Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mary Villiers, Lady Herbert of Shurland (1622-1685), 1636 

Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Portrait of Mary Villiers, Lady Herbert of Shurland (1622-1685), 1636, Sir Anthony Van Dyck
Oil on canvas
17th Century
42 x 33 in (101.6 x 83.8 cm)
The Collection of King Charles I (1600-1649); by the King's gift? pre 1642 to Lady Mary Villiers (1622-1685); by inheritance to George Legge (1648-1691) 1st Baron Dartmouth; William Legge (1730-1801) 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, Sandwell Hall, Staffordshire; William Legge (1881-1958) 7th Earl of Dartmouth, Patshull Park, Staffordshire; by descent to Lady Elizabeth Basset nee Legge.
Walpole Society 1958-1960 vol. XXXVII Sir Oliver Millar Abraham van der Doort''s Catalogue of the Collections of Charles I p227 no.46 Stebbing Shaw The History and Antiquities of Staffordshire London 1801 Vol.IIi pp.128-132 This painting is to be included in Sir Oliver Millar''s forthcoming monograph on the work of Sir Anthony van Dyck
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The significance and striking quality of this forgotten royal commission has only emerged following recent conservation and relining. Not only has cleaning revealed a work of highly sensitive characterisation and poise, on par with the most affecting of Van Dyck's more intimate portraits, but the discovery of van der Doort's royal brand, stamped on the reverse on the original lining, has reaffirmed the historical status of a young sitter who enjoyed many of the advantages of the royal children, including the services of the court painter. The painting itself -and a double portrait of the sitter's two young brothers- dates to one of the most fruitful periods of Van Dyck's work for King Charles I, the years 1635-37, during which he produced some of his most memorable -and personal- works for the King, including his groups of the Royal children.

Lady Mary Villiers was one of the three children of George Duke of Buckingham, ''Sweet Steenie'', the consummate intriguer who had been the Favourite of King James I and then of his son, and of his wife Lady Catherine Manners daughter of the Earl of Rutland. When the Duke was murdered in 1628 few mourned him, and his death was seen as the removal of a pernicious influence on the government of the country and of an impediment in the King's relations with his wife, whom Buckingham had hated. The King, however, remained devoted to his friend's memory, and to his children, who were raised in the Royal Household almost as part of the King's own family. As a result, the eldest boy, George, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, was from earliest years a boon companion of Charles Prince of Wales, and was his closest friend through the Civil Wars, a shared exile and finally government, until the latter's death in 1685.

Lady Mary too enjoyed a status little removed from that of Princess, and was recognised, both by her family's wealth and their closeness to the Royal family, as a highly desirable prize in a Court marriage. It must also have been apparent as she approached her teens that she would be a woman of some beauty. In 1634 negotiations were concluded for the marriage of Lady Mary, then aged twelve, to Charles Lord Herbert of Shurland, eldest son and heir of Philip Herbert Earl of Pembroke. Pembroke, himself a former favourite of James I, was the king's Lord Chamberlain, a magnate of considerable wealth and power, and a very natural sponsor of such a profitable alliance. Lord Herbert and Lady Mary were married on January 8th or 18th 1634/5 in the Royal Closet at Whitehall. The employment of the King's private chapel is a sufficient demonstration of the affection in which both were held by King Charles.

It is uncertain how much time the couple spent together, given their youth -the groom was only fifteen years old- and, in any case, Lord Herbert travelled alone to Italy later in the year in order to serve in the army of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. There he suffered an attack of smallpox, and died at Florence in January 1635/6. There was one very significant fruit, however, of this otherwise brief association with the Herbert family. Lord Pembroke was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic patrons of Sir Anthony van Dyck. In addition to individual portraits, Pembroke commissioned the painter's largest work, the great portrait now hanging in the Double Cube Room at Wilton. This painting, most probably executed early in 1634 before the painter's return to Antwerp, is a magnificent expression of the Earls'' dynastic ambitions. Enthroned in the centre before a cloth of Estate the Earl and Countess are surrounded by their children, living and -depicted as putti- dead, and by their son and future daughter-in-law, the present sitter. Lady Mary is shown standing in front of and slightly below the Earl and Countess. The white dress that she wears in the portrait both alludes to her virginity and establishes her as the focus of the composition, an appropriate position for one who was also the hope of Pembroke's succession.

As Duchess of Richmond, and later as the wife of Colonel Howard, Lady Mary was a prominent figure at Court after the Restoration. Several poems by the anonymous Stuart poetess known as Ephelia (whose works were published in 1679 as ''Female Poems... by Ephelia'') were dedicated to her, and it has been established in the last decade by Maureen Mulvihill of the Princeton Research Forum that Ephelia was in fact Lady Mary herself. This poet produced an intriguing set of texts, some privately-printed, being bold political broadsheets against the Popish Plot and the rising of James, Duke of Monmouth, as well as amusing coterie verse, songs, a collection of female poems, amorous verse-letters, and ‘a damn'd play’, evidently a farce-burlesque on the debauched private lives of Charles II and his brother, James, Duke of York. This new identification suggests that Lady Mary Villiers was the most highly-placed, publishing woman writer of the Stuart period.1.

The Wilton portrait represents the first occasion that Lady Mary had sat to Van Dyck. Clearly, however, she was a sitter who suggested possibilities to the painter, and in a succession of at least six subsequent portraits he was able to explore the development of her appearance and character over time. This present painting follows the Wilton portrait by just under two years, and what may well be mourning bands, in conjunction with the inscription, date it with precision to the period of her widowhood from January 1636 until mid 1637, when she married her second husband. The pose owes something to the profile body and slightly turned head of the Wilton painting, but she is turned more fully to the viewer, shedding the bride's modesty of the earlier image. This pose ''progression'' from earlier to later portraits of the same sitter can be noted elsewhere in Van Dyck''s work, not least in the Wilton group's figure of Lady Mary's brother-in-law, Philip Herbert 5th Earl of Pembroke, whose later individual portrait is a more assertive interpretation of the earlier pose.

Both from the location of the portrait in the Royal Collection, and from the King's earlier (1635) commission of a double portrait of the sitter's two brothers, it is plain that the portrait was painted at the behest of King Charles himself. The 1641 inventory of the paintings in the Royal Collection compiled by Abraham van der Doort most probably describes this painting hanging in the gallery at St James's Palace - together with the portrait of the two Villiers boys - where there is listed: A piece of the Dutchess of Lenox before shee was married by Sr Anthony Vandike.2

This latter reference alludes, of course, to Lady Mary's second and yet more splendid alliance. In August 1637 she married James Stuart Duke of Lennox, scion as his name suggests of a family closely allied to the Crown, cousins in their descent from Charles Stuart brother of Henry Lord Darnley, father of James I. Again the King showed his especial favour of the marriage and of Lady Mary Villiers in giving away the bride at the ceremony, which was conducted at the Archbishop's Chapel at Lambeth Palace. Marriage to James Stuart -created in 1641 Duke of Richmond- confirmed Mary Villiers's position among the great of the Kingdom, and from the onset of the Civil War allied her own fortunes inexorably with those of the King himself. The Duke of Richmond -three of whose brothers died in the Royalist cause- was the King's closest friend, and his company and conversation were a solace to the monarch during the period of struggle. Richmond's devotion to the King's cause was personal without any necessary identification with the monarch's policy. His true opinion of the latter has never been known. Nonetheless, when the King was placed on trial in 1648/9, Richmond was one of the four peers who volunteered to be punished in his stead.

Although he was not called upon to make this ultimate sacrifice, the consequences of the Duke's loyalty were severely felt by his family. He had spent at least £65,000 in donations to the King's service alone, and, after acting as one of the King's pallbearers in February 1649, he was obliged by his own poverty and by the hostility of the Parliament to retire abroad. In the same year his son3 Esmé Stuart Earl of March, was born, who succeeded him in the title on his death in 1655. The young Duke was not destined to enjoy the title long, and he died in Paris of smallpox some five years later. The Richmonds' younger child, Lady Mary Lennox, married Richard Butler Earl of Arran, but died without issue in 1668 at the age of sixteen.

The Duchess married for a third time in 1664, when she became the wife of Colonel the Hon. Thomas Howard, Lieutenant of the Yeomen of the Guard, and together with her husband became ''the fondest couple that can be.''4 She outlived this last husband by seven years, dying in November 1685 at the age of sixty-three. Without surviving children her property passed to George Legge 1st Lord Dartmouth (1647-1691) who was the Duchess's closest relative through her grandfather, George Villiers of Brokesby, Dartmouth's great-grandfather.

1 For this important argument see ''Ephelia'', ed. Maureen E. Mulvihill. Ashgate Publishing Group Ltd., 2003. and an online archive http://www.millersville.edu/~resound/ephelia/.

2. Until the discovery of the Royal brand on the present portrait, the painting catalogued by Van der Doort had been identified with the full-length portrait of Lady Mary Villiers as Saint Agnes in the Royal Collection (Sir Oliver Millar Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Royal Collection Phaidon 1963 no.159 p.102), for which no provenance earlier than its probable appearance in the collection of Sir Peter Lely is known. We are grateful to Sir Oliver Millar for suggesting that this entry in the inventory might possibly refer equally to our three-quarter length portrait. Presently unknown details of the hanging of the pictures in the St James's Palace gallery would be of use in establishing whether the larger or the smaller canvas would be the more congruous among the other known paintings, which are of various sizes. The description ''…the Dutchesse of Lenox before shee was married'' dates the Royal painting to before Lady Mary''s marriage to Lennox in August 1637, which would be an equally appropriate way to refer either to a portrait of the sitter as Saint Agnes -a traditional guise for brides- or, indeed, as the widow of her previous husband.

The certain details of our picture remain that, on the evidence of the Royal brand verso, it was in the Royal Collection at some point between its execution in 1636/7 and the King's flight from London in 1642, and that it was not in the collection at his death in 1648/9. Since it had become the personal property of the Duchess by the time of her death in 1685, it is most likely that the King presented it to her, perhaps in order to replace her portrait with a more recent image. It may well be that on her marriage to the Duke of Lennox it was felt inappropriate that she continue to be displayed in the Palace as a widow.

3. Evidence suggests that a son was born to the Duke and Duchess in 1640, but that he was short-lived and nothing further is known of him. (The Complete Peerage Collins reprinted Sutton 1987 volume 4 (X) p.833 n.d)

4. The Complete Peerage Collins reprinted Sutton 1987 volume 4 (X) p.833 n.b.
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