Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir John Byron (c.1527-1603/4), 1599 

Late 16th Century English School 

Portrait of Sir John Byron (c.1527-1603/4), 1599, Late 16th Century English School
Oil on Panel
25 1/8 x 30 1/8 ins., (63.8cm x 76.6cm)
Private Collection, UK.
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The re-emergence of this late-Tudor panel portrait of Sir John Byron represents a significant re-addition to Elizabethan iconography.

Byron was clearly considered an important figure within the historical understanding of Elizabethan society, for later in 1800, as part of a series titled ‘Portraits of illustrious characters in the reign of Queen Elizabeth’, the celebrated enamellist Henry Bone copied this portrait-type in enamel and displayed it alongside portraits of, amongst others, Robert Dudley, Lord Burghley and Sir Walter Raleigh . This series occupied Bone for the whole of his career, and he appears to have only copied from accomplished, period examples of Elizabethan portraiture. When exhibited in 1836, the enamel copy of the Byron portrait was described as ‘After the original picture in the possession of the Honourable Mrs Leigh, St James Palace’. It is interesting to note that although many of the enamel copies by Bone in the exhibition were described as being ‘After the Original […]’, some other works, including a portrait of Sir Christopher Wray, were simply described as ‘From the portrait in […]’. This differentiation between a period, original portrait as his influence and a later work of unspecified date is just what one would expect from Bone, who as well as spending his whole career studying the old masters, was also a trusted connoisseur who acted as acquisitions advisor for wealthy collectors.

Mrs Leigh was Byron’s half-sister who, in 1815, was made a Woman of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte which is when, presumably, she was given her apartment at the palace. It is known that Mrs Leigh would borrow works from Newstead for her state apartments, as one commentator, who visited Newstead in around 1829, commented after seeing a portrait of a man in judicial robes: ‘This same portrait I have lately seen in those apartments in St. James’ Palace occupied by the Hon. Mrs. Leigh, half-sister to the poet’. By 1824 a portrait of Sir John Byron was back at Newstead (hanging over the door in the Great Saloon), where Washington Irving famously saw it and recorded its supper-natural presence. In 1852 the portrait was recorded as hanging in the Library , where it was still hanging in 1874 as recorded by Richard Allen, who also makes note of the inscriptions along the top of the work .

At some point, probably around one hundred years after Byron sat for this portrait, the panel was reduced in size. The inscription along the top therefore was transcribed from an older inscription beneath, which, once the panel had been reduced at both sides, was no longer fully legible and needed to be re-written. The fact that the portrait in the collection of the 12th Lord Byron (as of 1988), shows the same inscription as the present work therefore, further confirms that the present panel was the prime ad vivum version, and that the other example was copied much later.
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