Thomas Cromwell loses his head (again) at Petworth

July 16 2012

Image of Thomas Cromwell loses his head (again) at Petworth

Pictures: BG, and below, National Trust

Yesterday I went to Petworth House. What a collection - 10 Van Dycks and a Titian. Not to mention countless Reynolds, Gainsboroughs, and of course Turners. Wonderfully, the paintings are very accesible; there are no barrier ropes in the rooms, you can take photos, and the room wardens are as helpful as can be. Top marks to the National Trust. (Tho' that said, the picture lights are woeful, such that in the portraits all the faces are obscured by glare).

I was surprised to spot, 'skied' and seemingly unloved, a rare contemporary portrait of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, called in the guide simply 'Unknown Man - German School'. The sitter is clearly, undeniably, indisputably Thomas Cromwell. Indeed, I see it has long been called that, and even features in Roy Strong's Tudor & Stuart Portraits catalogue for the National Portrait Gallery [p.114]. I'm not sure why it has been downgraded to 'unknown man'. The picture is of good quality, and by a recognisable hand who was working at the Tudor court - I think the same anonymous artist painted, amongst others, the portraits of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour at the Society of Antiquaries of London. The likeness appears to derive from Holbein's c.1533/4 portrait of Cromwell at the Frick.

The National Trust now has a new Curator of Paintings [AHN's dream job], David Taylor. He was formerly Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and so knows his portrait onions. I think AHN will lobby him to change the identification...

Update - a reader in Whitehall very helpfully writes:

...your article... has made me go back to the file on the acceptance in lieu of these paintings and chattels from Petworth, way back in 1954.  Much of the contents was offered to the Nation to pay Death Duties and having been accepted were given to the National Trust, with the exception of the Turners which remain in the ownership of Tate but on permanent loan to the Trust. In fact it was the very first time that such material was accepted in lieu without the house in which they located also being accepted in lieu. Up to then house and contents came as a unit.   

The portrait you rightly identify as Thomas Cromwell was catalogued in the offer documents as follows:


Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex; head and shoulders, with black cap, tunic and surcoat, green background, 19¼ by 14 in. 

It seems odd therefore that the identity of the sitter has been lost in the last 57 years.

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