Henry Howard (1628-84) was the grandson of Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel (1585-1646) who had been the foremost collector and patron of the arts in Britain - apart from Charles I himself (reigned 1625-49) - in the years up to the outbreak of the Civil War. The War forced the principal members of the Catholic Howard family to go into exile on the Continent. Arundel himself died in Padua in 1646 and Henry spent his formative years in the Low Countries and in Italy, returning to England following the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660. He inherited those parts of his grandfather's great collection that had not been dispersed in the interim.
At Henry's instigation the title of Duke of Norfolk, which had been in abeyance for almost a century, was restored to his elder brother Thomas in December 1660. Thomas was insane and lived under care in Italy and, on his death in 1677, Henry succeeded to the dukedom.
Henry had already been elevated to the peerage as Baron Howard of Castle Rising in Norfolk in March 1669. He seems to have been greatly interested in his own image and commissioned portraits of himself from many of the leading painters of the day. These included Adrian Hanneman (1604-71) in 1660, Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) in 1677 (both works are now at Arundel Castle) and John Michael Wright (1617-94) in c.1660 (four versions survive, see John Michael Wright: The King's Painter, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh 1982, no.15, p.70).
The Tate portrait was formerly dated to c.1669 as Howard was thought to be shown wearing the short-lived fashion known as the 'Persian vest'. This had been introduced by Charles II (reigned 1660-85) as an anti-French gesture in October 1666, and fell rapidly out of favour following the signing of the Secret Treaty of Dover with the French king Louis XIV in May 1670. However, Howard's features seem closer in age - and, it must be said, in degree of bloatedness - to Lely's 1677 image of him and, in fact, his attire would be consistent with a date in the 1670s.
The ships to the right, flying the English flag of St George, must allude to Howard's unusually widespread travels. In 1664-5, he had journeyed on a special embassy to the Turkish Emperor in Constantinople; an account of this was published by John Burbury as A Relation of a Journey of the Rt. Hon. Henry Howard from London to Vienna and thence to Constantinople in 1671. In 1669 Howard was appointed Ambassador-Extraordinary from Charles II to the Emperor of Morocco. He spent almost a year in Tangier; again this was written up, anonymously, as Letter from a Gentleman of the Lord Ambassador Howard's Retinue, 1670. In fact, Howard's embassy was completely unsuccessful and, owing to his over-cautiousness, he failed ever to meet the Emperor in person.
Howard was a leading member of the newly founded Royal Society which promoted the practical study of the arts and sciences. He gave away much of his grandfather's collection. Many of the fragments of antique sculpture went, for instance, to the University of Oxford (now in the Ashmolean Museum). Following the death of his first wife, Lady Anne Somerset in 1662 he was said to have fallen into dissipation and depression, which was increasingly to overwhelm him. On finally inheriting the dukedom in December 1677, he made public his marriage to his mistress Jane Bickerton, whom he had earlier described as 'an idle Creature & common' (John Evelyn, cited in The Swagger Portrait, Tate exhibition catalogue, 1992, p.88).
Soest is thought to have been born in Westphalia and it is not clear when he arrived in London, although he had already made a name for himself by 1658, when William Sanderson referred to him in his book Graphice. His male portraits are more numerous and more successful than his female ones, and his uncompromising delineation of facial features - including, here, a hairy growth on the left side of Howard's chin - could not have been considered flattering.
John Martin Robinson, The Dukes of Norfolk, Chichester 1995, pp.121-32
Oliver Millar, 'Gerard Soest', in Jane Shoaf Turner (ed.), The Dictionary of Art, London and New York 1996, vol. 29, p.7