We are grateful to Sir Roy Strong for inspecting the painting at first hand in The Weiss Gallery, October 2018.
This picture can be traced back through its provenance to Sir Gregory Osborne Page-Turner (1785 – 1848), 4th Bt., of Battlesden Park, Bedfordshire. Sir Gregory’s family were relatively newly wealthy in the 18th century, and it is unlikely that the sitter of this portrait would have been his ancestor. It probably came into his family with the Battlesden estate when it was acquired by his great-uncle, Sir Gregory Page, in 1724. The manor at Battlesden was built by William Duncombe (d. 1603) in the middle of the sixteenth century. William had three sons by Ellen Saunders, of whom the eldest was Sir Edward Duncombe (c.1567 – 1638). Assuming the present painting came with Battlesden Park, it would portray a Duncombe of the next generation, presumably Sir Edward’s son. Described in the Peerage as a ‘very eminent family’, with close ties to the Dukes of Bedfordshire, Edward married Elizabeth Osbourne (b.c.1575) and had thirteen children. However, the male Duncombe line at Battlesden was ‘extinct’ by the next generation, according to ‘The Peerage of England; A Supplement to the Four Volumes of the Peerage of England’, A. Collins, 1735, and little to no information can be found on his offspring.
Samuel Christy MP (1810 – 1889), Britwell Court, Buckinghamshire;
presumably by descent to
Wakefield Christie-Miller (d.1898); thus by family descent until
Britwell Court sale, Sotheby’s, December 1919;
Christie’s, London, 22 March 1974, lot 144 (as ‘Robert Peak’, £5,460);
Possibly Countess of Sutherland (she consigned lot 103 in below sale);
‘Property of a lady’, Christie’s, London, 27 June 1980, lot 104 (as ‘R. Peake’, illus., £7,500);
Private collection, USA.
 Label, verso: ‘A Boy, full length portrait, in white doublet and crimson trunk hose [and] white ruff, holding a bow and arrow; a dog at each side, standing in a garden; a mill at the right in the background. On panel. Venetian school. Height, 45in.; width, 33in. from Bernal collection, March 13th, 1855, lot 909.’ The painting hung in the Armoury when owned by Bernal, according to the introduction by J.R. Planché in Christie’s 1855 catalogue: ‘…Mr. Bernal could be tempted by nothing that was inferior. Even his Pictures, though avowedly not selected for their value as paintings, but for their illustration of costume, have probably, taken as a whole, more merit in them than any similar collection in Europe…’
Christie’s 1980 catalogue says that ‘Rudd’ bought it for 14 ½ gns. In 1855. Perhaps bought on behalf of Christie-Miller.
The familial aspirations for this young boy are clear from the portrait’s iconography. Close comparison can be made to a portrait by William Peake of Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford as a young boy, (which Strong dated to circa 1600 in ‘The English Icon’). Assuming the sitter in our portrait is indeed a member of the Duncombe family of Battlesden in Bedfordshire, he would undoubtedly have been a neighbour and more than likely a friend of the young Francis Russell. That both Bedfordshire families chose Peake as their artist of choice, must be more than coincidental.
In both portraits, the boys wear the short breeches fashionable in the late 1590s, before the longer, puffier style seen in Peake’s later portraits of the young Henry Prince of Wales and his friend John, 2nd Lord Harington of Exton, 1603 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and of Henry with his friend Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, c. 1605 (Royal Collection). Our sitter and Francis Russell, are both presented with two loyal hounds, painted in a very similar style. But while Francis holds a hawk, and stands in an interior, our young boy is in a capriccio landscape in the Flemish style, and is holding a bow and arrow – similar to Peake’s portraits of the young Prince of Wales and friends. These sporting pursuits were undoubtedly included as markers of the boys’ courtly and chivalric attributes.
A small hunting scene with figures on horseback and two white harts can be seen in the background of our portrait, along with a hunting lodge. A classical nude statue, presumably Diana the Huntress, or Venus, can also be seen in the left background – it is a setting fit for a young aristocrat. The symbolism continues with a magpie in the tree on the left, and a robin in the tree on the right. In Renaissance Christian iconography, magpies were clearly associated with disease and consumption, and therefore with death, while the robin represented the martyrdom of Christ. The robin’s red chest was associated with the blood of Christ and the robin was thought to have been moved by compassion for the suffering of Jesus, pecking away and removing his crown of thorns.
This symbolism offers a compelling hypothesis for our sitter, and the possibility that he did not survive to adulthood. The tree stump in the foreground, which bears the date 1596, raises the question of whether the portrait is in fact posthumous, with 1596 being the year of the sitter’s death; the felled tree, ‘cut’ untimely, and the young boy, captured forever in an Arcadian setting with his loyal dogs. It perhaps also helps explain the demise of the male Duncombe line.
Robert Peake is today one of the best known of the artists working in England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, and he had a substantive Studio working under him. He had a relatively long and successful career as a portraitist following in the tradition of Nicholas Hilliard; first to the minor nobility and landed gentry of late Elizabethan England before becoming, after the accession of James I in 1603, a member of the royal household as principal ‘Picturemaker’ to the young heir to the throne Charles’s elder brother, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales. In 1607, around the date of our portrait, he was appointed Serjeant-Painter to James I, a position he held jointly with John de Critz.
By 1598, when he was recorded in Francis Mere's Palladis Tamia, he was regarded as one of the most important painters then practicing in England,and upon the accession of James I in 1603, he was commissioned to paint portraits of the two elder Royal children. The resulting paintings, ‘Henry, Prince of Wales and his friend Sir John Harington of Exton after the hunt’, (Metropolitan Museum, New York),and its companion, that of ‘Princess Elizabeth, later Queen of Bohemia’, (The Queen’s House, Greenwich), were, with their inter-related landscape settings, two of the most ambitious and original images yet seen in British royal portraiture. In 1607, Peake was jointly appointed with John de Critz as Serjeant Painter to James I. His last known dated work is from 1616 and he died in 1619.
 We are grateful to Sir Roy for inspecting the painting at first hand in The Weiss Gallery, October 2018.
 Strong, The English Icon, p. 241, no. 213, illus.
 Indeed for this reason, Breughel placed magpies on top of gallows.
 There are monuments to the family in Battlesden Church.