This painting on wooden panel, dated 1592, is one of the two earliest known paintings by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Its provenance suggests that the sitter may be a member of the Harington family of Kelston, near Bath. In her left hand she holds strings of pearls threaded into a shape of four knots. These resemble the 'Harington knots' that feature in the Hartington heraldic arms. The distinctive black-and-white pattern on her sleeves and bodice also echos the Harington arms.
The sitter's age and the date of the painting are written in the top left-hand corner: 'Aetatis suae 23 ¦ Ano 1592' - that is, 'aged 23 in the year 1592'. Although her date of birth is not known, the likeliest candidate is Mary Rogers (died 1634), wife of the poet and courtier Sir John Harington (1561-1612), a godson of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). In 1592, the date on this portrait, Queen Elizabeth visited the Haringtons' house at Kelston while on her summer progress to Bath and Oxford. Harington family papers show that Sir John spent a great deal of money preparing Kelston in advance. The present portrait may have been commissioned in connection with this visit.
Above the sitter's left hand is a Latin inscription 'Non faceam nec frangam' in an italic script that has been noted on other early works by Gheeraerts. It can be translated as 'I may neither make nor break'. This phrase's personal significance for Lady Harington is no longer clear, although it could refer to the Haringtons' Latin motto 'Nodo firmo' (meaning 'in a strong knot').
Mary's husband was the author of an important translation (1591) of the epic Italian poem Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). His other works include a celebrated satire, The Metamorphosis of Ajax, 1596, which contained the earliest design for a water closet, which Harington has been credited with inventing.
Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger was born in Bruges and was brought to England by his painter father, a religious exile from the Catholic Spanish Netherlands. By the early 1590s he was working for court patrons and his most celebrated painting is the immense 'Ditchley' portrait of Elizabeth I (National Portrait Gallery, London). He portrayed many of the most important Elizabethan court figures during the 1590s. He maintained his position, becoming the favoured artist of Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), wife of Elizabeth's successor James I, until about 1617, when he was superseded in fashion by new Netherlands-trained immigrant artists such as Paul van Somer (c.1576-1622) and Daniel Mytens (c.1590-1647). His last known works are from 1629-30.
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, Tate 1976, p.20-21
Karen Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1995, pp. 89-90, 176-80, 192-6