Fig.1 ​​​​​​​?British School, 16thC Portrait of a Gentleman, probably of the West Family  1545-60             Oil paint on panel     1333 x 784 mm N04252

Fig.1?British School, 16thCPortrait of a Gentleman, probably of the West Family 1545-60            Oil paint on panel    1333 x 784 mmN04252

This painting is in oil paint on an oak panel measuring 1333 x 784 mm (fig.1). The panel is composed of three boards, placed vertically and glued together at butt joins (fig.2). The X-radiograph shows that the boards were kept in position until the glue dried with wooden dowels inserted into the inner edges (fig.3).

Dendrochronological examination revealed that the three boards are from the same tree that grew in the Baltic region.1 The youngest heartwood ring was formed in 1510 or 1511 and the probable earliest felling date is 1519, although from 1523 to 1529 is more plausible. The wood may have been used for painting between 1519 and 1546. On the back of the panel is an incised mark, thought to be a cargo mark made for the transit of the wood across the Baltic Sea to England (figs.4–5).

The ground is off-white and is made of marine chalk bound in glue and possibly casein, although the latter material may have been introduced as a consolidant later in the painting’s history.2 Identification of nano-fossils in the chalk revealed that it dates from the earliest Santonian-late Coniacian period.3 Deposits of chalk from this period are found around London and also in the North Downs, the Chilterns and Hertfordshire. They occur also in France, to the south and west of Calais. The ground is covered with white, oil bound priming (figs.6–7).

When viewed with low magnification and with infrared reflectography, the face and hands display bold, linear, freehand underdrawing (figs.8–10).

No underdrawing is detectable with infrared reflectography elsewhere in the painting, although a cross-section through one of the painted red slashes on the doublet revealed what may be a drawing line (figs.11–12).

The artist appears to have begun the painting with a thick coat of yellowish-brown underpaint in the area of the background, leaving reserve spaces for the figure (figs.8–9 and fig.13).

The inscription

The braid on the costume is also underpainted similarly; the main pigment in the brown underpaint is Cologne earth (fig.14).4 It is not clear what sort of preparatory lay-in was made for the black costume. The breeches were painted with mixtures of bone black, lead white, red lake and chalk, applied wet-in-wet.

The same cross-section as fig.13 in ultraviolet light

A different type of black (vine black perhaps) was used for the cape, and the paint was applied in small dabs to simulate the texture of the wool or fur (fig.15). The decorative details of the embroidered shirt were applied on top of the white paint of the shirt when it had dried (fig.16).

The red glaze paint on the slashes in the doublet are made from a red lake pigment made from the insect dye, cochineal (Dactylopius coccus Costa), struck onto a base of alumina; at this date the dyestuff would have been sourced from the New World.5 The red glaze was applied on top of silver leaf, which was laid onto a thick, yellow mordant (figs.11–12 and fig.17). The yellow braid contains lead-tin yellow (type I) and vermilion.6

Detail of the boy’s red coat

The most unusual feature in this painting is the technique used to paint the face (figs.18–22). The tones were applied in finely hatched lines. No specialist in European art of the sixteenth century could identify this technique as of the period or associate it with any known artist. It is possible that this is the work of a later hand (perhaps from the nineteenth century) making good a disastrous damage to the original, but without extensive (and undesirable) sampling of the face, this is impossible to prove.

The coat of arms on the ring is difficult to discern but this may be due to the fading of a red lake pigment in the lines that are now pale orange colour (fig.23).

Fig.23 Detail of the coat of arms on the ring

Fig.23Detail of the coat of arms on the ring