Gillis Egidius Claeissens
circa 1536 – 1605
Unknown Nobleman in Armour
Painted circa 1565-70
Oil on Panel: 13 1/2 x 11 1/4 inches, 34.3 x 28.5 cm
- Possibly in the collection of Jacob Duijk, Middleburg, Zeeland, 1740s;
- Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847 – 1929), Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire; and by descent to
- Neil Archibald Primrose, 7th Earl of Rosebery, Mentmore Towers, his sale,
- Sotheby’s, 25 May 1977, lot 2419 as ‘School of Sir Anthony Mor’;
- Private collection, Wilton Crescent, Belgravia, London.
-  Before the picture’s recent restoration, it had a later coat-of-arms in the upper right background which was removed as it was a later addition. This included in its left shield a blue and golden fess (wavy) between three golden canards, with a canard between a golden and blue pair of wings on the top of the helm. The bearer of these arms was Jacob Duijk of Middelburg in the province of Zeeland, circa 1740; however, the symbols in the right shield were not decipherable.
The painter of our portrait can clearly be associated on stylistic grounds with a small corpus of works by a recently identified artist, Gillis Egidius Claeissens, hitherto known as the ‘Monogrammist G.E.C.’, all of which are notable for their high finish, remarkable attention to costume detail, similar designs and comparative small scale. Amongst these is a pair of portraits of an unknown noble couple of almost identical dimensions as ours, in the collection of the Hallwylska Museum in Copenhagen, and which bear the monogram ‘G.EC’.
Gillis Claeissens was born in Bruges in 1526, the second son of Pieter I Claeissens (c. 1499 – 1576), history painter and portraitist, and the grandson of painter Alard Claeissens. Gillis and his younger brothers Antoon (1541 – 1613), Pieter (c. 1542 – 1623) and Ambroisus (d. 1616) all followed in the family tradition. He was admitted as a Master of the Guild in Bruges on 18 October 1566. In 1570 he was still in the workshop of his father, while Antoon joined that of Pieter Pourbus, another artist with whom he has previously been associated on account of stylistic similarities.
In contrast to his brothers, who became official painters to the Magistry of Bruges, from 1589 at the latest, Gillis Claeissens was at the Brussels court in the position of painter in title to Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, and governor general of the Low Countries. He returned to Bruges but then went back to Brussels in 1596 to enter the service of the Archdukes Albert and Isabelle. In 1600 he painted for them a Christ on the Cross, which was placed in the palace chapel in Brussels. In 1604, he painted a miniature portrait of the Archduchess. Shortly before his death on 17 December 1605, Gillis Claeissens received a commission from the cathedral for the restoration of the high alterpiece of the church of Watervliet, near Bruges. He was buried in the church of St. Jacques either in the chapel of Tonneliers or of St. Leonard.
Sixteenth century portraits of sitters depicted in armour traditionally portray royalty, a pictorial tradition whose Renaissance precedents notably include François Clouet’s Equestrian Portrait of François I (c.1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) and Titian’s portraits of Emperor Charles V on Horseback (1548, Prado Museum, Madrid) and Philip II in Armour (1551, Prado). Our young nobleman was therefore likely to have been of some distinction, and certainly of wealth; such fine and ornate armour would have been very expensive indeed. His costume is chosen to display his wealth and heroic prowess, for he wears a richly gilded breast-plate and his left hand clasps the golden hilt of a sword. His right arm rests on a French-style close-helmet, which could be worn open-faced for a parade or ceremony, or with a removable ‘falling-buffe’ visor for combat, while jaunty red hose emerge from his breeches, intricately embroidered with costly silver thread.
This portrait, recorded at Mentmore Towers, near Leighton Buzzard, was in the collection of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, Prime Minister of England in 1894 – 1895. He was known by the courtesy title of Lord Dalmeny and was educated at Eton and Christchurch, Oxford from 1865 – 1869, when he was sent down for buying a horse, Ladas. Rosebery was reputed to have three aims in life, all of which he achieved: to win the Derby, marry an heiress and to become Prime Minister. In 1878 he married the greatest English heiress of her day, Hannah de Rothschild, only child of the famous Jewish banker Baron Mayer de Rothschild. Through Hannah, he acquired Mentmore Towers, which had been built by Mayer Amschel de Rothschild. It is possible that this picture may have been acquired by de Rothschild, and already hung at Mentmore before it was inherited by Rosebery.
Rosebery served as Foreign Secretary in Gladstone’s brief third ministry in 1886, and became leader of the Liberal Imperialist faction of the Liberal Party. When Gladstone retired, Rosebery succeeded him as Prime Minister; his selection was largely because Queen Victoria was known to dislike many of the other leading Liberals, but according to his biographer, Robert Rhodes James, Rosebery soon lost interest in running the government. After the government lost a vote on army supply in June 1895, he chose to regard this failure as a censure, thus on 22 June he and his ministers tendered their resignations to the Queen. In later years he turned to writing, publishing biographies of Lord Chatham, Pitt the Younger, Napoleon and Lord Randolph Churchill.
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