- Oil paint on oak
- Support: 470 x 410 mm
frame: 750 x 628 x 100 mm
- Purchased 1897
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.
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.
John Bettes I active c.1531–1570
An Unknown Man in a Black Cap
Oil on panel
470 x 410 mm
Inscribed ‘[…]I. 1545.’ on the left; ‘ÆTATIS. SV […]’ on the right; on the back of the panel ‘faict par Johan Bettes / Anglois’ then repeated above ‘faict par Johan Bettes Anglois’ (‘made by John Bettes, Englishman’)
…; 2nd Earl Cornwallis, Brome Hall, Suffolk, by 1780; …; sale of collection of Thomas Green of Ipswich and Upper Wimpole Street, Christie’s 20 March 1874 (22 or 23); George Richmond by 1875; his sale, 1 May 1897 (13) as ‘Portrait of Edmund Butts’, bt Agnew for the National Gallery; transferred to Tate 1949
Royal Academy, 1875 (175, as ‘Portrait of a Man’); Royal Academy 1880 (158, under same title); Royal Academy 1950–1 (31); Tate Gallery 1969–70 (21); Dendrochronology, National Portrait Gallery 1977 (no catalogue); Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630, Tate 1995–6 (10); Holbein in England, Tate Britain, London, September 2006 – January 2007 (128)
William Musgrave, Add.MS 5726 E.I. fol 4, British Museum; Martin Davis, National Gallery Catalogue: British School, 1946, pp.9–11; Erna Auerbach, ‘Holbein’s Followers in England’, Burlington Magazine, vol.93, 1951, p.45; Roy Strong, The English Icon: Elizabethan & Jacobean Portraiture, London 1969, p.66, no.1; Ellis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain, 1530–1790, revised edition, New Haven and London 1978, pp.22–3; in Karen Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630, Tate Gallery, London 1995, no.10, pp.46–7; Rica Jones, ‘The Methods and Materials of Three Tudor Artists: Bettes, Hilliard and Ketel’ in Hearn 1995, pp.231–5; Richard Humphreys, Tate Britain Companion to British Art, London 2001, pp.17–18, 20.
This subtle portrait is of especial importance in the study of British art, as the artist’s name and nationality are recorded upon it. Signature or inscriptions identifying the artist are rare on British paintings of this period. It is painted on an oak panel originally composed of at least three boards of roughly equal widths, placed vertically and glued together with butt joints. At some time prior to 1897 it was cut down along the sides and bottom and now consists of the central board flanked by two strips, each about 7.5 cm wide. The central board is 24.5cm across and contains the full width of the head and hat. Assuming an original three-plank construction, the type most commonly found in this period, the painting would formerly have been about sixty-nine centimetres wide. A section containing inscriptions naming the artist was evidently retained when the painting was reduced in size. It is now affixed to the back of the panel. The inscriptions are both in ‘mixed hands’, that is, italic coupled with basic cursive. Such scripts were in use roughly between 1525 and 1575; France was more advanced in the introduction of italic.1 It is impossible to guess why the inscriptions are in French; Calais at this period was English territory. On the front of the painting, the shadows of duplicate inscriptions ‘ANNO DNI 1545’ on the left, and ‘XXVI’ on the right, can be seen above and below the present ones. The age given, twenty-six, seems consistent with the appearance of the sitter. A suggestion by Sir George Scharf that this may represent Edmund Butts was first published in the 1897 sale catalogue. This portrait is very close to the work of Hans Holbein II, who had died in London two years previously, although technical differences between this work and paintings by Holbein suggest that Bettes is unlikely to have trained under Holbein.2 William Musgrave recorded this painting at Brome Hall in 1780, where he was told it portrayed Henry VIII’s physician, William Butts (c.1485–1545). He transcribed the upper of the two French inscriptions, presumably still part of the main panel and prior to the cutting down. He also transcribed a coat of arms which he saw in some connection with this portrait: ‘Sable a Cheveron between 3 Mullets Or. A mullet for difference’. These are not the arms of Dr Butts – azure on a chevron between three etoiles or as many lozenges gules – but are close enough to suggest that poor light might have led to an error.
Butts and his wife had been portrayed by Holbein himself.3 Butts’s eldest son William was painted by John Bettes in c.1543, and the present sitter could be Butts’s third son, Edmund, a forebear of the Lords Cornwallis. Edmund was born after 1516, married by 1543 and died between 1549–50, and thus could have been twenty-six in 1545 (Old Style) – an important year for him, in which he inherited property from his father.4