Completed British 16th and 17th C, except portraits, Dress and Textiles, East of England and The Midlands: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 16th and 17th C 23 Can you enhance what is known about 'Portrait of an Unknown Nobleman (Man with a Ruff)'?

Portrait of an Unknown Nobleman (known as 'Man with a Ruff')
Topic: Subject or sitter

The picture has undergone extensive and expert restoration at the Hamiton-Kerr Institute, Cambridge. The conservator’s report and art-historical research are attached.

The robes are those of a baron. The ‘badge’ on the hat is thought to be most likely a decorative aigrette-type jewel. The ruff is thought to be c.1615. The now removed (and inaccurately rendered) Garter regalia is thought to have been added significantly later than the portrait was painted (after the sitter's lifetime).

The picture can be traced back to 1854, when it was purchased by the Willoughby de Broke family as a purported portrait of Thomas Cecil (1542–1623), 2nd Baron Burghley and 1st Earl of Exeter (this was subsequently rejected). As of 1923, it was attributed to Paul van Somer. It was sold in 1924; by 1934 it was being attributed to Federico Zuccaro (highly implausible though that was, like so many Zuccaro attributions). It was again sold through Christie's in 1939, when it was purchased by Clare College.

Thomas Egerton (c.1540–1617), Lord Chancellor, who was Baron Ellesmere from 1603 to 1616, has been considered, but by 1615 he was around 75, and portraits of him (many on Art UK) look older or less physically imposing. See below:

In terms of attribution, Paul van Somer is reasonably plausible, as is Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, and the ‘metallic’ drapery puts one in mind of William Larkin, though that is not unique to him. Robert Peake and John de Critz are other possibilities.

Jacinto Regalado, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

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I would like to thank Sophie King at the collection for sharing the two reports from the Hamilton-Kerr Institute: one on the examination and treatment of the painting, the other a research document on the identity of the sitter (2 attachments). The conservation revealed extensive alterations had occurred. The art-historical research was carried out by Conservator Joanna Russell in 2007.

Unfortunately, Dr Bendor Grosvenor has much else going on so we are looking for someone else to lead on 'Portraits: British 16th–17th century' and 'Portraits: British 18th century'.

Jacinto Regalado,

Clare College bought this picture when it was thought to be of Thomas Cecil. It already had has a portrait of him attributed to the circle of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, below:

Jacinto Regalado,

Van Somer, Gheeraerts and de Critz were of Flemish origin, so the picture could be listed under Anglo-Flemish or Anglo-Netherlandish School. An expert on that group of artists whose opinion would be of great interest in this case is Karen Hearn, now at University College London.

Yale Center for British Art,

One possibility might be William Knollys, the Baron Knollys (cr. 1603), later Garet Knight (cr. 1615); Viscount Wallingford (1616), i.e. a Baron who became a Garter Knight. Without better images, it is difficult to say whether this is the same man as depicted in the portrait of Knollys at Kenwood.

Jacinto Regalado,

If this is Knollys, it is possible that the picture was painted not long before he became a Garter Knight, and that the Garter regalia was added (not very expertly) after the fact.

Marcie Doran,

Here, from the British Newspaper Archives, is an article from the ‘North Wales Weekly News’ of Friday, August 21, 1908, that mentions this portrait and the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I that was discussed in the historical research document above.

They were sold to a Miss Mary Williams at an estate auction at Bodelwyddan Hall, home of the late Sir William Grenville Williams, near Rhyl. His portrait is on Art UK.

Jacinto Regalado,

It is a fine portrait of its period, no doubt by a "name" artist. A period expert is probably required for a specific attribution, and I hope one will be forthcoming.

Marcie Doran,

Here is some research into "Miss Mary Williams".

The historical research document indicated that this picture was purchased by Margaret Dowager Lady Willoughby de Broke in about 1854. I have attached a notice of her death from the ‘Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser’ and an article about her will from the 'Liverpool Weekly Courier'. Margaret (1799–1880) left a substantial legacy to her niece Mary Charlotte Lucy Williams – I believe that this niece was the "Miss Mary Williams" who purchased the paintings.

Margaret's brother Sir Hugh Williams (1802–1876) and his wife Henrietta Charlotte Williams (née Williams-Wynn)(1818–1878) had nine children including: firstborn Sir William Grenville Williams (1844–1904)(whose "treasures" were sold at auction in 1908), Mary Charlotte Lucy Williams (bap. 15 March 1853–26 March 1930) and the Bishop of Bangor, the Right Rev. Watkin Herbert Williams (1845–1944). The "Tol/Tro2" family tree on Ancestry shows this family.

The 1871 Census of England and Wales shows Mary and her family living in Bodelwyddan. Her probate entry and an article about her will from the 'Liverpool Echo' provide additional information about her. Here is the link to her entry on the 'Find a Grave' website.

Jacinto Regalado,

Practically all of the many Zuccaro attributions for portraits of British sitters have been rejected or questioned. Even the famous Darnley portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at the NPG, once thought to be by him, is now listed under "unknown Continental artist." He was only in England in 1575, and the sort of ruff worn here is later than the 1570s.

Marcie Doran,

In her will dated September 20, 1878, Margaret Dowager Lady Willoughby de Broke wrote: “I give to my nephew Sir Grenville Williams Baronet the two Florentine cabinets with verde antique marble slabs on the top three large oil paintings in the Dining room at Plasnewydd a full length of Queen Elizabeth a full length of an ancestor of Lord Exeters one of William the Third on his Charger”.

Unfortunately the detailed will of Mary Charlotte Lucy Williams was drafted on July 7, 1928, after she sold this painting.


Earlier today, I ordered two documents with the reference codes D/BD/183 and D/BD/192 from the North East Wales Archives. The former is an inventory, dated 1908, of the pictures and heirlooms at Bodelwyddan.

Marcie Doran,

The documents related to Bodelwyddan that I ordered from the North East Wales Archives were provided to me last week. They include a schedule of paintings and other items that were considered family heirlooms. Each painting has a description, most have measurements and several indicate the name of the artist. As expected, the portrait that we are discussing is not listed.

Jacinto Regalado,

It would be highly desirable to get the opinion of period expert Karen Hearn concerning an attribution, if that is possible.

Jacinto Regalado,

Jacob (Simon), do you have any thoughts on an attribution here?

Jacob Simon,

I would not hazard an attribution from an online image.


Jacinto Regalado,

Glad to hear that, Marion. Perhaps he or she could inspect the picture in person at Clare College.

Jacinto Regalado,

Since there is now a Group Leader (Rab MacGibbon) in Bendor Grosvenor's former position, can he be asked to look over this discussion and suggest how we could move forward?

Rab will be aware of this discussion.

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