Catalogue entry

Robert Peake c.1551–1619

Lady Elizabeth Pope
Oil on panel
775 x 610 mm
Purchased 1955

Ownership history
Presumably Sir William Pope, Wroxton Abbey, Oxfordshire until 1624, then by descent to Thomas Pope, 4th Earl of Downe who died unmarried in May 1668; presumably then passed with Wroxton Abbey to the North family, at the marriage of Frances Pope (1647–1699) to Francis North, and by descent to 11th Baron North (died 1932); E.H. Tipping of Oxford, Wroxton Abbey sale, 22–29 May 1933 (671, sold 24 May); presumably bought by Mr Francis Howard; sold Christie’s, 25 November 1955 (70).

Tate Gallery Report, 1955–6, p.16; Roy Strong, The English Icon, London 1969, no.232; Mary Edmond, ‘Limners and Picturemakers’, Walpole Society, vol.47, 1978–80, pp.129–31; Aileen Ribeiro, The Female Face, London 1987, pp.10–11; Ellen Chirelstein, ‘Lady Elizabeth Pope: The Heraldic Body’, in Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn (eds.), Renaissance Bodies, London 1990, pp.36–59; Richard Humphreys, Tate Britain Companion to British Art, London 2001, reproduced on front cover.

This painting came from the same family collection at Wroxton Abbey, Oxfordshire, as the portrait of the sitter’s unmarried sister-in-law Anne Pope, dated 1615 (Tate T00068). This collection was dispersed in 1933. Both works are by the same hand, which has been identified as that of Robert Peake, by comparison with such documented works as the 1613 full-length image of the future Charles I as Duke of York (University of Cambridge).1

When acquired, this work bore a later inscription, bottom left, which was subsequently removed in cleaning in 1971: ‘Eliz: wife of Sr. Wm. Pope | Sole Heir of Sr . Tho: Watson | of Halstead in Kent’. The following was also painted on the reverse, in an early hand, ‘The Lady Pope. | wife. to Sr. | Willim. | Pope’.

Elizabeth Watson, an heiress, married Sir William Pope of Wroxton (1596–1624) on 13 December 1615, and it is thought that her portrait may have been painted in connection with this event. She is depicted beneath a laurel tree, with a landscape beyond, and wears a classical mantle of black fabric embroidered with pearls in an ostrich-feather pattern; this pattern is repeated on her hat, which is trimmed with a real purple feather. She has a pearl choker, strings of pearls round her right wrist and a coral bangle round her left. Her chest is bared, with a heavy diamond necklace laid across it, and her left breast is almost exposed. Her long hair hangs down, loose except for a single braid above her arm. This was a contemporary symbol of virginity and brides sometimes wore their hair down thus – one high-profile example being Princess Elizabeth (1596–1662) the future ‘Winter Queen’, at her marriage on St Valentine’s Day (14 February) in London in 1613.2

Near-exposure of the breasts seems to have been fashionable at the Jacobean court, although it was presumably restricted to within the confines of an elite coterie. The sitter’s attire has affinities with some of Inigo Jones’s (1573–1652) costume designs for masques – elaborate and costly court entertainments which combined spoken text, music, and dance, performed in fantastical costumes within elaborate painted sets. These were rich in classical imagery and the sitter’s mantle is probably intended to be seen as classical in inspiration.

It has been suggested that the ostrich-feather imagery indicates that Lady Elizabeth is here presented as the personification of the continent of America.3 Her wealthy father, Sir Thomas Watson, had invested in the settlement of Virginia. Feathers do, however, occur in many and varied contexts in Jacobean art, often with no evident connection with America. Elizabeth bore Sir William three sons and after his death in 1624 married Sir Thomas Peneystone of Leigh in Sussex. The dates of her own birth and death are not recorded.

Karen Hearn
May 2006


1 See Karen Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1995, pp.185–9.
2 See Robert Rait, Five Stuart Princesses, London 1902, p.75.
3 Ellen Chirelstein, ‘Lady Elizabeth Pope: The Heraldic Body’, in Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn (eds.), Renaissance Bodies, London 1990, pp.41–3.