British School 17th or 18th century

Portrait of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury

Not on display

Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2286 × 1460 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the Art Fund and the Pilgrim Trust 1980

Display caption

George Talbot (1528?-1590) was one of the richest men of his time. Elizabeth I made him guardian of the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots and asked him to preside at Mary's execution in 1587.
This striking image seems to be either a later copy of a lost original portrait of the Earl, or perhaps an 18th-century pastiche based on a known head-and-shoulders portrait from 1580. The misunderstood depiction of the sword-hilt is one of various details that suggest this. Such pastiches are commonly found in country-house collections. They would have been commissioned to fill a gap in a display of ancestors or famous historical figures. This is a useful example of the way that later generations used portrait images.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘GEORGE/ER: OF SHREWSBWRY’ top left
Oil on canvas 90 × 57 1/2 (228.5 × 146)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid), with contributions from the Friends of the Tate Gallery and the Pilgrim Trust 1980
Prov: At Rufford by 1797; Rufford Abbey sale, Christie's 18 November 1938 (43), bt. Francis Howard; Loel Guinness, by whom lent to the Tate Gallery from 1953 until purchased 1980.
Exh: Fine Art Exhibition, Leeds 1868 (3273).
Lit: Musgrave's Lists, c. 1797, British Library Add. MSS 6391, f. 147; E. Hailstone, Portraits of Yorkshire Worthies, 1869, no pagination, reproduced.

The 6th Earl of Shrewsbury (1528?–1590), one of the wealthiest nobles of his time, held the office of Earl Marshal of England from 1572, and was Queen Elizabeth's appointed custodian of Mary, Queen of Scots, at whose execution in 1587 he was asked to preside. He is shown standing against a green curtain, wearing a short fur-lined cloak and the Garter insignia, holding gloves in his right hand and his left resting on a sword. The crude execution of this portrait suggests that it is either a late copy of a lost original, or even a complete fake, based on an authentic bust portrait of 1580, versions of which are at Hardwick Hall, Welbeck Abbey, and elsewhere. The latter is more likely in view of such faults of detail as the sword, where the pommel seems to have been copied from a sound original, but the rest of the hilt is fanciful and misaligned (information kindly supplied by the Master of the Armories, Tower of London, A.V.B. Norman). Such antiquarian pastiches were not unknown in the eighteenth century, being ordered to fill a gap in a series of historic personages or eminent ancestors. In this light the picture should not be seen so much as a fake, but as part of a trend that favoured historic revivals and as a fascinating example of contemporary taste and fashion.

Rufford Abbey, whence this portrait was sold in 1938, was granted to the sitter's grandfather, the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury, by Henry VIII in 1537. Although the estate was of little importance among the family's immense possessions, the sixth Earl did build a sizeable house around the ruins of the old abbey. Rufford passed by inheritance to the Savile family in 1626, and became its principal seat after 1680, when the house was rebuilt and a new long gallery added. The house underwent several alterations and extensions in the next two centuries, and any of these might have led to efforts to complete sets of historic ancestral portraits.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981

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