Marcus Gheeraerts II

Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee


Marcus Gheeraerts II 1561 or 2–1636
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2305 × 1508 mm
frame: 2415 × 1595 × 100 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the Art Fund and the Pilgrim Trust 1980

Display caption

Thomas was related to Sir Henry Lee, Elizabeth I's Champion and creator of imagery for her annual Accession Day celebrations. Henry may have helped devise the complex symbolism of this portrait. Thomas served in the English colonial forces in Ireland. His bare legs are a fantasy evocation both of the dress of an Irish soldier, and that of a Roman hero. Thomas was suspected of treachery to Elizabeth and visited London in 1594 partly to refute this. The Latin inscription in the tree refers to the Roman Mucius Scaevola, who stayed true to Rome even when among its enemies. Lee implies that he too is faithful.

Gallery label, May 2011

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Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘Ætatis suae 43/Ano D° 1594’, upper right centre, above lake, and ‘Facere et pati Fortia’ upper left, above arm. Also ‘St Henry Lee of Ireland’ bottom left, in later script
Oil on canvas, 90 3/4 × 59 5/16 (230.5 × 151), considerably enlarged on all sides with strips 2 1/2–8 1/4 (6–21) wide at some later date
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid), with contributions from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the National Art-Collections Fund and the Pilgrim Trust 1980
Prov: Presumably painted for Sir Henry Lee and always in the Lee-Dillon collections; first recorded at Ditchley by Vertue in 1725; Dillon sale, Sotheby's 24 May 1933 (46, repr.), bt. Francis Howard; Loel Guinness, by whom lent to the Tate Gallery from 1953 until purchased 1980.
Exh: National Portrait Exhibition, South Kensington 1868 (631) as ‘Sir Henry Lee’; British Art, R.A., 1934 (23,; The Age of Shakespeare, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, 1958 (73); Between Renaissance and Baroque, Manchester, 1965 (114); period display, Metropolitan Museum, New York 1966 (no catalogue); The Elizabethan Image, Tate Gallery, 1969–70 (155, repr.).
Lit: Vct. Dillon, Catalogue of Paintings ... at Ditchley, Spelsbury, Oxfordshire, 1908, p.23 (31), repr. pl. XVI; Dictionary of National Biography, 1909 (on Thomas Lee); L. Cust ‘Marcus Gheerarts’ in Walpole Society, III, 1914, p. 35, repr. pl.XII (b); Vertue Notebooks, I, in Walpole Society, XVIII, 1930, p.115; C.H. Collins Baker and W.G. Constable, English Painting in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1930, p.44, pl. 35A; Catalogue of Ditchley (shorter version), 1933, no. 30; Note on Dillon sale, Apollo, XVII, June 1933, p.292, repr.; E.K. Chambers, Sir Henry Lee, 1936, pp.31, 185–203, 218, 230–1, repr. pl.IV; Eric Mercer, English Art 1553–1625, 1962, pp.165 and 118; Roy Strong, ‘Elizabethan Painting: an approach through inscriptions: Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’ in Burlington Magazine, CV, 1963, p.149ff., repr. fig.17; Roy Strong, The English Icon, 1969, p.279, repr. no. 267, and reprint of above article pp. 350–1; B.d. Breffny (ed.), The Irish World, 1977, p.105, repr. in col.; The Tate Gallery 1978–80, p.24, repr. in col.

Thomas Lee (1552 or 3-1601) was the son of Benedict Lee of Bigging and Margaret, daughter of Sir Robert Pakington, and was thus a relative (their fathers were half-brothers) of the influential courtier Sir Henry Lee, KG, the Queen's Champion of the Tilt, from whose family collection at Ditchley this portrait comes. Thomas served in Ireland, already under the first Earl of Essex, in the ruthless campaign to colonise Ulster, captaining a troop of twenty-four horsemen, being alternatively commended by his superiors for good service and bravery, or cautioned and punished for disorderly behaviour and banditry. Reports describe him as a man of ‘rash speech and other unadvisedness’ and possessed of ‘both good merits and evil infirmities’. He had been familiar from childhood with Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, and when the latter became titular native chief of Ulster in 1593, clearly heading for rebellion against the Crown, Lee was employed, as he was on later occasions, as a preliminary agent to arrange parleys between Tyrone and the official commissioners. As a result an open breach was avoided until 1595, when Tyrone was proclaimed a traitor. Lee's uneven military career ended with his involvement in the disastrous campaign of his patron the 2nd Earl of Essex in Ireland in 1599. At its conclusion the Earl took Lee back with him to England, telling him to lie low with Sir Henry Lee until the troubles blew over. Although by all accounts Sir Henry found his cousin a great trial, he was loyal to him, took him to the court, supported his innumerable petitions to Lord Burghley, and stood security for him on the occasions when Thomas was placed under restraint. However, after his near-manic behaviour during Essex's attempted coup in February 1601, Thomas was beyond saving: first he appears to have made an offer to Lord Burghley to assassinate Essex, but after the Earl's arrest he declared his devotion to him and suggested to some influential nobles at court that they should kidnap the Queen in order to force her to release Essex. He was immediately arrested at Whitehall, tried for high treason and executed at Tyburn on 17th February.

Thomas was in England for the greater part of 1594, which is when this portrait must have been painted. It is a highly political picture. Although Lee's gentlemanly status is demonstrated by the lace and exquisite embroidery on his rolled-up shirt, by the finely inlaid snap-haunce pistol and ‘Spanish’-type helmet, probably of North Italian make (A.V.B. Norman, Master of the Armories of the Tower of London, kindly helped to identify the above; see also B.E. Sargeaunt in The Times, 8 October 1934), he is dressed as an Irish kerne, or common foot-soldier-in Elizabethan terms the poorest of the poor-who had to travel lightly armed and bare-legged through the bogs. (That this was standard practice is shown by the bare-legged outfit of the Hybernus Miles by J.J. Boissard in Habitus Variarum orbis gentium, Antwerp, 1581. Apart from this one detail, however, the costume bears no resemblance to that worn by Lee.) Its use here could be an embittered reference to the more than one occasion when his troop of horsemen was temporarily disbanded, notably in 1583 for marauding in Kilkenny. More probably, it could be a visual underscoring of the views expressed in his Brief Declaration of the Government in Ireland, written for Queen Elizabeth during the months he spent in England in 1594 and which he presented to her that November. In it he deplores the deprivations suffered by royal officers in Ireland (he is known to have complained that he would die the poorest man that ever served Her Majesty), and urges the Crown to establish good relations with Tyrone and the northern lords.

The landscape in which Lee stands presumably represents Ireland, open bog-land to the left, and a wood behind him where a small group of armed men just visible above a stretch of open water may be a reference to his part in a campaign the previous year when his commanders, including the apparently still-loyal Earl of Tyrone, commended him for his bravery in entering the deep ford of Golune during an action.

Bearing in mind the punning wit of the Elizabethans, it may be worth noting that Thomas stands in the lee of an oak, which could refer both to the protection of his eminent relative Sir Henry, in whose house and under whose instructions the portrait is likely to have been painted (although the Earl of Essex also had a reputation as a good deviser of allegorical programmes), as well as to its more general meaning as a symbol of reliability and constancy (Fide et Constantia was Sir Henry's motto), or even to its notorious quality of attracting lightning. The aspen or linden tree on the sitter's right is also likely to have similar connotations.

The quotation from Livy in the tree beside him (Hist. II, 12; D. Spillan's translation of 1866 is used here) shows that Lee meant his portrait to be both a monument and an apologia. ‘Both to act and to suffer with fortitude is a Roman's part’ were the words uttered by Caius Mucius Scaevola when captured in the enemy camp of the Etrurians who were besieging Rome, having penetrated into it in disguise and made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the rebel leader Porsena. At his trial, to show his disdain for personal suffering, he thrust his right hand into the sacrificial fire - a convenient reminder of the fact that a short while before Lee had sustained great personal loss through a disastrous fire caused, he maintained, by enemy arson. Previously to this, not only does Mucius explain his intentions to the Senate in order to avoid being taken for a deserter should he be apprehended by Roman soldiers while wearing Etrurian disguise (because of his contacts with certain Irish chiefs Lee's loyalty had been repeatedly in doubt), but parts of Mucius' speech sound like an attempt to repel accusations of cattle rustling and raids into neighbouring territories which had been levelled at Lee: Mucius wants to ‘enter the enemy's camp... not as a plunderer or as an avenger in our turn of their devastations. A greater deed is in my mind...’. Impressed by Mucius' fortitude, Porsena concludes a peace treaty with the Romans which is nobly adhered to by both sides - exactly what Lee hoped his talks with Tyrone would achieve. Last but not least, Mucius is rewarded by the Senate with a grant of land ‘on the far side of the Tiber’ - precisely what Lee had been petitioning the Government to do for himself in Ireland.

The picture fits well into the oeuvre ascribed to Gheeraedts both on the grounds of style and the characteristic lettering which has come to be known as a ‘Gheeraedts script’, and as such can be considered as one of his masterpieces. Sir Henry must have been one of the artist's earliest patrons, as the Ditchley collection had several portraits which can be ascribed to him, including the famous full-length of Queen Elizabeth standing on a map of England (National Portrait Gallery), a full-length of Sir Henry in Garter robes (the City of London Hall of Armourers and Brasiers), and a full-length of the 2nd Earl of Essex in Garter robes (National Portrait Gallery). In its technique and design, particularly in the placing of the figure in a naturalistic but politically relevant landscape, Lee's portrait is in harmony with that of the 2nd Earl of Essex standing on a seashore with the burning of Cadiz in the background, painted c.1596, the best version of which is at Woburn.

The portrait was first recorded at Ditchley by Vertue who in 1725 noted there a portrait of ‘Lee in Highlanders Habit leggs naked a target & head peice on his left hand his right a spear or pike. Ætatis suae.43.ano.Dni 1594’.

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


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