The subject of this unusually well preserved portrait, painted on wooden panel, remains unidentified. His hairstyle and his costume with its open double collar date from about 1605. The blackness of his attire, which includes the tall hat in his right hand, is relieved mainly by the bright colours of his finely embroidered sword-belt. A nineteenth-century label formerly on the back of the panel suggests that this work may once have hung in a building connected with the Wyndham family, at Clearwell in Gloucestershire.
The three-quarter-length image, with one hand on the hip and the other either hanging free or holding a glove or sword-hilt, had been the characteristic format for male portraits in Britain between about 1555 and 1590. This is a late example.
More is known about William Segar’s career as a herald than about his work as a painter, and few works by him can definitely be identified. In 1598, a contemporary (Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, London 1598, p.287) named two brothers, Francis and William Segar, as outstanding painters, but nothing is otherwise known about Francis’s career in this field. An inventory of the collection of John, 1st Lord Lumley (c.1534-1609), drawn up in 1590, refers to a portrait ‘of the second Earle of Essex [Robert] Devereux. Master of the Horse, done by Seigar’. This is presumed to allude to William. The Lumley portrait of Essex survives and is now in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Comparable in style, it can be used to attribute the Tate work to Segar because the subject’s facial features are handled in a similarly strong, linear manner.
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1566-1601) was the most favoured courtier of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) in her old age. He was the stepson of her principal lifelong favourite Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester who had died in 1588, and who is known also to have employed Segar. Thus Segar clearly worked for the most elite court patrons.
Segar became Garter King of Arms in 1607 and was knighted in 1617. He was not particularly scrupulous in compiling family pedigrees - a main function of the heralds - and was briefly gaoled in the Marshalsea Prison in London for selling heraldic arms to the public hangman (British Heraldry, British Museum exhibition catalogue, London, 1978, p.50).
Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1986, pp.55-6
On Segar, ‘The 1590 Lumley Inventory: Hilliard, Segar and the Earl of Essex’, Burlington Magazine, vol.99, 1957, pp.224-31, 299-303