Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex (1526/7-83) 1580s

Circle of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561/62-1636)

Portrait of Sir Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex (1526/7-83), Circle of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
Oil on Panel
16th Century
80 x 66cm 31.5 x 26 inches
Mervyn Richard Wingfield, 8th Viscount Powerscourt, - by whom sold Christies London 25April 1903 lot 85, bt Smith, 32gns Godfrey Williams Collection Anonymous sale, Christies London 4th October 1946, lot 104, Bt Arcade Galleries
Roy Strong, National Portrait Gallery, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits (London 1969) p. 310
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The Earl of Sussex was one of the ablest political figures in Tudor England, as witnessed by his ability to hold senior posts under all three monarchs in the latter half of the sixteenth century. This was a remarkable feat at a time when political pendulum swung violently between the Protestant Edward VI, the Catholic Mary I, and finally the Protestant Elizabeth I.

Sussex was initially known as a soldier: knighted during the invasion of France in 1544, Henry VIII’s final and perhaps most pointless military adventure; nearly killed at the battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, when Scotland and England fought each other for the last time; amongst those who fought off Wyatt’s rebellion at the gates of London in 1554. But it is to his skills as one of the shrewder Tudor politicians that he owes his successful career and fame. Despite witnessing Edward VI’s forged will in favour Lady Jane Grey, Sussex was one of the first to rally to Queen Mary’s support in 1553. He became a favourite of Mary’s husband, King Philip II of Spain. But again, on Mary’s death Sussex managed a seemless transition of loyalty to Elizabeth I. He was, above all, a pragmatist in an ideological world.

His first major position of power was as Viceroy of Ireland from 1556 to 1564. His aim (as with all English rulers of Ireland) was the extension of central authority, and, as so often, the main difficulty proved to be the existence of Gaelic tribes in the North, whom he tried unsuccessfully to defeat. He was, however, more effective as Elizabeth I’s President of the Council of the North, where he proved instrumental in defeating the rising of the Northern Earls, and from where he returned to London to the Queen’s particular favour; ‘truly, cousin’ she wrote, ‘we have not seen at any time a more absolute proof of your wit and learning’ [ODNB 2004]. Sussex was made a Privy Councillor, and granted lands and customs rights worth thousands of pounds a year. Perhaps it is for his disinterested advice and loyalty that he should be best remembered, for in an age of sometimes murderous ambition, Sussex was that rare figure – a Tudor public servant.

The artist of this portrait is not known. We do know from a portrait of William Cecil by the same distinct hand (Christies 17th November 1989) that the artist copied portraits attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, and that he produced other examples of Elizabethan noblemen in the same size and style. The prime versions of Gheeraerts’ Cecil portrait are at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 362) and Hatfield House (cat. 43). The artist of the present example would probably have been exposed (perhaps as a studio assistant) to the techniques of the many Dutch artists who had fled from religious persecution to England in the late 1560s, such as Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, Gheeraerts the Younger, and Arnold van Bronckhorst. What is perhaps most distinctive about this portrait, and what re-affirms an artistic connection to the Netherlands, is the fact that Sussex wears an expression. Too often in English mid-sixteenth century portraiture sitters are depicted with almost glacial visages, which carry not a flicker of emotion or characterization. Indeed, portraits of Sussex from the 1560s demonstrate this phenomena well, such as that dated 1568 (formerly de Saumarez Coll). In the present example, however, fine detailing in the face and eyes help convey an image of Sussex as the shrewd and intelligent man that he undoubtedly was.

All portraits of Lord Sussex derive from an original c. 1565 attributed to Steven van der Muelen (Coll. Lord Fitzwalter). Copies would have been reproduced from widely-circulated patterns, of the head only, from which a likeness would either have been traced or ‘pounced’ onto the panel, or even drawn freehand. Surviving examples of patterns are rare, but those of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Henry Sidney can be found in the National Portrait Gallery.

This portrait, however, is the largest and most extravagant of the fourteen recorded portraits of Sussex. Here, he is shown with all the trappings of office towards the end of his successful political career. The white rod in his right hand symbolizes his appointment as Lord Chamberlain. His costume, chain and insignia are of course those of a Knight of the Garter. A contemporary inscription lists his many positions of power, while the coat of arms and coronet remind us of his title and social position. The sheer size of this portrait (unusual for the period and a forerunner for the full-lengths perfected by Gheeraerts the Younger) would have made a significant impact on visitors and guests, as would the confrontational pose that consciously recalls Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII.

Such a portrait is an interesting reflection of Elizabethan methods of patronage, as well as the early concept of celebrity. Clearly, there must have been a demand amongst the more general public for such a profusion of portraits of one particular sitter. William Cecil’s portrait, for example, was reproduced on countless occasions, more often than any contemporary save the Queen herself. Most often this was a reflection of the amount of patronage Cecil controlled, and the number of people eager enough to display their gratitude with the judicious hanging of a portrait. It may just as likely, however, be a reflection of the public esteem in which particular sitters were held, and the heroic Sussex of this portrait could quite easily have been bought as an Elizabethan ‘pin-up’.

The dating of this portrait is also worth investigating. The supposition that the blue robes of the Order of the Garter only came into use in the mid 1580s (e.g. Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, p32) has led to the dating of works of this type to after 1585. For example, all portraits of the great Elizabethan statesman, William Cecil, have been dated post 1585 if depicted with garter robes. And yet, Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder’s engraving of the procession of the Garter Knights in 1576 (British Museum) shows what was clearly becoming a standard pattern of Garter uniform, and Sussex himself is shown wearing clothing almost identical to that seen in this portrait. It may also be worth noting that an illuminated manuscript c1450 (British Library) shows Edward III, the founder of the Order of the Garter, in deep blue robes with the shield of St George on his left shoulder, just as Sussex wears here. It seems possible, therefore, that this portrait was painted during Sussex’s lifetime or very soon after his death, and that the depiction of Elizabethan statesmen in Garter robes may have begun some years earlier than has hitherto been assumed.
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