The Skeffington Portrait

Research into sixteenth century portraiture is a complex but fascinating subject. In many cases, the search starts with the surviving painting itself and then continues with the search for any written documentation concerning its provenance and any clues to the possible identification of the sitter.

When discussing portraits that have a history of approximately four hundred and fifty years behind them, it must be remembered that it is hard today to discover a portrait that has not been altered in some shape or form.  Over the years the original painted surface of a portrait may have been repainted due to bad restoration or over cleaning.  Inscriptions and coats of arms may also have been added at a later period in time, and in some cases the composition, original inscriptions and signatures may have been cut down to enable the portrait to fit in a new frame.

In the case of the Skeffington portrait, much of the above has happened.  This portrait has also been identified as at least four separate individuals during its modern recorded history.  Three out of the four sitters suggested have all faced execution, and today the portrait is now identified as an unknown lady.  

Our first documented record regarding this portrait’s survival is a book in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries, London.  This book contains copies of minutes of meetings held by the society during the nineteenth century and records that a portrait thought to depict Lady Jane Grey was presented to the Society by Sir William Skeffington on 6th February 1806.[1]

The portrait presented depicts a lady, seen to just below the waist and facing the viewer’s left.  Both hands are clasped in front of the sitter, and four gold rings can be seen on her fingers.   The sitter has grey eyes and auburn hair that is parted in the middle.  On her head, she wears a French hood constructed of crimson and white fabric with both upper and lower billaments of goldsmith work.  A black veil is also seen hanging down from the back of the hood, and under this she wears a gold coif.  A black loose gown with a fur collar and mutton leg sleeves is worn by the sitter and is fastened to the waist.  Under this the hint of a crimson kirtle is seen, and at her neck and wrists the sitter wears a figure-of-eight ruff which is embroidered with red thread.  The lady also wears a pendant of goldsmith work containing three square cut gemstones and three pearls suspended at her neck.  She is depicted in front of a plain background, and the image is painted on wooden panel.

Unknown Lady Called Anne Askew
Oil on Panel
27 x 21 inches
Associated with Hans Eworth
©The National Trust

Sir William Farrell-Skeffington adopted the Skeffington name in 1786 and inherited the fifteenth century manor house Skeffington Hall in East Leicester.  Prior to his death he began to sell objects off from the estate and eventually sold the house, land and contents in July 1814.[2]

Skeffington presented the painting for sale to the Reverend John Brand, Secretary of the society of Antiquaries. He informed the Society that the portrait represented Lady Jane Grey and was painted by Lucas de Heere.  No information is provided in the minutes of this meeting to inform us why Skeffington thought the portrait was a depiction of Lady Jane, and no information concerning the paintings provenance was recorded.  It appears that Mr Brand immediately challenged Skeffington’s identification as a painting of Jane Grey, noting that a fragment of an inscription can be seen on the top left-hand side of the panel surface which identified the date that the portrait was painted as 1560.  Brand rightfully recalled that the date painted on the surface did not coincide with the death of Lady Jane Grey and suggested that the portrait must in fact represent Jane’s mother Lady Frances Brandon, with Brand noting that she died in 1563.[3]   

One possible reason for the misidentification as a portrait of Lady Jane Grey is the inscription seen on the right-hand side of the panel surface.  This inscription reads ‘Rather deathe / than false of Faythe,’ which suggest that the sitter depicted would rather die or may possibly have died as a result of religious conflict.  The inscription itself appears to have been painted in a slightly different shade of yellow than the other one detailing the year and artists initials on the left side.  This suggests that one of the inscriptions was possibly added at a later date, though scientific testing would be required to establish if this theory is correct.

There is a popular tradition that Queen Mary offered Jane a pardon if she was willing to convert to Roman Catholicism. The tradition appears to have emerged shortly after Jane’s death as a way for Protestants to promote Jane’s dedication to the Protestant cause even when faced with death.  There is no surviving evidence to document that Jane was ever offered an actual pardon if she would convert, but there was indeed an effort made to get her to convert

Jane was visited by John Feckenham, Queen Mary’s personal chaplain, on 8th Feburary 1554.  By this point in her story, Jane had faced trial and had been convicted and sentenced to death as a traitor for accepting the crown and signing herself as queen. Mary was prevented from issuing a pardon because the Spanish demanded that Jane die as a condition of the marriage between Mary and Philip of Spain. Her execution had originally been set for the following day.  Mary was able to try to save Jane’s immortal soul, however, and she sent Feckenham to see Jane with that specific task, to try and convert Jane to Catholicism prior to her death.

Jane’s execution was postponed for three days, and a debate was had between Feckenham and Jane which resulted in Jane staying strong to the Protestant faith rather than relinquishing it.  This debate was recorded and apparently signed in Jane’s own hand. Within months of her death it appeared in printed format, along with a letter written by Jane to her former tutor Thomas Harding in which she condemned him for his change to Catholicism, thus promoting Jane’s strong belief in the Protestant faith.  In 1615, a pamphlet entitled ‘The Life, Death and Actions of The Most Chaste, Learned and Religious Lady, The Lady Jane Grey’ was published in London. This pamphlet contained a copy of the earlier printed debate and it was noted in the introduction that:

Even those which were of the best fame and reputation, were sent unto her to dissuade her from that true profession of the gospel, which from her cradle she had held. Each striving by art, by flattery, by threatening’s, by the promise of life, or what else might move most in the bosom of a weak woman.[4] 

It is quite possible that the inscription seen on the right-hand side of the portrait and the myth that Jane had been offered the promise of a pardon if she was willing to change her faith led Skeffington or a previous owner to believe that the painting must in fact depict Jane Grey. 

The Skeffington portrait was purchased by the Society of Antiquaries and remained in their collection where it was last recorded in 1847.[5]   How the portrait left the Society remains a bit of a mystery, but it was officially recorded as a ‘missing painting’ in one of the more recent publications on its collection.[6]

As discussed above, the portrait disappeared sometime after 1847, but it reappeared again in 1866 when it was exhibited as a painting of Anne Askew in the National Portraits Exhibition from the collection of a Reginald Cholmondeley.[7]  Reginald Cholmondeley’s principal estate was the sixteenth century Condover Hall in Shrewsbury.   On his death the contents of the Hall were sold at auction on March 6th 1897.  The identification of the sitter appears to have changed once again, and by 1897 the portrait was then referred to as:

Item 43. Lucas de Heere, Queen Mary (of Scots), in black with pink-edged ruff and cuffs, cap with gold chain and jewelled badge. Inscribed “Rather Deathe than false of Faythe,” dated 1560.

The portrait was purchased at this auction on behalf of Wilbraham Egerton, Earl Egerton, brother-in law of Reginald Cholmondeley, and was then displayed at Tatton Park.  In 1958 Tatton Park and its contents were bequeathed to The National Trust by Maurice Egerton, 4th Baron Egerton of Tatton, and the portrait remains on exhibition there today. 

It is my opinion that until scientific investigation has taken place on this portrait to establish if the inscriptions are original or added later then the true identity of its sitter may continue to be unknown.   The portrait is currently listed today on The National Trust collections website as an Unknown Lady, called Anne Askew.  As discussed in detail in other articles on this website, the size of the ruff worn by the sitter and the date inscribed on the left- hand side are both inconsistent with the date of both the deaths of Jane Grey and Anne Askew.  The Skeffington portrait can now be removed from the list of any potential likenesses thought to depict Lady Jane Grey


[1] Proceedings of the society of antiquaries of London, volume 1, page 47

[2] A large fifteen-day sale of the contents of Skeffington Hall commenced on 11th July 1814.  William Ferrell-Skeffington moved to London that same year however died less than a year later on 26th January 1815

[3] Proceedings of The Society of Antiquaries of London, vol 1, page 47. John Band appears to have inaccurately listed the date of Frances Grey’s death.  Frances died on 20th November 1559 and not 1563 as listed in these minutes. One interesting point is that John Brand also owned a portrait thought to depict Lady Jane Grey.  The portrait sold on his death at Stewards Auctions, Piccadilly on June 23rd 1807.  It was purchased by the book collector Richard Heber Esq for the sum of eight pounds.  No portrait described as Lady Jane Grey appears in the sales catalogues of Heber’s collection.

[4] The Life, Death and Actions of The Most Chaste, Learned and Religious Lady, The Lady Jane Grey, Printed by G. Eld for John Wright, 1615, page 22

[5] Electronic communication, Lucy Ellis, Museums Collections Manager, Society of Antiquaries, September 2018

[6] Franklin. J. A, Catalouge of Paintings in the Collection of The Society of Antiquaries of London, 2015, page 411-412

[7] Catalogue for the 1866 National Portrait Exhibition page 21.  Anne Askew was burnt as the stake as a heretic in 1546 for refusing to acknowledge that the sacrament was the ‘flesh, blood and bone of Christ’.

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