Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of The Hon. Dorothy Latimer (1549-1608), wife of Thomas Cecil, later 1st Earl of Exeter, holing a pendant depicting Perseus 

John Bettes the Younger (d.1616)

Portrait of The Hon. Dorothy Latimer (1549-1608), wife of Thomas Cecil, later 1st Earl of Exeter, holing a pendant depicting Perseus, John Bettes the Younger
Oil on Panel
16th Century
44 x 32 in (112 x 81 cm)
Collection of the Marquesses of Ailesbury and by descent.
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Signed and dated top right:
‘IHB.F’ in monogram

Inscribed in a later cartelino top left:
'Dorothy Latimer wife to Thomas / Earl of Exeter Great
Grandmother / to Diana Countefse of Ailesbury'

This portrait shows Dorothy Latimer, wife of Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter (1542-1623), a celebrated courtier and soldier. As a member of one of the most powerful and important Elizabethan families, Dorothy Latimer would have been at the centre of aristocratic and court life. She is shown holding a pendant, and dressed in a relatively austere black gown with white lace sleeves, and a richly jewelled headdress. The pendant shows Perseus holding the head of Medusa, a depiction which most likely pays homage to Elizabeth I’s ‘slaying’ of the Papacy and Catholicism in England (a similarly used image was Judith holding the head of Holofernes).

While Dorothy’s father, John, 4th Baron Latimer, was an entirely undistinguished and violent figure, Dorothy came from one of the most prominent English families, the Neville’s. Katherine Parr had been married to her grandfather before marrying Henry VIII. She was therefore described as ‘a good match’ for Thomas Cecil when she married him in 1564 – the Cecils then being seen as rather arriviste – and as ‘very wise, sober of behaviour and womanly’.

Thomas Cecil was the eldest son of William, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s leading councillor, and the half-brother of Burghley’s political successor, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury. He took part in the Armada, fought in Holland, and played a key role in suppressing two of the most significant threats to Elizabeth I’s reign, the Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569, and that of the Earl of Essex in 1601. He was made a Knight of the Garter in 1601, and Earl of Exeter in 1605. A somewhat extravagant and adventurous character, Cecil seemed to be a disappointment to his father in his youth. Burghley called him ‘my lewd son’, and apparently wrote of him as being ‘slothful in keeping his bed, rash in expenses, careless in his apparel, an unordinate lover of dice and cards; in study soon weary, in game never’.

However, Cecil’s marriage with Dorothy seems to have been a happy one, for they had thirteen children. The present portrait probably shows Dorothy during pregnancy. Their granddaughter, Lady Diana Grey, married Robert Bruce, 2nd Earl of Elgin, from whom the Marquesses of Anglesey, until recently owners of the portrait, are descended.

The portrait is painted with great finesse and detail, and is in unusually good condition. The transparency of the lace sleeves, always a sign of the expense of the fabric, is delicately rendered, as is the scroll-like detailing in the bottom of the black dress (again a sign of wealth, black dye being among the most expensive). Visible under-drawing shows that the face was first drawn freehand onto the panel, while the subtle lighting of the cool grey background behind the head helps project the sitter towards the viewer.

The picture is signed and dated in monogram in the top right hand corner, something very rarely seen in the sixteenth century. ‘IHB.F’ must stand for Johannes Bettes Fecit, for the portrait in both style and technique is close to John Bettes the Younger’s similarly signed Portrait of a Lady of 1587 belonging to St Olave’s and St Saviour’s Grammar School Foundation. The present portrait would therefore be John Bettes the Younger’s earliest known work, for he has not been previously documented as a painter before his name appears in the Revels accounts for 1578/9. We do not know when Bettes was born. His father, John Bettes the Elder, who is thought to have died in or before 1570, had been painting since at least the early 1530s. It is possible, though unlikely, that the portrait is by the elder Bettes.

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