Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset (1590 - 1676)

William Larkin
after 1580 – 1619

Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset (1590 - 1676)

Painted 1618

Oil on Panel: 23 x 17 3/8 inches, 57.5 x 43.5 cm



  • with The Weiss Gallery; sold to
  • The National Portrait Gallery, 2013.


  • Anne Clifford, The Memoir of 1603 and Diary of 1616 – 1619, ed. Katherine O. Acheson, Toronto 2007, p. 155.
  • Katherine O. Acheson, The Diary of Anne Clifford, 1616-1619, A Critical Edition, 1995, pp. 97-98.
  • R. Strong, William Larkin, Icons of Splendour, Milan 1995, p. 120.
  • R. Strong, The English Icon: Elizabethan & Jacobean Portraiture, London 1969, pp. 313 & 329.
  • James Lees-Milne, ‘Two Portraits at Charlecote Park by William Larkin’, The Burlington, 1952, vol. 94, p.356.

The rediscovery of this arresting portrait of Anne Clifford, documented by the sitter in 1619, but until now thought lost, is a significant addition to the small number of autograph works by William Larkin, and moreover to the iconography of Clifford herself. Renowned today as a diarist and early feminist, the embattled heiress helped set a precendent whereby a woman could hope to inherit family estates that previously only ever went to male heirs.

In her diary for the period 1616 – 1619, Anne Clifford omitted the entire year of 1618. She had been pregnant in 1617, giving birth in 1618 to a baby that did not survive, which may explain the lack of a diary for that year: she was in mourning. Indeed, in our portrait, painted by William Larkin in the summer of 1618, she wears black mourning strings, which hang prominently at her neck and left ear. It was not until January 1619 that she began to record her quotidian life again, mentioning how she sent the portrait as a gift to her cousin:

‘The first of this month I began to have the curtain drawn in my chamber and to see the light… The 16th… I sent my cousin Hall of Gilford [sic.] a letter and my picture with it which Larkin drew at Knole this summer.’

The drawing of the curtains in her chamber to ‘see the light’ can be regarded as a metaphor for her emergence from that mourning, and possibly, from an associated depression. That she chose to send Larkin’s portrait from that time with a letter to Margaret Hall of Gretford, her mother’s first cousin, is notable, for she may have specifically wished to share her sad news with a kinswoman close to her mother, Margaret Russell, youngest daughter to the Earl of Bedford, to whom she herself had been so close, but who had died not long before in 1616.

Anne Clifford commissioned the portrait when she was twenty-eight, and nearly ten years into her marriage to Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset. Her choice of Larkin as the fashionable artist of the day was significant, and furthermore he had painted her husband at least twice in 1613 (The Suffolk Collection, English Heritage, and The Lord Sackville, Knole, Kent).

The prime version of our portrait has descended within the Sackville family at Knole, Kent, and is now in the collection of Lord Sackville, however it is our version that is mentioned in Anne’s diary. In his catalogue raisonné of the artist (op. cit.), Roy Strong notes that ‘[the version at Knole], cannot be that one [ie. the one in the diary]’, for indeed the picture at Knole never left the family collection, whereas ours left almost immediately when it was sent by Anne to her cousin. Her diary entry also establishes that ‘the Countess sat for Larkin in the summer of 1618 [meaning] that she did not go to the artist’s studio in London, but that he came to her’. That he painted Anne in situ firmly plants Larkin in noble circles, and reflects upon Clifford as an influential patroness.

Strong describes Larkin’s portrait of Anne Clifford as ‘a textbook instance of his methods, with the emphatic delineation of the upper eyelid and lip line and the reflected light from the ruff onto the chin. The costume is of high quality with meticulous rendering of the lace and the silver and gold embroidery. Certainly, it is a bold characterisation of an indomitable woman – her mouth firm and resolute, her expression a touch sad, and her costume a wonder of green cloth, gold embroidery and saffron lace. Her neck-line scoops low to reveal the fashionable pallor of a gentlewoman’s décolletage. Larkin captures the likeness described with satisfyingly forensic detail by Anne herself in her diary: ‘The colour of mine eyes were black, like my father, and the form and aspect of them was quick and lively, like my mother’s; the hair of my head was brown and very thick, and so long that it reached to the calf of my legs when I stood upright, with a peak of hair on my forehead and a dimple in my chin like my father, full cheeks and round face like my mother, and an exquisite shape of body resembling my father’.
Anne Clifford was a great heiress as the only surviving child of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, and Margaret Russell, daughter of Francis, 2nd Earl of Bedford. The Earl, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, died in 1605 when Lady Anne was fifteen years old, leaving all of the Clifford estates not to Anne, his only surviving heir, but to his brother Francis, who became fourth Earl of Cumberland. Though Anne petitioned for the return of the Clifford lands for decades, it was not until the death of her uncle in 1641, then the death of his son Henry, two years later, with no male heirs, that Lady Anne finally inherited her long-fought for estates in Westmorland and Yorkshire.
And so Anne’s power and authority depended on her status as her father’s sole heir. Through long and complex litigation, begun by her mother, she established herself as such, and was in her own right the Baroness Clifford, Westmorland and Vecsey. She also strengthened her status through marriage; she was Lady Anne Clifford until the age of nineteen when she married the 3rd Earl of Dorset, with whom her marriage was fraught yet affectionate (as evident from her diaries). On his death in 1624 she became the Dowager Countess of Dorset, and in 1630 married secondly Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, becoming in addition the Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery. This proved to be a personally disastrous marriage in that they soon became estranged, she retreating to her northern estates. Nonetheless, because of Herbert, a staunch supporter of the Republic, her property was fortuitously protected during the Civil War. Over the course of many years not even the King and the attorney general could persuade Anne to assign her property to her husbands (the main cause of friction with Dorset). Ultimately she succeeded in disinheriting her father’s male heirs in favour of her elder daughter and son-in-law.

Lady Anne did not leave London for the North until 1649, probably due to the unstable political climate during the Civil War. On her tour of the region she found that many of her castles were in ruins, and her estates in great need of repair. She wasted no time in rebuilding her castles at Skipton, Appleby and Brougham, as well as repairing neighbouring churches and settling long-running disputes with her tenants. She continued to enjoy the fruits of her inheritance and hard work for the remaining twenty-seven years of her life, and was a greatly respected figure at the time of her death in 1676.

Throughout her life, Anne Clifford commissioned artists to paint her portrait. As a woman who fought to defend what she perceived as her natural rights, self-fashioning was perhaps an unsurprising preoccupation. From the intimacy of the present bust-length portrayal by Larkin to the sombre and matronly likeness painted by Lely c. 1646 when she was a twice-widowed triple heiress, Clifford understood the power of the portrait in documenting her specific political and personal agenda. The culmination of this was her commissioning of the ‘Great Picture’ in 1646, (now at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendall), a painting to represent the different stages of her life and mark her final succession to the inheritance that she had always felt was rightfully hers. Painted as a triptych, it presents the family history and accomplishments of Lady Anne using a combination of portraiture, text and symbolism.

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