A label on the back of this painting, probably from the nineteenth-century, names the sitters as 'Mrs Dalison & her son Thomas Dalison. She was the wife of Thomas Dalison Esq of West Peckham Kent - and daughter of Sir Thomas Style 2nd Baronet of Wateringbury. Her Christian name was Susannah'.
However, the lady in this portrait wears a dress fashionable in the late 1650s, and neither Susan (as she was more commonly known) Style, nor her husband Thomas Dalison were born until around 1658; their son Thomas was not born until 1684. If this portrait does, nevertheless, relate to the Dalison family, the sitters must be of the previous generation. In this case, the lady could be Frances (1635-84), only daughter and heiress of Thomas Stanley of West Peckham, and the wife of Maximilian Dalison (1632-71); this couple's son Maximilian was born in 1655, and could be the boy depicted here. He died in 1665.
Infrared photography reveals that areas of this painting have undergone significant changes. At the right-hand side, the lady was originally accompanied by a large stringed instrument called a theorbo. In the sky above her, putti once circled - one grasping a wreath of leaves - while bombarding her with roses. It is not certain when the theorbo and putti were painted over, but the latter at least seem still to have been visible in 1929, when a sale catalogue description of the painting referred to 'cupids'. Whether they were overpainted due to early twentieth century prudery, or to conceal an area of damage to the painting, top-right, is unclear. Their present absence considerably alters both the visual balance and the meaning of the composition, which can be seen as a celebration of love and faithfulness within marriage, presumably commissioned by the sitter's husband.
Mythologising portraits of this kind were more commonly found on the Continent than in Britain. The figure to the left is a figure from Roman mythology, either a satyr or the god Pan, identifiable by his horns and goat's legs and by the pipes in his left hand. Presumably symbolic of the sin of Lust, he is here a rather humorous figure being kept in his place both by the classically attired little boy who holds a bow and arrow and probably represents Cupid, and by the small dog, a symbol of faithfulness. Pan is also being resolutely ignored by the lady herself, in the role of the goddess Venus, who leans against a rock entwined with the ivy that symbolises marital happiness.
Surviving works by John Hayls or Hales are extremely rare, and as he did not sign his paintings his style has had to be established by comparison with a handful of documented portraits. The one most comparable with the present picture is the double portrait of Lady Anne and Lady Diana Russell, c.1658 (Woburn Abbey). Common elements of handling confirm the attribution of the Tate work to Hayls.
The theme of a female sitter with a young male relative attired as Cupid was introduced to English art by the Flemish-born Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1643). Hayls was said to have been active as a copyist of van Dyck's works (see Buckeridge). Little is known about Hayls, from whom, between 1666 and 1668, the diarist Samuel Pepys (1638-1708) commissioned a number of portraits, of which only his own image survives (National Portrait Gallery). He described the progress of these in his Diary. Although sometimes described as a rival to Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) Hayls seems to have attracted rather less exalted clients.
B. Buckeridge, The Art of Painting, London, 1706, pp.382-3
Karen Hearn, 'Rewriting History on the Walls', Country Life, 22 May 1997, p.54, reproduced in colour