John Bettes
A Man in a Black Cap 1545

Artwork details

John Bettes active 1531–1570
A Man in a Black Cap
Date 1545
Medium Oil paint on oak
Dimensions Support: 470 x 410 mm
frame: 750 x 628 x 100 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1897
On display at Tate Britain
Room: 1540


Currently the earliest work in the Tate collection, this subtle portrait is particularly significant in the study of British art, because the name of the artist is recorded on the back. Signatures or inscriptions that identify the artist are very rare on British paintings of this period.

Painted on oak panel, the work was cut down, at the sides and along the bottom, at some time prior to its acquisition by the National Gallery in 1897. It was transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1949. The section bearing the repeated French inscriptions 'faict par Johan Bettes Anglois' ('done by John Bettes, Englishman') was evidently retained when the panel was cut down, and affixed to the back. On the front of the painting, the shadows of duplicate inscriptions 'ANNO D[OMIN]I 1545' and 'XXVI' can be seen behind the present ones: '[…]1. 1545' and 'AETATIS . SV[..]'. Taken together, these indicate in translation that the work was painted in 'the year of our Lord'1545 and that the sitter was either aged 26 or in his 26th year.

The portrait bears resemblances to the work of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 or 9-1543), the great German artist who had redefined the public images of Henry VIII and his Court. Bettes may have worked with Holbein, but had first been recorded as carrying out decorative work for the Court as early as 1531-3. In 1546-7 he was paid for making portraits, possibly in miniature form, of Henry VIII and his last queen, Catherine Parr, works which do not survive.

The background of this picture, now ginger-brown in colour, was originally a deep blue - a hue often used by Holbein for his backgrounds. Bettes, however, used here a pigment called smalt, which is composed, broadly speaking, of ground glass, and tends to change colour irreversibly to brown or grey under the effect of light.

In the eighteenth century, this portrait was recorded in the collection at Brome Hall, Suffolk, which had descended from the family of Henry VIII's physician William Butts (c.1485-1545) - a gentleman who, with his wife, had been portrayed by Holbein himself. It has been suggested that the present sitter may be Butts's third son, Edmund, who was born after 1516 and who inherited property from his father in 1545, the year inscribed on this painting.

Further reading:

Karen Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1995, p.46, cat. no. 10, reproduced in colour
Rica Jones, 'The Methods and Materials of Three Tudor Artists: Bettes, Hilliard and Ketel', in Karen Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1995, pp.231-5.

Karen Hearn
October 2000