?British School Portrait of a Gentleman, probably of the West Family 1545–60

Artwork details

Title
Portrait of a Gentleman, probably of the West Family
Date 1545–60
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
On display at Tate Britain
Room: 1540

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

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