Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1532 –1590) 

Studio of John de Critz the Elder (1551/1-1642)

Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1532 –1590), Studio of John de Critz the Elder
Oil on Panel
16th Century
20 x 16 in. (51.5 x 40.5 cm.)
Private Collection, UK.
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This recently discovered, late-Tudor panel portrait depicts Sir Francis Walsingham, one of the more compelling and conspiratorial characters of the Elizabethan age and ‘spymaster’ to Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Dendrochronological analysis of the oak panel support (available on request) has ruled in an earliest plausible creation date of c.1585, confirming the stylistic indications that this was executed towards the end of Walsingham’s lifetime.

Walsingham was an important Elizabethan statesman, a staunch Protestant, Common Sergeant of London, and formidable member of the Star Chamber. He was born to an affluent noble family, and received a superior education at King’s College, Cambridge. After matriculating, he travelled to Padua to pursue a career in law, and returned to England in 1559 to assume the post of M.P. for Banbury. In 1570, he was appointed Ambassador to France, which marked the onslaught of a lengthy and eventful political career.

His infamously puritanical temperament, stern countenance and devious conduct, earned Walsingham the title of England’s first ‘spymaster’. Queen Elizabeth greatly admired his incessant scheming against Catholic threats, most notably posed by that of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) with her French and Spanish disciples.

Contemporary accounts suggest Walsingham maintained a rather incongruous position among the refined members of Tudor court. Nonetheless, his fierce loyalty and reputation as a merciless civil servant to Elizabeth, earned him the official title of her Principal Secretary. His intelligence and shrewd nature secured him the trust of many influential figures at court, including William Cecil (1520-98) and Robert Dudley (c.1531-88). He exploited his authority by embarking upon his own clandestine campaigns against the queen’s adversaries. These surreptitious operations involved pioneering strategies and complex tactics akin to modern espionage, and he was celebrated for his talents in gathering intelligence used to undermine Spanish plots, thus diverting hostility away from the English throne.

The known iconography of Walsingham originates from one portrait-type which Roy Strong, in his seminal monograph Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, attributes to John de Critz the Elder and dates to c.1585. From 1577 Walsingham held the position as Secretary of State and he is shown here wearing the typical attire of a senior statesman, including a skull-cap and black doublet, which although may seem slightly plain by modern standards of dress, would have been incredibly costly.

From the ribbon around his neck would have hung a cameo of Queen Elizabeth set in gold, which although not visible in this work, features prominently in the larger portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London [NPG 1807].

For the most part, as seen in the version in the National Portrait Gallery, Walsingham is shown facing left, however in this work, and also in another portrait dated 1587 (cited by Strong but present whereabouts unknown), he is shown facing to the right. This inversion occurs quite frequently in portraiture from the Elizabethan period, as studios would often work from tracings in order to exactly replicate the subtle details and contours in the face and clothing.

The early history of this painting has yet to emerge, but given the rarity of portraits of Walsingham it is not improbable that this image was created for one of Walsingham’s close circle or family.
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