An early label on the back of the oak panel on which this is painted identifies the sitter as Sir Henry Unton, who was born in around 1557 at Wychwood in Oxfordshire. His mother, Lady Anne Seymour, was the daughter of the Duke of Somerset (1507-52), powerful Lord Protector of England under the young Edward VI (reigned 1547-53). After studying at Oxford University and at the Middle Temple in London, Unton travelled to France and Italy and, in 1580 married Dorothy, daughter of Sir Thomas Wroughton of Broad Hinton, Wilts. In 1582, Henry's reprobate elder brother was briefly imprisoned in Milan by the Inquisition and the negotiations for his release led Henry to enter the field of diplomacy.
In 1586 - the date inscribed on this portrait, top left - Unton joined the military campaign of the Earl of Leicester (c.1532-88) in the Netherlands. He distinguished himself at the capture of the town of Axel on the estuary of the river Scheldt, at the siege and surrender of Doesburg in September and finally, early in October, at the battle of Zutphen where the aristocratic soldier-poet Sir Philip Sidney (1544-86) died. Unton's heroism at Zutphen was rewarded with a knighthood, conferred on him by Leicester immediately after the battle. He returned to England, with a letter from the Earl recommending him as an 'honest and rare gentleman'. It is likely that Unton commissioned this portrait to celebrate these personal triumphs. Another version, slightly larger and bearing the Unton heraldic arms, is at Arundel Castle in Sussex and shows him to waist length, grasping the hilt of a rapier shown in the lower right-hand corner.
In 1591, Unton was appointed English ambassador to the French court, which involved him in the military campaign of the 2nd Earl of Essex (1566-1601). In 1593 he became Member of Parliament for Berkshire, but in 1595 he was once again appointed ambassador to France, where he died on 23 March 1596. His body was carried back to England and buried in Faringdon church, where his devoted widow raised an elaborate monument to him (which was largely destroyed in 1645, during the English Civil Wars of 1642-8). She also commissioned from an unidentified artist a remarkable narrative painting that shows in sequence the principal events of Unton's life. It is now in the National Portrait Gallery and has been the subject of two published studies, listed below.
The identity of the painter of the Tate portrait is not known, although the handling of Unton's features and costume is reminiscent of the few identified works of the Antwerp artist Hieronimo Custodis, who was active in England from c.1587 and dead by 1593, and about whom little is known.
Roy C. Strong, 'Sir Henry Unton and his Portrait: An Elizabethan Memorial Picture and its History', Archaeologia, vol. 99, 1962, pp.53-76
Angela Cox, Sir Henry Unton Elizabethan Gentleman, Cambridge 1982