The Royal Collection Miniature Portrait

RCIN420944
Called Elizabeth I
Watercolour on Vellum Applied to Card
5.2 cm in diameter
©Royal Collection

Purchased as a portrait of Mary Tudor when Princess on behalf of Queen Victoria during the Christies sale on 24th May 1881, RCIN20944 has caused much debate among art historians over the years.  The sitter has been identified as at least three different members of the royal family from the Tudor period, and for around twenty-six years the sitter was thought to be Lady Jane Grey.  Two artists have been associated with its creation, though no proof has surfaced to establish a known creator.  Due the sitter once being identified as Lady Jane Grey, I have decided to discuss this painting on this website.     

RCIN420944 depicts a young lady facing full frontal, with grey eyes and light red hair.  She wears a bodice of gold damask fabric cut square at the neck and a partlet of contrasting fabric with small figure-of-eight ruff that surrounds her face.  A black loose gown with small puff sleeves and false hanging sleeves is also seen worn by the sitter and is fastened at the front with the use of gold aglets.  The sitter wears two chains around her neck of goldsmith work and pearls, and suspended from one is a large jewel containing five square cut diamonds and a large hanging pearl.  On her head she wears a hair net which again consists of goldsmith work, and a pink and white flower is also arranged within the sitter’s hair.  She is depicted on a blue background within a gold boarder. The beginning of an inscription stating “AÑO” is also seen on the left-hand side.    

Nothing is known regarding the early provenance for this painting or how the image became identified as a portrait of Mary Tudor when Princess.  The first documented record concerning the provenance of this portrait located to date is the sales catalogue for the collector and poet Samuel Rogers.  Following his death in 1855, his vast collection of art and antiques were sold as part of an eighteen-day sale commencing on 28th April 1856 at Messrs. Christie and Manson, St James Square.  RCIN420944 was sold on the eighth day of sale and is officially recorded in the catalogue as “lot 960. Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, after Holbein.”[1] 

The portrait was purchased by collector Charles Sackville Bale, who appears not to have questioned the identity of the sitter or artist associated with it.  An early photographic image of the portrait appears in a book published in 1864 by Amelia B Edwards, and the portrait was also submitted to The Miniature Portrait Exhibition of 1865 at the South Kensington Museum.  Both the book and exhibition catalogue again refer to the portrait as “Queen Mary I of England, by Holbein,” with the exhibition catalogue also noting that the portrait was purchased from the collection of Samuel Rogers.

Upon the death of Charles Sackville Bale in 1880, the miniature sold from his collection and entered the Royal Collection.  The auction took place on 24th May 1881 and again the miniature was noted as “lot 1420 Mary Tudor, Queen of England, by H. Holbein”[2] within the catalogue for the sale.

Within years of entering the Royal collection, the sitter’s identity and the artist associated with its creation was challenged.   Lady Jane Grey was put forward as a possible candidate and the miniature would continue to be described as a portrait of Jane for the next two decades.

An article written by Richard Holmes, librarian to Queen Victoria, and published in 1884 in the English Illustrated Magazine does give us some clues as to the reason for the change of identification.  This article appears to be the first time the portrait was publicly published as an image of Lady Jane Grey, and the article also included an engraving of the painting noting Jane as the sitter in its title.  Holmes reports the reasons for the change in identity as follows

Engraving From English Illustrated Magazine 1884

“of the painters who must have worked in England between the time of Holbein and Hillard, a capital specimen has within the last few years been added to the number of royal portraits.  It is that of Lady Jane Grey, of which we give an engraving.  It had passed for many years as a portrait of princess, afterwards Queen Mary, but it is unlike her in every feature.  That it represents a Tudor Princess is undoubted, as in her hair are the red and white roses. It corresponds with all that is known of the characteristics of the unfortunate Lady Jane, and fills an important gap in the series of portraits of the Tudor Line”[3]

What is interesting about the above statement is that Holmes reports that the sitter depicted in the miniature was thought at that time to correspond with all that was known of the characteristics of Lady Jane Grey.  This then brings about the question as to what was actually known about Jane’s characteristics at that time. This article was written prior to the publication of Richard Davey’s biography on Jane in 1909, which contained the only detailed description of a small, freckled and red haired, Jane Grey entering the Tower of London as Queen on 10th July 1553, known to date.  Today, this description has been discovered to be a mere forgery.[4]  No other description documenting the details of Jane’s features has surfaced, which suggest that almost nothing was known regarding what Jane looked like, other than vague references referring to her as pretty which were made at a later date.

The miniature portrait was publicly exhibited in 1890 at the Royal House of Tudor Exhibition held at the New Gallery, London.  Within the exhibition catalogue, the portrait is recorded as coming from the collection of Her Majesty the Queen and referring to as “1068. Lady Jane Grey. By N. Hilliard, formerly in the collection of Charles Sackville Bale.”  It was probably around this point in time that a red leather label was attached to the back of the frame noting that the sitter depicted was “Lady Jane Grey/Born 1537-Died 1554/Hilliard”

The portrait continued to be displayed as an image of Lady Jane Grey and was Exhibited in the New Gallery exhibition of 1901 as a portrait of her.  In 1906, Richard Holmes again discussed the miniature in an article written for the Burlington Art Magazine on Nicholas Hillard.  

Lionel Cust, director of the National Portrait gallery, London, appears to be the first to question the identification of Lady Jane Grey as the sitter in RCIN420944.  In 1910, he produced a privately printed catalogue for the Royal Collection regarding the miniature portraits held within the Royal Palaces at that time.  In this, Cust dismisses the identification of Jane Grey and suggests Elizabeth I as an alternative sitter, noting that the miniature may have been produced by Levina Teerlinc and not Nicholas Hilliard.  Nothing is documented in the book to inform us as to why Cust came to this conclusion, though it would be tempting to speculate that he noted the costume worn by the sitter was a little too late in period to be an authentic portrait of Lady Jane Grey.

RCIN420987
Called Elizabeth I
Watercolour on Vellum
4.5 cm in diameter
©Royal Collection

The Identification of the sitter as Elizabeth was further strengthened in 1962 when the Royal Collection purchased another miniature portrait similar in composition and style to RCIN420944 at Christie’s auction.  This miniature is recorded in the catalogue for sale, taking place on April 10th at Christie’s auction house, London, as “A Lady, probably Princess Elizabeth, Later Queen Elizabeth I.” A description also noted that the miniature was painted on a playing card, and seen on the reverse of is blind stamp consisting of the letter C and a Crown. [5]   This was immediately associated with a description made in 1637 of a miniature portrait seen by Abraham Van der Doort, Surveyor of the Kings Pictures and described in an inventory made of the collection of King Charles I.

“Item don upon the right lighte in a white ivory box/ wthout a Christall a Certaine Ladies Picture in her haire/ in a gold bone lace little ruff, and black habbitt/ lined wth furr with goulden tissue sleeves/ with one hand over another supposed to have bin/ Queen Elizabeth before shee came to the Crowne. By an unknown hand”[6] 

Upon the purchase of the second miniature by the Royal Collection, both were thought to depict the same individual.  Due to the early Van der Doort description it was therefore thought that both miniatures represented the young Queen Elizabeth in the early years of her reign. Both images continue to be catalogued as Elizabeth I today.

Author Roy Strong was noted not to include either miniature in his 1963 book entitled Portrait of Queen Elizabeth.  He was observed to briefly discuss them in the 1987 revised version Gloriana The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I.  When discussing both miniatures, he interestingly notes that “of the two miniatures, one is more certainly of her than the other.”[7]  It could be argued that both images depict separate individuals rather than a portrait of the same person.  There does appear to be significant differences in the composition and costume worn by both individuals to identify that one is not a direct copy of the other. 

Whoever RCIN420944 depicts will continue to be debated among art historians, but Lionel Cust was right back in 1910 to question the identity of the sitter being Lady Jane Grey. There appears to be nothing within the image to suggest that the portrait was painted of her, and no detailed description survives today that tells us anything about what she looked like.  This image can now be removed from any list of potential likenesses thought to depict her.


[1] Messrs. Christies and Manson, Sales Catalogue, April 28th, 1856, Page 90, lot 960

[2] Christie’s, Sales Catalogue, 24th May 1881, Page 109, lot 1420

[3] Holmes. Richard, The Royal Collection of Miniatures at Windsor Castle, English Illustrated Magazine, July 1184

[4] For more details on the new finding regarding Davey’s description of Jane see: Edwards John, Queen of a New Invention, Old John Publishing, 2015, page 177 and DeLisle. Leanda, Sisters Who Would Be Queen, Harper Press, 2008 

[5] Christie’s Sale Catalogue, 10th April 1962, Page 20

[6] O’Donoghue,F.M, A Descriptive and Classified Catalogue of Portraits of Queen Elizabeth , 1894, page 27, no 7

[7] Strong. Roy, Gloriana The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, 1987, Page 55

2 thoughts on “The Royal Collection Miniature Portrait

  1. Absolutely beautiful, the artwork carried out by the artists back in these days is so lovely and so very interesting. The colours are just awesome, really awesome and I have so much respect for these interesting people

    Like

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