Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mary Darrell (1598-1658) 

Attributed to Robert Peake (c.1551-1619)

Portrait of Mary Darrell (1598-1658), Attributed to Robert Peake
Oil on Panel
16th Century
31 x 24 ½ inches, 78.8 x 62.5 cm
English Private Collection
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This early seventeenth century portrait is a rare combination of ostentatious presentation and private intimacy. With its detailed and vividly coloured emerald green dress, the picture adheres to the formality often associated with Elizabethan portraiture, where portraits were largely considered to be an extension of the public persona and every effort was made to impress wealth and status upon the viewer. And yet, at the same time the less informal Jacobean approach to portraiture in the early seventeenth century can clearly be seen, with the sitter’s loose hair flowing over the her ruff, and the delicate characterisation revealed by a face painted with unusual sensitivity. The sitter’s features are finely suggested, whilst an air of gentle contentment is subtly heightened by the artist’s use of a simple background, in this case with a rarely seen shade of deep purple. And instead of the formal jewels so often seen on earlier portraits, here we have the simplicity of what appears to be threads of bound hair around the sitter’s neck and wrist, which were worn as an expression of love.

The sitter here has traditionally been identified as Mary Darrell, wife of Henry Fortescue. However, that Mary Darrell died in 1598, and so cannot be the sitter here. A far more plausible candidate for the sitter is Mary Roe (1598-1658), who married Thomas Darrell, described as a citizen of London and the son of Sir Thomas Darrell of Pagenham. Mary and Thomas’ son, also Thomas, was born c.1617/18. The sitter’s age and fashion here accords well with a portrait painted in the latter half of the 1610s, and it may be that the portrait was commissioned at about the time of Mary Roe’s marriage. Mary Roe was the daughter of Thomas Roe, also described as a citizen of London.

Although the attribution of early English paintings is always difficult, not least because of the frequent absence of signatures, the present portrait bears close stylistic similarities to the later work of Robert Peake, James I’s court artist. Here, the pose and technique are comparable to Peake’s Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Pope [Tate Gallery] which is dated to c.1615, and also shows the sitter with delicately painted hair cascading over her shoulders, and with very similarly drawn hands, complete with elongated fingers and prominently displayed veins.

Peake is best known for his highly original and inventive depictions of the royal family, particularly those of Henry, Prince of Wales, for whom he seems to have been the official portraitist. Having at one time been in danger of obscurity, Peake, as one of the few court painters of note not to be foreign, is now recognised as a major figure in the evolution of a British School of painting. Our first certain knowledge of Peake comes in 1576, when he is recorded as working for the Office of the Revels, although the earliest documented portrait dates from 1587. Like his contemporaries in the de Critz and Gheeraerts families, Peake specialised in the meticulous depiction of costume and jewellery demanded by late Elizabethan patrons often at the expense of the overall composition. At the same time, like most court artists of the period his remit went beyond portraiture; in 1610 he painted interiors for Prince Henry’s warship, The Prince Royal, and the following year he published a book on architecture. Peake died in October 1619. Peake’s son, William, was also an artist and also associated with Prince Henry, while his grandson Robert was a firm adherent to Charles I in the Civil War, and knighted in 1645.
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