Unknown artist, Britain

Portrait of a Lady, Called Elizabeth, Lady Tanfield


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Unknown artist, Britain
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2212 × 1370 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the Art Fund and the Pilgrim Trust 1980

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As with many portraits of the period, the identity of both sitter and artist is uncertain. The sitter is now thought to be Elizabeth Tanfield (1585/6–1639). Tanfield would have been about 30 years old when this was painted. She was an English poet, playwright, translator, and historian. Tanfield is the first woman known to have written and published a play in English. A number of unusual features of the painting, including the flowers in the woman’s hair, the peach tree, and the lifting of her shawl as if to shield the sun, all suggest that the portrait had a personal meaning that is now lost.

Gallery label, December 2019

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Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘1615’ on masonry ledge near sitter's left elbow
Oil on canvas, 87 1/2 × 53 3/4 (221.2 × 136.5)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid), with contributions from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the National Art-Collections Fund and the Pilgrim Trust 1980
Prov: Recorded in the possession of Lord Litchfield at Ditchley by Vertue in 1726; by descent to Viscount Dillon; his sale Sotheby's 24 May 1933 (85, repr.), bt. Francis Howard; Loel Guinness, by whom lent to the Tate Gallery from 1953 until purchased 1980.
Exh: Art Treasures, Manchester, 1857 (21); National Portrait Exhibition, South Kensington, 1868 (669) as ‘A Lady of the Time of Queen Elizabeth’; Old Masters, R.A. 1902 (161) as ‘Lady Tanfield’; period display, Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1966 (no catalogue).
Lit: Horace Walpole, Andecdotes of Painting in England, 1782, iii, p.6; Vct. Dillon, Catalogue of Paintings in the possession of the Rt. Honble. Vct. Dillon at Ditchley, Spelsbury, Oxfordshire, 1908, p.39, cat. no.66, pl. XLI; C.H. Collins Baker, Lely and the Stuart Portrait Painters, 1912, i, p.28, repr. (as by Van Somer); L. Cust, ‘Gheeraerts’, in Walpole Society, III, 1913–14, p.43, pl.XXX (b) (as by Gheeraedts); C. H. Collins Baker and W. G. Constable, English Painting of the 16th and 17th Centuries, 1930, p.14, pl.36; ‘Vertue Notebooks II’, in Walpole Society, XX, 1931–2, pp.14, 76; Ditchley Catalogue (shortened edition) 1933, p.25, cat. 76; Eric Mercer, English Art 1553–1625, 1962, pp.180, 184, pl.57a; The Tate Gallery 1978–80, p.27, repr. in col.

The lady wears a deep-cut green dress embroidered with silver and trimmed with yellow lace, a dark red cloak, also embroidered with silver, draped over her left shoulder, and a transparent scarf, known as an Irish mantle, which she lifts with her right as if to shield herself from the sun. Her hair falls loosely over her shoulders and she wears a wreath of heart's-ease or pansies. She stands in a landscape between an architectural feature on the right and a peach tree on the left. The rich apparel, allegorical setting and her shorter than usual skirt indicates that she is a lady of the court, dressed for a masque performance, a form of entertainment to which Queen Anne was known to have been addicted. The allegory remains obscure, but there are close parallels between this picture and another anonymous full-length of a lady shielding herself from the sun at the Bristol Art Gallery (R. Strong, The Elizabethan Icon, 1969, p.31, repr. p.33). Both pictures belong to the same period and appear to be by the same hand.

The identification of the sitter as Lady Tanfield is fairly recent and does not seem to pre-date the R.A. exhibition of 1902. The suggestion is that this could represent Elizabeth Tanfield (1585 or 6–1639), a grand-niece of Sir Henry Lee. She married in 1602 Henry Cary, later Lord Falkland, also a relative by marriage of the Lees, and the kinship on both sides would seem sufficient reason for there to be a portrait of her at Ditchley, the seat of the Lee family. She was a noted linguist at an early age, and would have been around 30 when this portrait was painted. There is, however, no documentary evidence to substantiate this identification. When Vertue saw the picture at Ditchley in about 1726 (Notebooks II, p.14) he described it as ‘8. Lady with yellow lace about her neck and ruffles a gauze scarfe’ and thought that it represented one of ‘Lady Manchester's sisters’. He was thinking here of Elinor Wortley (d. 1667), wife of the Sir Henry Lee who inherited Ditchley in 1611, and who in 1659 married, as her fourth husband, Edward Montague, Earl of Manchester. T03033 probably represents her sister Anne, and she is known to have had two other sisters. In 1730 Vertue again saw some of the Ditchley portraits ‘here in Town to Clean’ (Notebooks, II, p.76) and described this portrait once more, this time noting the date: ‘8. Lady at length yellow lace ruff, gauze vail. good action well painted-dated 1615 ... I guesse to be of the hand of Paul Vansomer’. It is interesting to note that the three pictures he describes as ‘Lady Manchester's sisters’ - ‘Lady Morton’ (T03033), this picture, and ‘A Lady Widow in black’ for which he also notes the date 1615 (this last was reproduced in Cust, 1913–14, pl.XXIX (b) and later sold in the Ditchley sale as ‘Elinor Wortley, Lady Lee, later Lady Manchester’, and no date was noted on it) - are all of about the same date and looked sufficiently alike to Vertue for him to ascribe them as a group to Van Somer. From then on the date on this painting went unnoticed until the picture was cleaned in 1964; this led to it being regarded for a time as an Elizabethan rather than a Jacobean painting and to its attribution to Gheeraedts. At present it is not possible to attribute the painting to either of the artists mentioned.

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


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