Robert Dudley (1532/3 – 1588), 1st Earl of Leicester

Circle of: Steven van der Meulen
circa 1493 – circa 1563

Robert Dudley (1532/3 – 1588), 1st Earl of Leicester

Oil on panel: 16 15/16 x 12 13/16 inches, 43 x 32.5 cm

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Provenance

  • Thellusson Family, Aldeburgh;
  • Frederika Charlotte Louisa Rooke (1861-1954); [1]
  • thence by descent, until 2014.
  • [1] Frederika Charlotte Louisa Rooke (1861-1954), née Thellusson, was the granddaughter of Frederick Vernon Wentworth (b.1795) of Wentworth Castle and Mortimer Rooke (1854-1942) of The Ivy, Chippenham.

This handsome and well-preserved panel portrait is painted on an intimate scale, a ‘cabinet’ portrait of sorts. It depicts Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite courtier and only serious suitor, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, around the time his eponymous Earldom was created. An influential politician and member of the Privy Council, Dudley sustained several controversial episodes in his life, many due to his proud and non-conformist nature. Here, he wears the badge of the Order of the Garter of St George, and as a ‘Master of the Horse’, (appointed in 1558), he proudly dons in his cap an ancient cameo of the Roman hero, Marcus Curtius, on horseback.

While Leicester's personal tastes were no more extravagant than some of his fellow noblemen, the Queen expected her ‘honorary consort’ to dress magnificently. Thus, when the earl celebrated the Feast of the Order of Saint Michael at Warwick in 1571, the onlookers were duly impressed:

‘And then came my said Lord the Earl of Leicester by himself, apparelled all in white, his shoes of velvet, his stocks of hose knit silk, his upper stocks of white velvet lined with cloth of silver, his doublet of silver, his jerkin white velvet drawn with silver, beautified with gold and precious stones, his girdle and scabbard white velvet, his robe white satin embroidered with gold a foot broad, very curiously, his cap black velvet with a white feather, his collar of gold beset with precious stones, and his garter about his leg of St. George's order, a sight worthy the beholding.’[1]

The attribution of this portrait type to Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen was first given by Sir Roy Strong in his ground-breaking study of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraiture, The English Icon, 1969 – however – that artist’s documented oeuvre is limited to two portraits from the Lumley collection.[2] Recent scholarship suggesting fellow northern artist Steven van Herwijck was one and the same artist is likewise impossible to sustain convincingly. We are grateful to Edward Town of the Yale Center for British Art for noting that nonetheless ‘the loose, confident and facile brush-work on your painting would have been beyond the capabilities of an English painter of this period’.

Our portrait is one of several versions deriving from a three-quarter-length portrait at Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection, and a three-quarter-length at the Yale Center for British Art. Whilst ours comes very close to these, there are subtle differences to the colour of the costume, the decorative detail in the collar, and to the chains holding the badge of the Order of the Garter (or Lesser George). The number of portraits which survive reflect Leicester’s political importance and his boundless preoccupation with the propagation of his own image.

 

[1] James Norris Brewer, ‘A topographical and historical description of the county of Warwick,’ London, 1820, p.280.

[2] Very little is documented about the artist Steven van der Meulen, though it is known that he was registered with Antwerp’s Guild of St Luke in 1552 and came to London in 1560. His life and oeuvre were tragically limited, for he is thought to have died from the plague before 1564. The discovery of van der Meulen’s will - dated 1563 - has raised questions about the misidentification of the ‘famous paynter Steven’ and ‘Master Staffan’ as van der Meulen.

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