Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Roundel portrait of a Lady of the court, late 1540s/ early 1550s 

 Anglo Flemish School 

Roundel portrait of a Lady of the court, late 1540s/ early 1550s,  Anglo Flemish School
Oil on lime or cherry wood
16th Century
Circular, 3 ¾ in. (95 mm.) diam.
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Datable on the basis of costume to the late 1540s or early 1550s, this small portrait is a rare survival of a type known in Northern Europe as a kapsel portrait. The turned reverse of the present portrait and the rim still present on the obverse suggest that the work would have originally been hidden by a matching lid, now missing. The kapsel portrait functioned in a similar way to the portrait miniature or limning, still in its infancy as a portrait type in the mid-16th century when the present work would have been commissioned. Painted in oil on wood, kapsel portraits were portable and concealed behind a lid – they were therefore intimate objects in the same vein as the watercolour miniature.

Although the origins of the kapsel portrait and the portrait miniature differ, the present work was painted at a time when many artists were working in multiple disciplines using a variety of techniques. Hans Holbein the younger (c.1497-1543) was working in watercolour on vellum, following the tradition of manuscript illumination from which such limnings evolved, while also painting portraits in oil and fulfilling the numerous tasks of the court painter. Such multipotence began slowly to diminish with the arrival of Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), who declared miniature painting ‘a thing apart from all other painting’, but continued, like Holbein, to perform numerous artistic functions at court. The profession of portrait miniaturist or limner only became truly singular with the advent in the seventeenth century of Samuel Cooper (1607/8-1672). It is therefore not possible to be certain whether the present portrait was executed by an oil painter or portrait miniaturist.

Naturally, the unknown artist of this portrait has been influenced by Holbein, who had not only provided a stylistic legacy after his death in 1543, but who also had painted similar kapsel portraits. The best known of these is the portrait of Philip Melancthon (1497-1560), painted circa 1529/32, in oil on oak. Other larger examples exist, dating to circa 1534, of a courtier of Henry VIII and his wife in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The Metropolitan Museum in New York also holds an example by Holbein of similar scale, but painted in oil on vellum and laid down on a linden roundel. The present work also references Holbein in the degree of naturalism and animation portrayed in the face of the sitter, whose composure conflicts somewhat with her obvious extreme youth.

A further artistic reference for the unknown artist of this portrait may have come from the Flemish school of manuscript illuminators. The master of this art during the later 15th and early 16th century was undoubtedly Simon Bening (c.1483-1561), who in turn taught his daughter Levina Teerlinc (c.1510-1576). Employed by Henry VIII as ‘paintrix’, Teerlinc served the three subsequent monarchs after his death. Although the body of work by Teerlinc is not conclusive, evidence suggests that she painted a small group of portrait miniatures, largely representing female courtiers. These small watercolour portraits display similar anatomical traits to the present work, the head drawn disproportionately large to the body , the shoulders narrow.

The present portrait probably represents a lady of the court during the final years of the reign of Henry VIII. Her wealth is subtly declared through the biliments or hat jewels on her French hood, the gold aiglets piercing the austere black fabric on her shoulders and the heavy gold chain at her neck. Her pose and demeanour are close to the portraits of Queen consort Catherine Howard (circa 1518-1542) painted during the late 1530s. From the gold necklace at the sitter’s neck it might tentatively be suggested that she is in the employ of royal or noble household as a gentlewoman or lady in waiting, as such chains were a conventional gift, enabling monetary reward to be combined with a symbol of attachment.
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