attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts II

Portrait of an Unknown Lady


Not on display

Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts II 1561 or 2–1636
Oil paint on wood
Support: 927 × 760 × 10 mm
frame: 1052 × 882 × 85 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 2001


It is rare for sitters in sixteenth-century portraits to be depicted – as this lady is - smiling. On the contrary, they generally maintain a neutral expression representing unyielding dignity. A small number of Marcus Gheeraerts’s subjects, however, are shown with similarly cheerful expressions.

The most obvious feature of this portrait is that the lady is depicted in a late stage of pregnancy. It is unusual in Western art for women to be portrayed as unambiguously pregnant, even though records show that many spent much of their adult lives in that state. However, in England, from roughly the 1560s through to about 1630, this form of visual presentation seems to have been surprisingly common. These images have recently been termed (by the present author) ‘pregnancy portraits’. Gheeraerts may indeed have specialised in such works, for a number of other examples by him survive, including one of an Unknown Woman in Red, dated 1620 (Tate 03456).

While the present lady’s identity is unknown, her sumptuous dress, with a huge number of pearls sewn on to it, indicates that she is of high status. Monochrome fabrics, sometimes decorated with pearls, were the height of fashion for male and female courtiers during the 1590s. In addition, pearls were a widely recognised symbol of purity – and thus appropriate for a faithful wife. As the preacher Thomas Becon wrote, ‘as the woman’s duty is to be in subjection to her husband: so likewise she is bound by the commandment of God to be chaste, pure and honest ... that whosoever beholdeth her, may justly seem to look upon a perfect pearl of precious purity.’ (The Book of Matrimony, London, 1564, pp.673-4).

An inscription on the back of the wooden panel on which this is painted suggests that it was once owned by a Walter Waring, probably the gentleman of that name from Owlbury, in Shropshire, who was born in around 1726 and died in 1780, and who in 1769 inherited the estate of his cousin Thomas Waring of Groton in Suffolk. The sixteenth-century Warings were probably not grand enough to have commissioned such a portrait, so the work may subsequently have entered the family collection as the inherited property of a later bride. Its subsequent history is unknown, until it was recorded in 1934 in the collection of Mrs Walter A.G. Burns at North Mymms Park, Hertfordshire.

Marcus Gheeraerts II was born in Bruges and brought to England by his painter father, a religious exile from the Catholic Spanish Netherlands. By the early 1590s he was working for elite court patrons and his most celebrated painting is the large ‘Ditchley’ portrait of Elizabeth I (National Portrait Gallery, London). He became the favoured artist of Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), wife of Elizabeth’s successor, James I, until about 1617, when he was superseded by younger artists such as Daniel Mytens (c.1590-1647). His last known works date from 1629-30.

Further reading:
Karen Hearn, ‘A Fatal Fertility? Elizabethan and Jacobean Pregnancy Portraits’, Costume: The Journal of the Costume Society, no.34, 2000, pp.39-43.
Karen Hearn, Marcus Gheeraerts II: Elizabethan Artist, Tate, London 2002.

Karen Hearn
June 2003

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Display caption

The identity of this pregnant woman is not known, but her elaborate clothing suggests she was wealthy and upper class. The pearls on her outfit are symbols of ‘purity’. Huge importance was placed on monogamy for women in this period. This painting celebrates the sitter’s role in continuing her husband’s family line. She is smiling, which is unusual in portraits at this time. Gheerearts was a Flemish painter who worked at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

Gallery label, August 2019

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Technique and condition


The Xradiograph of the panel does not reveal a lot of information which cannot be discerned with the naked eye. The ochre coloured paint on the reverse must contain lead white as the presence of this paint pooled in the wood grain and gathered within tool marks and the weave of the reinforcing canvas strips dominates the Xray image. The panel has been constructed from three vertical planks of wood, likely to be oak. The grain of each runs vertically. Vertical tool markings of the type left by an adze are visible on the reverse of all three planks although they are fairly shallow. Several horizontal but diagonal marks may have been left by the saw which formed the planks from the tree. No signs of any dowels or butterfly keys are visible in the Xray so we may assume that the planks were originally joined by adhesive alone. The joins appear to be simple butt joints, the most common type. As the right join has been parted and material removed in the past we know that the present adhesive there is not original. However it seems possible that the canvas reinforcement was present originally and simply peeled back during the adaptation of the join and then replaced. Certainly some form of reinforcement on the reverse is likely to have been present originally or the joins would have been very weak. There is no evidence that the panel has been thinned overall although a few exposed old insect channels indicate that the bevelled edge of the reverse may be a more recent modification.

Priming and Paint Film

Thirteen paint samples and four media samples were taken from various areas of the painting in order to investigate the artist’s materials and technique. As well as establishing the general palette and the nature of the panel preparation, several specific questions were posed:
Did the artist use a different medium to execute the impasto than that he used for flat areas of paint?
Does the medium used for the black paint of the cloak contain a substance such as a resin which has promoted its accelerated degradation in comparison to the rest of the painting?
Does the grey imprimatura visible under the microscope extend over the whole panel including underneath the flesh areas?

The panel ground proved to be white in colour and very much thicker than the paint layers. Two pigments were identified in the ground layer of lead white and natural chalk. The medium was not tested. A thin pale grey imprimatura layer lies over the white panel preparation, covering the whole panel no reserve was left for the flesh or other areas. This imprimatura could be seen with a microscope revealed by small abrasions, during sampling and at the base of all the cross-sections. It contains three pigments, a white (probably lead white) a black and a red (this appears to be red lead as it is much more yellow in tone than the vermilion in the upper layers). This layer is equivalent to the coloured modifying priming recommended by Peacham in The Compleat Gentleman of 1622 (Talley, M.K., Portrait Painting in England: Studies in the Technical Literature Before 1700, Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, 1981, pp 66-67). Peacham favoured red lead to provide a warm base rather than the cold grey found in this case.

The cross-sections showed that the image was painted as a thin layer of about equal thickness to the imprimatura. Areas of colour such as the background, the cloak and the flesh seem to have been applied as a single layer. More complex areas such s the detail of the dress have been added over the base in both opaque and semi-transparent layers. Ground glass was identified in all the paint samples indicating that it was probably used as a drier by the artist. This was a common practice and glass is recommended for this purpose, along with smalt, in contemporary recipes (see Talley, M.K., Portrait Painting in England: Studies in the Technical Literature Before 1700, Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, 1981, pp 94 –102). Its transparency and colourlessness was cited as an advantage as it would not affect the colour of the paint. However it’s effectiveness as a drier is doubtful. Ground glass was found in this context in Gheeraerts’ Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee (Jones, R., Chapter 1 of Paint and Purpose – A Study of Technique in British Art, Tate, 1999).

Gheeraerts described the veins on the legs of Captain Thomas Lee by drawing them in black over the white ground and then laying the flesh paint over the top. The turbid medium effect ensures that the drawing viewed through a transparent pale layer appears as a cool blue tone. However in this portrait Gheeraerts has treated the veins in a different way, he has applied the blue tone over the flesh in this case. Blue pigment particles are clearly visible on the paint surface of the vein passages and also in the cool shadows around the lady’s eyes.

The pigments discovered in the samples are typical of the period. The grey dress paint is a mixture of lead white and a smoke black with small amounts of raw umber and red lead to impart warmth to the colour. The white lace has been described with pure lead white. The pearls have white, yellow and pale blue highlights, the yellow is yellow ochre with small amounts of vermilion to give a golden tone and the blue is smalt. The smalt is very transparent and not vividly blue so it is possible that it has faded. The black cloak paint is a mixture of a smoke black with a lesser amount of a brown pigment which is probably raw umber. An unknown material is also present in the black paint which may possibly be of plant origin. The brown background is a more complex mixture of charcoal black with lead white, raw umber, vermilion and red lead plus a pale pink lake pigment. This colour proved difficult to match during inpainting. The brown hair paint is a mixture of black with raw umber, lead white vermilion and yellow ochre. The flesh tone, sampled from damage between two fingers of the right hand, is a mixture of lead white with vermilion, raw umber and a small amount of black pigment.

Samples of media from impasto, flat paint and the black cloak were taken in May 2001. At the time of writing the results of DSC analysis have not returned. It is suspected that Gheeraerts may have achieved the stiffer consistency of paint required for impasto by using an emulsion medium such as oil and glue or oil and egg.

After cleaning, the quality of the hands and face, particularly the good quality of modelling, can be seen to be characteristic of Gheeraerts work. The painting was attributed to William Segar as an unsigned and undated example by Sir Roy Strong in 1969 (Strong, R., The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture, Paul Mellon Foundation, 1969, number 187). The identity of the sitter remains unknown although as she is clearly pregnant the painting belongs to an interesting group of pregnancy portraits (Hearn, K., A Fatal Fertility? Elizabethan and Jacobean Pregnancy Portraits, Costume, No.34, 2000, pp.39-43). The inscription on the reverse of the panel identified one Walter Waring as a previous owner of the painting for the first time. No inventories of his collection have so far been found although a surprising possible connection has recently come to light with a portrait by Hogarth, one of a pair recently acquired by the Tate. The girl in the portrait married a Walter Waring when older and this Walter Waring had an estate in Suffolk. However as no inventories for his collection have come to light the link remains unproved and the identity of the sitter a mystery.

Helen Brett
August 2001


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