British School

Portrait of a Gentleman, probably of the West Family

1545–60

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on oak
Dimensions
Support: 1330 x 785 mm
frame: 1533 x 988 x 86 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented in memory of R.S. Holford and Sir George Holford by nine members of their family 1927
Reference
N04252

Summary

The history of this puzzling work cannot be traced prior to its appearance in 1868 in the third Exhibition of National Portraits at the South Kensington Museum (cat. no. 629) where it was identified as a portrait of ‘William West, 1st Lord Delawarr’ by Hans Holbein (1497/8-1543) owned by R.S. Holford M.P. The attribution to the German-born Holbein, who died in England in 1543, cannot be sustained, and it is not even clear whether it was carried out by an artist working in England. Dendrochronological analysis by Dr Peter Klein of the three-board oak panel on which it is painted indicates that it was created at some date after 1527. Preliminary technical analysis indicates that the pigments used are ones that were available during the sixteenth century.

The sitter’s square-on posture, facing directly out at the viewer, is reminiscent of that used by Hans Holbein for the figure of Henry VIII in the great ‘Whitehall Mural’ of 1537 (destroyed in 1698; small-scale copy of 1667 reproduced in K. Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1995, cat. no.5, p.40). The finely decorated rapier hilt grasped in the sitter’s left hand was the height of fashion between 1540 and 1560. He wears a soft black hat with a narrow brim, decorated with small gold ornaments and with a down-turned plain white feather, a heavy black mid-thigh-length cloak with gold trimming, a white shirt embroidered with gold and black thread in a floral pattern, a black jerkin with vertical slashes that reveal his red doublet beneath, and black hose with a prominent black codpiece. This attire was in vogue in the period around the 1550s.

On his left index finger, the sitter wears a ring with a shield-shaped motif associated with the West family. It is described in heraldic terminology as ‘argent a fess dancetty sable’, that is, a black wavy-edged horizontal band across a white background. Above this motif are the faintly painted letters ‘H P’, the significance of which is unclear. These arms presumably led to the nineteenth-century identification of the sitter as William West, born c.1519, the nephew of the 9th Lord De La Warre, whom he tried to poison in order to gain his title and estates. Detected in this, William was disbarred from all honours in February 1550. In 1563, however, he was pardoned and in 1570 was himself created Baron De La Warr (sic); he died in 1595. It has not proved possible to confirm that this colourful character is indeed the sitter, but technical investigation of this work, which is currently being conserved, continues.

Further reading:

Martin Davies, National Gallery Catalogue: British School, London 1946, pp.81-2
On William West: Dictionary of National Biography, London 1908, vol. 20, pp.1254-5

Karen Hearn
December 2001

Display caption

The identity of the sitter is uncertain, but is traditionally thought to be William West (born in 1519), later Baron De La Warr and nephew of the 9th Lord De La Warre, whom he tried to poison to gain the family estates. The ring he wears bears a heraldic motif associated with the West family. Analysis of the oak panel and the pigments used, along with the style of clothes and design of the sword hilt, dates the work to around 1550. The full-frontal pose shows the influence of the portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein, painted in the 1530s.

Gallery label, October 2013

Tate Paper

Tate’s Painting of a Man in Tudor Costume: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait or a Nineteenth-Century Pastiche?

Comprising technical and art historical analyses, this paper investigates the subject, date and status of a three-quarter-length portrait on a ...