, came in circumnavigating the world, the first Englishman to do so, between 1577 and 1580. The aim of the voyage was to raid Spanish shipping in the Pacific, which Drake did with such unprecedented success that news spread across Europe of his almost single-handed humiliation of the Spanish navy. On his return he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth at Deptford, and was elected an MP. In Spain, however, his success was seen as a provocation by England. In April 1587, Drake led a fleet to the Spanish harbour of Cadiz, where he calmly plundered and burnt more than two dozen vessels. Some thirty-five years later Francis Bacon recalled Drake's description of the raid as ‘The Cingeing of the king of Spaines Beard’. Drake’s continued success against Spanish towns and shipping in part led to Philip II’s decision to launch the Armada in 1588. Drake, however, was made vice-admiral of the English navy in that year, and played a significant role in defeating the Armada (while at the same time managing to capture the Spanish ‘pay ship’ the Rosario, and keeping about a third of the gold for himself). His reputation thereafter was tarnished slightly by a failed invasion of Portugal. Drake died of dysentery off Nombres de Dios in 1595 during his final expedition to the West Indies. Against his wishes, he was buried at sea.
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