University of Bristol students reveal true identity of Elizabethan portrait

Probably Sir Robert Dudley (1574-1649), formerly known as Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613) by an unknown artist  Image by © National Portrait Gallery, LondonThe subject of a sixteenth-century portrait of a young man, that belongs to the National Portrait Gallery, has been identified as Sir Robert Dudley, the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite courtier, the Earl of Leicester, by students at the University of Bristol.

The discovery was made while the History of Art students were working on a display of paintings of mystery figures which opened this week at the National Trust’s Montacute House.

Previously thought to depict the poet Sir Thomas Overbury, who appears to have been killed in 1613, the research by student Pippa Stephenson into the facial likeness and the past history of the painting indicates it is more likely to represent Dudley.

In the nineteenth century the portrait was part of a large collection of paintings at Ditchley in Oxfordshire. The house had been part of the estate of Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), Elizabeth I’s champion and godfather to Robert Dudley. It is possible that either Lee commissioned the portrait or that Dudley presented it to Lee and that it remained at Ditchley thereafter.

In 1591 Dudley took part in his first ceremonial tilting tournament and also married Margaret Cavendish (d.1595). These events may well have been a reason to commission the portrait. The panel painting has been cut down on three sides and was originally larger (perhaps showing both head and torso or even a full length portrait).

The picture is on display at Montacute House, near Yeovil, as part of the Imagined Lives: Mystery Portraits 1520-1640 exhibition which runs from 17 March 2010 to October 2011.

The display features 13 portraits whose sitters are unknown or uncertain. The new research undertaken by the Bristol students, working with Dr Tatiana String and supervised by the Gallery’s 16th Century Curator Dr Tarnya Cooper, has meant that these paintings can now be brought back into full view with a clearer understanding of their past.

Source: University of Bristol

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