This sumptuous portrait of a lady from the court of Charles I captures all the elements that made Van Dyck one of the most influential and significant portraitists of his day. Freely and quickly painted, with delicate glazes and a simple and fresh palette, this well-documented and much-exhibited painting was one of the jewels of the Lyttelton family collection at Hagley Hall until it was sold by the 12th Viscount Cobham in 2008. Dated by Sir Oliver Millar on the basis of costume and handling to c.1637, it was painted at a golden moment in Van Dyck’s career in England, contemporary with some of the artist’s finest female portraits, among them Queen Henrietta Maria in yellow (Private Collection, New York). Our sitter’s richly bejewelled blue silk dress and basket of roses are particularly reminiscent of a number of Van Dyck’s portraits of the Queen. Roses were used to symbolise beauty, youthful bloom, love and even fertility, while pearls and diamonds were a nod to purity and Venus, as well as markers of wealth.
Christopher Charles Lyttleton, 12th Viscount Cobham (b. 1947), by whom sold,
Sotheby’s London, 5 June 2008, lot 11;
Private collection, England, until 2019.
 Henry, 3rd Viscount Brouncker, bequeathed his pictures along with the rest of his property to his friend General Sir Charles Lyttleton in 1688. Lord Brouncker’s cousins, Henry, Daunsey and William Brouncker and Martha Hartley challenged the will unsuccessfully in 1688. National Archives PROB 11/393/8.
London, South Kensington Museum, National Portraits Exhibition, 1866, no. 902.
Worcester, Worcestershire Exhibition, 1882 (as ‘Duchess of Buckingham’).
London, Grosvenor Gallery, Exhibition of the Works of Sir Anthony Van Dyck,
1887, no. 27.
Birmingham, Birmingham City Art Gallery, 1926, no. 32.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, 17th Century Art in Europe, 1938.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Flemish Exhibition, 1953 – 54, no. 297.
John Loveday of Cavesham (1711 – 1789), ed. S. Markham, 1984, p.508 (‘at Hagley, 13th – 14th July 1765, as the Duchess of Buckingham by Van Dyck’);
A Description of Hagley Park by the author of Letters on the Beauty of Hagley, Envil and Leasowes, Birmingham 1777, p.10 (as ‘The Duchess of Buckingham, Daughter to Lord Fairfax; by Van Dyck’);
J. Smith, A Catalogue Raisonnéof the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters, 1831, no. 492;
J. Guiffrey, Antoine Van Dyck: sa vie et son oeuvre, 1882, no.419;
L. Cust Anthony Van Dyck: A Historical Study of His Life and Works 1900 p. 271;
Catalogue of the Pictures at Hagley Hall, 1900, no. 17;
E. Larsen, The Paintings of Sir Anthony Van Dyck, 1988, no. 269;
W. Musgrave, Lists of Portraits, ed. A. Meyer, Walpole Society, vol. 54, 1991;
S.J. Barnes et alia (eds.), Van Dyck, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2004, p. 622, no. IV. 252.
The Weiss Gallery, A Connoisseur's Eye, 2020, cat. 9.
Although Sir Oliver Millar described the condition of our sitter’s head and right arm as ‘thinned’, careful cleaning of earlier disfiguring over-paint has since resolved this, revealing much of the original glazes’ subtlety and delicacy. Millar also noted the painting’s ‘fundamentally fresh’ handling, ‘especially in such passages as the left hand and the basket of flowers, the jewelled clasps on the dress and the light on the draperies.’ The sitter’s identity, however, had become lost as early as 1765, when she was mistakenly thought to be ‘The Duchess of Buckingham’. Millar rightly dismissed this, as well as Sir Lionel Cust’s later suggestion that it depicted ‘Mrs Cary’, instead cataloguing her as unidentified.
It is reasonable to discount the possibility that our sitter was a member of Henry Viscount Brouncker’s immediate family. His two sisters were not old enough in 1637, and it seems that he inherited no family property with the title. Henry Brouncker was ‘a man throughout his whole life notorious for nothing but the highest degree of impudence, stooping to the most infamous offices, and playing chess very well, which preferred him more than the most virtuous qualities could have done.’ His elder brother William, eminent mathematician and President of the Royal Society, left him only ten pounds in his will: ‘for reasons I thinke not fitt to mencon and because hee will gaine well otherwise by my death… And the rest of my estate, in Land, houses Jewells plate mony goods or Chattels whatsoever either in my possession or belonging or due to me, my debts being paid of which that to herselfe is the Cheife, I give and bequeath entirely to my beloved friend Mrs Abigail Williams alias Cromwell who meritts much more from mee than what I have to dispose of’. 
There is a convincing argument, however, for identifying our lady as one of Viscount Brouncker’s relatives by marriage – Mary Barber (d.1679), who married Thomas Newton of Heightly Hall, in Shropshire, and as a widow married the courtier Sir Thomas Jermyn (1579 – 1645), and indeed a portrait of Mary Barber formerly at the Jermyn family seat of Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, bears a strong facial resemblance to our sitter.
The Rushbrooke portrait can be dated on costume to the 1640s, and it quite plausibly represents the same woman, only a few years older. Sir Thomas Jermyn was sixty-nine years old when he and Mary were married in 1642, but they had a daughter, Elizabeth, before his death in 1645, confirming that Mary Barber was considerably younger than her husband. We do not have a date for Mary Barber’s first marriage, to Thomas Newton, nor for the birth of the Newtons’ son, also called Thomas. But it is possible that Van Dyck painted our portrait to celebrate Mary’s pregnancy. The roses that she gathers to herself from the basket in our portrait are a traditional symbol of youthful beauty, but the gesture may be more specific. Considering the portrait of Henrietta Maria of 1635 (Dresden), Millar remarked: ‘If the roses held over her stomach allude to the forthcoming birth of a child, the portrait was possibly painted some time before the birth of Princess Elizabeth on 28 December 1635.’
Sir Thomas Jermyn’s property passed at his death in 1645 to his son, Thomas Jermyn MP, whose will (proved in 1661) may explain how the portrait could have found its way into the possession of Henry, 3rd Viscount Brouncker, and
thence to his friend Sir Charles Lyttleton. Given that Mary Barber had no direct and immediately obvious familial relationship with Sir Charles Lyttleton, it is easy to understand how her identity in this portrait by Van Dyck could have become lost. She was very briefly step-mother to two adult sons, and left no direct line of descendants within the family.
In her will, Mary left most of her fortune to Thomas Newton, her son from her first marriage, but to her grandchildren by her late daughter with Sir Thomas Jermyn, a man to whom she was clearly devoted, she left a great diamond ring, ‘That it may be enjoyed from one to another by the Relations of the blood of that worthy Gentleman Sir Thomas Jermyn Knight, and be preserved and used in that Family as an heireloome in his memory who first give it me’. Further bequests of jewellery included ‘a great diamond knot’, a diamond-studded fan handle, a ‘great table diamond’ and two further diamond rings. Mary clearly loved jewellery, and one is reminded of the elaborate pearl headdress worn by the sitter in our Van Dyck, and the diamonds in her dress, representing the height of fashion at this date. It suggests something of the same personality in our young sitter of 1637, as the grand old lady of 1679.
 O. Millar, op. cit.: S.J. Barnes et alia (eds.), Van Dyck, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2004, p.622, no.IV. 252.
 Abigail Williams alias Cromwell, daughter of Sir Henry Clere. She was separated from her husband Colonel John Williams alias Cromwell, one of Oliver Cromwell’s Royalist cousins, and lived as his wife with William 2nd Viscount Brouncker (‘made a visit to Madam Williams who is going down to my Lord Bruncker’, Diary of Samuel Pepys, 28th September 1665).
 Will of William 2nd Viscount Brouncker, National Archives PROB 11/375/434.