Gilbert Soest c.1600–1681
Portrait of a Lady as a Shepherdess
Oil on canvas
1213 x 997 mm
Lent by the National Portrait Gallery, London 1958
Probably in the collection of F.J. Hay; sold Christie’s, 24 May 1878 (134; as ‘Lady Salisbury by Lely’); Martin Colnaghi; Henry Graves; from whom bought by Trustees of National Portrait Gallery, 1880.
Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II, National Portrait Gallery, London, and Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2001–2, no.100.
C.H. Collins Baker, ‘The Portrait of Jane Middleton in the National Portrait Gallery’, Burlington Magazine, vol.17, 1910, pp.355–61; C.H. Collins Baker, Lely and the Stuart Portrait Painters, vol.1, London 1912, pp.201–2; David Piper, Catalogue of Seventeenth-Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery 1625–1714, Cambridge 1963, pp.234–5; Aileen Ribeiro, The Female Face, London 1987, pp.14–15; Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 2001, no.100, pp.210–11 (entry by Julia Marciari Alexander).
The sitter is depicted at three-quarter-length, seated in a hilly landscape under a cloudy evening sky, with a sheep at her knees. In her left hand is a pole with a curved metal end. This implement, known as a ‘spud’, was used by shepherds to control their sheep. During the 1660s and especially the 1670s, it became a fashion for ladies, particularly those of the court – including King Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza (1638–1705) – to be portrayed in the role of a shepherdess.1 This explains the outdoor setting, the sheep and the spud. The illusion of pastoral simplicity is enhanced by the pink rose in the sitter’s smooth, blonde hair and by the absence of jewellery, except for the tiny gold loops in her ear and a jewelled armlet in imitation antique style. Nevertheless, her apparently simple gown is made of expensive cream, or ‘oyster-coloured’, satin.2 Soest has painted its considerable expanse in what was effectively his trademark manner: it shimmers icily, with a metallic gleam, and almost takes on a life of its own. Also characteristic of Soest is the rich, puffy handling of the sitter’s flesh.
The identity of the sitter is not known. The work was briefly said to be a portrait of Arabella Churchill, a mistress of the Duke of York, subsequently King James II. When the National Portrait Gallery acquired it in 1880, the subject was re-identified as Jane Needham, Mrs Myddelton (1645–1692), mistress of Charles II, of his brother the Duke of York and of other court figures. Because of the tilt of the sitter’s head, however, it is not easy to see her features, and it has also been suggested that it may be intended primarily as an early ‘fancy picture’, or genre painting.3
The features – or what can be seen of them – do not closely resemble those in other established portraits of ‘the Middleton’, as the Comte de Grammont called her, who was ‘handsomely made, all white and golden, [and] had in her manners and in her way of speech something that was extremely pretentious and affected. The airs of insolent languor, which she assumed, were not to everybody’s taste; the sentiments of delicacy and refinement, which she tried to express without understanding what they meant, put her hearers to sleep’.4
Tradition has it that Soest was personally awkward with ladies, which made him unwilling to paint them and meant that his male portraits were generally more successful.5