The definitive status symbol for Elizabethans and Jacobeans of influence was the portrait. Likenesses featuring rich robes, plus the paraphernalia of piety or dashing pursuits, painted a thousand words about the sitter’s wealth and status. And contemporary high flyers, charmed by these decorative compositions, are discovering the power of the early English portrait.
“It’s amazing that they survive, and you can stand in front of something 450 years old. The presence of history in them is remarkable,” says Roy Kent, a dealer in vintage and classic racing cars. Kent has amassed around a dozen portraits, and displays them in Felmingham Hall, his north Norfolk Elizabethan manor house (available to hire). Highlights include a full-length painting of Lady Philippa Coningsby in mourning, complete with ropes of pearls and a jewel-encrusted gown, by Robert Peake the Elder, c1605. Kent explains the appeal of such artworks: “It’s not just about the characterisation of the sitter’s features, it’s about their social rank and the fashion of the day.”
Likenesses of the late-16th and early-17th centuries are flat and stylised, utterly unlike the post-Renaissance illusionist paintings we are used to calling portraits, but their visual impact is immense and stirs fervent rivalry among buyers. Leading dealer Mark Weiss, whose clients include museums and European royal collections, hedge funders and historians, says that private collectors vie with public galleries to acquire his early portraits.
Of Peake the Elder (1551-1619), he says: “He was relatively prolific, and he had quite a long life, so there are still paintings turning up.” But only, it seems, at the rate of a handful each decade. In July, an auction of the Cowdray Park collection at Christie’s will feature Peake’s portrait of William Pope, first Earl of Downe, with an estimate of £1m-£1.5m.
Court artists who cause a stir include George Gower (1540-1596), John de Critz, who shared the post of Serjeant Painter in James I’s court with Peake, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636) and William Larkin (1580s-1619). Larkin is prized for extreme rarity – only just over 40 of his portraits have been identified – and his dizzying decorative exuberance. Paintings such as those in the Suffolk Collection at Kenwood House feature virtuoso depictions of lace and embroidery, artfully draped velvet and brocade. A three-quarter-length Larkin portrait, thought to be of Lady Thornhagh, fetched £505,250 when it was auctioned at Christie’s in 2008.
Ornamental extravagance may be what entices eminent designers to collect. Jasper Conran is a devotee of Tudor portraits, and designer and hotelier Anouska Hempel has been fascinated since childhood: “I’ve always been interested in these very flat paintings with the pale faces peering out of those extraordinary costumes. Going to see a few grand colonial houses in the Australian bush with my parents, at the age of 10 or 11, I remember I loved the eccentric creatures with fantastic collars and cuffs and tiny little boots. Those white faces reminded me of Aboriginal masks.”
Her collection includes artists such as Gheeraerts the Younger, but she tends to be engaged by composition rather than famous names. Her favourite is a full-length portrait, dated c1630, of a seven-year-old girl “in an organza bonnet, a dress with a yellow-and-white horizontal stripe and tiny black shoes with a yellow bow, holding a basket of lindenberries.”
Early portraits don’t need a celebrity sitter or famous artist to have wow factor. Weiss’s stock includes one very rare example, dated 1638, by an unknown provincial painter, of Sir Hardolph Wasteneys. Wasteneys stands with his tutor in Sherwood Forest, surrounded by evidence of his sporting pastimes: a racing horse, a hunter and assorted weapons. This unusual, covetable canvas is priced at £395,000.
However, if you collect in the spirit of a big-game hunter, the one to bag is Queen Elizabeth I. The prime example is the earliest full-length of Elizabeth I, known as the Hampden Portrait, painted by Steven van der Meulen in 1563. “This is the über-important one, the very best of the best,” says writer, broadcaster and specialist in British portraiture Philip Mould, who bought the painting at Sotheby’s in 2007 for just over £2.5m and sold it to a private collector who has loaned it to Hampton Court Palace. “Today, that is a £10m picture,” he says.
But collectors don’t need to shell out eight figures. Mould is offering a small panel painting of Thomas, fourth Duke of Norfolk, with his coat of arms and motto, for £18,500. The image is composed on wood and Mould says: “You don’t just get an image, you have a piece of noble oak. People love that.” Why? “Dendrochronology.” The felling date of the timber can be calculated within 10 years by studying the rings of the tree. “It’s deeply comforting to collectors,” he says. “And that reassurance is appreciated, because the field is full of misidentifications and fakes.”
But there’s also buried treasure, he adds: “Because so many were overpainted in the 18th century and the sitters have gone unrecognised since, there’s a real feeling of fresh things coming to the surface all the time, hatching like damsel flies from their casings of old paint and dirt.”