Catalogue entry

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’)
Purchased 1897

Ownership history
…; 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

Exhibition history
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

Karen Hearn
June 2009


1 Dr Michelle Brown in conversation with the author, 1995.
2 See Susan Foister’s catalogue entry in Holbein in England, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2006, p.116.
3 See Susan Foister, Holbein and England, New Haven and London 2004, pp.64–7.
4 Timothy Duke, Chester Herald, in conversation with the author, 1995.