Unknown artist, Britain

A Young Lady Aged 21, Possibly Helena Snakenborg, Later Marchioness of Northampton


Unknown artist, Britain
Oil paint on oak
Support: 629 × 483 mm
frame: 720 × 570 × 65 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1961


This portrait on wooden panel, of a finely dressed young lady, is dated 1569 in an inscription, upper right. A second inscription, upper left, indicates that she is either aged 21 or in her 21st year. The history of this picture prior to the twentieth century is unknown.

Above her left ear, the sitter has a fresh carnation, often used in portraits as a symbol of betrothal. Behind it, in her soft brown hair, is a sprig of oak leaves - the oak symbolising constancy. She wears two gold chains, a costly pendant in the form of a female figure holding a table-cut blue stone and, over her heart, another pendant or brooch in the form of five enamelled oak-leaves studded with pearls or clear stones, looped through a purple ribbon. Her sleeves are embroidered with red roses, and pinned to her cap are jewels in the shape of white roses. These are the two elements that make up the red-and-white Tudor rose, the symbol of the royal house of Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) and thus here presumably an elegant sign of loyalty to the Queen.

In 1979, a Swedish literary historian, the late Dr Gunnar Sjogren, proposed that the sitter might be the Swedish-born Helena Snakenborg (1549-1635) who visited London in 1565 as a young maid of honour to the Swedish Princess Cecilia. There she attracted the attention of the elderly William Parr, Marquess of Northampton (1513-71), a brother of the deceased Henry VIII's final queen, Catherine Parr (1512-48).

Elizabeth I encouraged Helena to remain in England. She was to become one of the Queen's closest friends and was to serve her for 37 years, until Elizabeth's death in 1603. Sjogren, noting that in 1569 Helena was in her 21st year, argued that the sitter's central pendant (rather out of fashion by 1569) alluded to the Parr family crest of a maiden's head, and could have been the Marquess's personal gift to her, from the era of his youth, during his six-year engagement to Helena. She was married to Northampton in 1571, only six weeks before his death, and secondly, in 1576, to Thomas Gorges, a Groom of the Privy Chamber.

The identity of the artist is not known, but this painting shares some characteristics of handling with one of Anne Russell, Countess of Warwick (Woburn Abbey) and other portraits dating from around 1567-69 (see Roy Strong, The English Icon, London and New York 1969, pp.107-14). This unidentified painter is sometimes called 'The Master of the Countess of Warwick'. Common elements include the soft treatment of the hair, the thinly outlined lips that meet in a straight horizontal line, and the minute attention given to the details of costume and jewellery.

Further reading:
Tate Gallery Report, 1960-61, pp.16-17
Gunnar Sjogren, 'Portrait of a young lady, 1569; an identification', Burlington Magazine, October 1980, pp.698-700

Karen Hearn
May 2001

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Display caption

A number of portraits from the 1560s seem to be by the painter of this work, whose identity is unknown. Characteristic features include the angle at which the face is presented and the soft treatment of the hair. The sitter may be Elizabeth I’s maid of honour, Helena Snakenborg, who became a powerful figure at court. In 1565 she had visited England with the Swedish princess Cecilia, remaining there as the fiancée of the elderly Marquis of Northampton, whom she was to marry in 1571. The carnation behind her ear may be a symbol of her betrothal.

Gallery label, February 2016

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