George Gower

Sir Thomas Kytson


George Gower c.1540–1596
Oil paint on oak
Support: 527 × 400 mm
frame: 660 × 537 × 63 mm
Purchased 1952


Sir Thomas Kytson (1541–1603) was the son of a rich London merchant who
had amassed a fortune through trading in cloth with the Low Countries. This wealth had raised the family up the social scale, so that when Thomas inherited Hengrave Hall in Suffolk and other estates, he was able to live in considerable style. Music was an important part of life at Hengrave, where the Kytsons employed a permanent band of celebrated musicians, including the composer John Wilbye (?1573–1638).

In 1560 Kytson married, as his second wife, Elizabeth Cornwallis and the couple remained Catholics throughout the Protestant reign of Elizabeth I (between 1558 and 1603) even briefly suffering imprisonment for their faith. Nevertheless, the Queen was to honour the Kytsons by visiting Hengrave in 1578, when she knighted Sir Thomas.

A payment in Kytson’s surviving accounts for 1573 indicates that this portrait, and its companion image of Lady Kytson (Tate N06091) were painted in London by George Gower (Cambridge University Library, Hengrave Papers 82 (3); cited in John Gage, The History and Antiquities of Hengrave, London 1822, p.40). The Kytsons had a town house in Coleman Street, in the City of London.

These are the earliest extant works by Gower and, together with his Self-portrait of 1579 (private collection; see Dynasties, cat. no. 57), form a nucleus upon which further attributions to him have been based.

Nothing is known of Gower’s training but he was descended from a Yorkshire gentry family. In 1581 he was appointed Serjeant Painter to Queen Elizabeth, the premier royal post for an artist, but one whose duties generally involved the control of applied and decorative painting for the monarch. In 1584 a patent was drafted that would have granted Gower the monopoly of all painted and engraved portraits of the Queen (while allowing another painter, Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547–1619) the monopoly of her portraits in miniature) but it is not clear whether this was ever enacted. Nevertheless, Gower seems to have been one of the most fashionable portraitists of the 1570s and 1580s.

Sir Thomas’s portrait has been cut down at the sides but may originally have been the same size as that of his wife.

Further reading
E.K. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530-1790, revised edition, London and New Haven 1994, pp.34–5
Karen Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1995 pp.102–3,107–8, cat. nos. 53, 54, 57, reproduced p.102 in colour

Karen Hearn
February 2001

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Display caption

Gower, who was from a family of Yorkshire gentry, was an important portrait-painter in the 1570s and 1580s. In 1581 he became Serjeant-Painter to Elizabeth I, and supervised decorative painting in the royal palaces. Sir Thomas Kytson (1540–1603) of Hengrave, Suffolk, visited London with his second wife Elizabeth between March and June 1573. The family papers record a payment ‘to Gower of London, painter’ for pictures. Sir Thomas’s portrait, and that of his wife which hangs nearby, remained at Hengrave Hall until 1952. They were presumably originally the same size, but his picture was trimmed at a later date.

Gallery label, February 2016

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