The Berry-Hill Portrait:
An Update, November 2021
|(Click on image to enlarge in new window)
Portrait of an Unknown Lady, likely Queen EIizabeth I
by Engish School (16th Century)
Oil on wood panel
1.59 in. x 9 in.
from a Private Collection in Scarsdale, New York
At the time of the publication of A Queen of a New Invention: Portraits of Lady Jane Grey Dudley, England's Nine Days Queen, a number of portraits were included in the book even though their current whereabouts were unknown and the paintings were considered “lost.” It was hoped that inclusion might lead to re-discovery by alerting readers to their status in a form of art historical “crowd-sourcing.” The effort proved at least partially successful in that it led directly to the re-discovery of one of those lost portraits, the Berry-Hill Portrait.
Several readers spotted the painting on a blog and on a separate Twitter account, both called The Auction Augur, on the weekend of 13-14 November 2021 and immediately informed me of the find. The portrait was to be offered at auction on 21 November 2021 by Butterscotch Auctioneers and Appraisers of Bedford Village, New York. The painting had been brought to Butterscotch by what were apparently the descendants of whomever purchased the painting from Berry Hill Galleries in about 1961. And it came with a stereotypical Antiques Roadshow-style story: "Granny said it depicted Mary, Queen of Scots and that it was very valuable, but we do not really believe her and we do not want it." Butterscotch took the consignors at their word and initially catalogued the painting as "Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots by Anglo-Dutch School." They dated the painting to the 17th century and gave a pre-sale auction estimate of $5000 - $10,000. Had Auction Augur not spotted the painting in advance of the sale, it might well have quietly sold "as is" and disappeared for another 60 years!
I contacted the auction house that Monday, introduced myself and my background, and offered my thoughts on the painting. After a couple of days of trading emails with the in-house appraiser at Butterscotch, I sent them the assessment included below. The online catalogue description was immediately changed to correlate with my assessment, though it overstated my conclusion. Thanks to Auction Augur, a "buzz" had developed throughout the art sale community that a potential "sleeper" painting was on offer, and my written assessment became an inclusion with the sale.
Lot 209: Portrait of an Unknown Lady, English School, 16th Century
Having examined the high-resolution digital images of Lot 209, my previously published conclusion that it is the prototype of a larger group of portraits is reinforced. With any group of paintings or portraits that appear to be copied from each other or from a single reference image, whichever work displays the highest degree of artistic technique and ability should be considered the prototype since copies seldom display significant improvement over the original. Lot 209 exhibits a significantly higher degree of artistic skill than do the others in the group and is much more refined in overall visual appeal. When comparison is made between elements common to both Lot 209 and the Chawton portrait (below), for example, the hands and gloves appear more nearly three-dimensional in Lot 209 (see enlargement), whereas those in the Chawton portrait are decidedly flat and two-dimensional. Even the leather of the gloves in Lot 209 appears to display a naturalistic grain pattern that is absent from the Chawton portrait. The individual hairs in the fur trim of the collar follow the dictates of gravity in Lot 209 and appear to have been meticulously demarcated with individual fine brush strokes, while those in the Chawton stand conspicuously upright throughout in defiance of gravity and appear to have been applied in swaths using a single larger brush or other instrument. And while the fur in Lot 209 is almost entirely white or grey-white, some areas of darkening are present in the fur in the Chawton Portrait, as if to indicate ermine, an iconographic symbol denoting highest status. The rendering of the sitter’s hair in Lot 209 is similarly meticulously executed and exhibits a realistic three-dimensional quality as it overlays and partially obscures the brim of the headgear, whereas the hair in the Chawton Portrait is rendered in a somewhat mechanical manner.
The Chawton Portait
Called Queen Elizabeth I
Lot 209 again exhibits superior artistic and technical skill when compared with the Soule Portrait (below). Indeed, the Soule Portrait and the Chawton Portrait appear more closely related to each other than either are to Lot 209. Like the Chawton (and unlike Lot 209), the sitter in the Soule Portrait has blue eyes, and the sitter’s hair and the fur of her collar are all but identical to the corresponding elements in the Chawton Portrait. Even the ruff in the Soule is larger in size and more like that of the Chawton than the ruff in Lot 209. The sitter in the Soule does wear a strand of pearls or beads similar to the pearls worn by the sitter in Lot 209, but the rendering in the Soule lacks the optically-accurate highlighting and resulting three-dimensionality seen in Lot 209. It should also be noted that the white fur at the shoulders in Lot 209 appears to have been transposed left to right in the Soule Portrait, perhaps through reversal of a paper pattern. Lastly, the hands, notorious among artists for the skill required to render them with appropriate realism, are eliminated in the Soule portrait, relieving the artist of that burden.
The Soule Portait
Called Queen Elizabeth I
Lot 209, the Chawton portrait, and the Soule portrait are thus each the product of a different hand, yet the overall composition and, particularly, the near-identical appearance of the facial features suggest a close relationship between the three works. At issue is whether they are the product of multiple artists – a master and his apprentices – working in a single studio or whether they are instead the product of different studios using a common pattern. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood panel substrate of each might prove useful in this regard. Similar studies of other early panel paintings have established that works depicting entirely different subjects have come from the same artist or studio based on a finding that the separate panels came from a single common tree.
The identification of the sitter depicted in Lot 209 has yet to be fully resolved, but a review of the identification history for the others in the group is perhaps useful. The Chawton portrait acquired its identification as a portrait of Elizabeth I in about 1909, though it did so on a very questionable basis. Previously, the sitter was apparently unidentified. The sitter in the Soule portrait was similarly unidentified until the twentieth century. Leger Galleries of London labeled it as a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in 1954, possibly after comparing it to the Chawton portrait. Once again, the sitter had previously been unidentified, though the work was attributed for much of the portrait’s documented history to the French artist François Clouet. In contrast, the sitter in Lot 209 was identified as Lady Jane Grey as early as 1907, making it the first in the group to be identified with a specifically English sitter. That identification was disputed in 1956 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art de-accessioned the portrait. Shortly thereafter, Sir Roy Strong, former director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, published an image of Lot 209 under the cautiously ambivalent identification, “Princess Elizabeth: perhaps Lady Jane Grey.” As late as 1987, Strong still considered the identification of Lot 209 as an early portrait of Elizabeth I to be only a mere possibility, and he characterized the work of the entire group as “mechanical workshop productions.”
In other words, none of the sitters in the Berry-Hill group of portraits, including Lot 209, have ever been reliably identified. And the issue of identification is complicated by a distinctive difference seen across the group. The eyes of the sitter in Lot 209 appear to be brown, while those of the sitters in the Chawton and Soule portraits are blue. If, as above, the sitter in every portrait in the group is to be identified as Queen Elizabeth I, the issue of variation in eye color must be resolved. Elizabeth Tudor’s eyes are generally thought to have been brown, like those of the sitter in Lot 209. And they do appear brown in most, but not all, of her authentic portraits, beginning with the portrait of her as princess in c.1544 and now in the Royal Collection.
[Though the following observation was not included in the report sent to Butterscotch Auctioneers, note the double ruffs seen below in both portraits of Katherine, as well as gold embellishment in the V&A miniature portrait (left) that is virtually identical to that seen in the Berry-Hill Portrait. See Note 7 below for additional details regarding eye color in portraits of Katherine Grey Seymour.]
Katherine Grey Seymour (detail)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Katherine Grey Seymour (detail)
Belvoir Castle, UK
Elizabeth Tudor as Princess, c.1546;
Royal Collection, UK
Despite the variation in eye color seen within the Berry-Hill group, the greatest probability is that the sitter depicted in Lot 209 is Elizabeth I as she appeared late in the reign of her sister Mary or early in her own reign, before she asserted control over her own iconography in about 1563. Only one other young female English historical figure of the 1550s and 1560s was sufficiently socially or politically prominent to merit multiple portraits: Katherine Grey Seymour. Under the terms of the Act for the Succession of 1544, the two surviving daughters of Frances Brandon Grey were the next heirs to the throne if both Mary and Elizabeth remained childless. Thus, for much of the period between Mary’s accession in the summer of 1553 and her own death in captivity 1568 – a period of 15 years - Katherine Grey, as the eldest of the surviving Grey sisters, was never more than a heartbeat or two from the throne. Her strong claim to the throne inspired a small following of political supporters that included numerous members of the Privy Council and Parliament, though Katherine herself is not known to have actively sought her cousin’s throne. And Katherine’s followers would likely have desired a portrait of her. Thus, the possibility that the sitter depicted in Lot 209 could be Katherine Grey Seymour cannot be ignored and should not be excluded until the issue of eye color in Lot 209 is resolved.
In the many years since any of the paintings in the Berry-Hill Group have changed hands, the emergence of scientifically based technical methodologies such as microscopic analysis of the pigments used and dendrochronological analysis of the wood panel substrates have supplemented and advanced the work of art historians. And application of those analytical techniques could potentially do much to resolve the questions that remain with Lot 209. Microscopic analysis of the pigment used in the eyes of Lot 209, for example, could determine what pigment source was used and whether that pigment has degraded and changed from blue to brown over the centuries. If the eyes in Lot 209 were originally blue, as seen in the Chawton and Soule portrait, but have changed color owing to pigment degradation, then the sitter should more probably be identified as Katherine Grey Seymour. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood panel substrate could potentially reveal a narrow likely timeframe during which Lot 209 was created, and it might even reveal a studio-based relationship between two or more members of the group. Removal of the heavy layer of wax on the reverse of the wood panel might uncover identifying marks, inscriptions, or other labels that would contribute to identifying the sitter. And lastly, a thorough cleaning and proper restoration would brighten the colors and could potentially expose additional detail presently obscured by the old and yellowed varnish.