Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400) 16th Century

16th Century English School 

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400), 16th Century English School
Oil on Panel
16th Century
13 x 11 inches, 33 x 28cm
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This mid-to-late sixteenth century panel portrait shows Geoffrey Chaucer, who, before the age of Shakespeare, was considered to be the most important figure in English literature. There are a number of versions of this portrait type that survive, and the popularity of the image is testament to Chaucer’s reputation in Tudor England. He was one of very few non-royal subjects to become a regular feature amongst the ‘corridor portraits’ hung by wealthy families.

Chaucer was born into a relatively prosperous merchant family, and his early career included time spent in military service in France. While in the service of the Black Prince, in about 1360, he was captured and ransomed. That King Edward III contributed £16 towards the ransom gives an early indication of Chaucer’s standing at court. He held a number of well paid royal posts until his death, was married to one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, and even served as MP for Kent. Chaucer’s literary career can be seen to date from his first long poem The Book of the Duchess (1368-1372). But it was after travelling to Italy in royal service between 1372-73 - where he was exposed to, and may even have met, the likes of Petrarch and Boccaccio - that his distinctive form of poetry began to flourish. Soon after his return to London he completed works such as The House of Fame, and The Parliament of Fowls. Both were indicative of his new style of vernacular poetry, which would dominate his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales. Tales was begun in 1387 and recounts the stories of ordinary people on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Thomas à Becket.

The image of Chaucer seen here derives from a manuscript by Thomas Occleve called De Regimine Principum. Occleve, a fellow poet, knew Chaucer, and described him as ‘the firste fyndere of our fair langage’. The likeness can therefore be considered reliable, and is accompanied by the following inscription;

Although his lyfe be queynt the resemblaunce
Of him hath in me so fresh lyflynesse
That to putte other me in remembraunce
Of his persone I have here his lyknesse
Do make to this ende in sothfastnesse
That thei that have of him lest thought & mynde
By this peynture may ageyne him fynde.

Chaucer is seen holding a rosary in his left hand, which although an unusual attribute to see in late sixteenth century Protestant England, remained an accepted part of Chaucer’s iconography, and was perhaps designed to echo the pilgrim origins of his most celebrated work. Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1400, in what has since become Poet’s Corner. The coat of arms seen in the picture here can also be seen on the writer’s tomb.
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