Portraits: British 16th and 17th C, Yorkshire and the Humber: Artists and Subjects 15 Does this portrait depict William Hart (d.1633)? Who might have painted it?

Topic: Execution date

We have recently discovered on this artwork a date to the right of the sitter's head which appears to read as '1579'. Could anyone shed light on whether the date looks to be contemporary with the painting and whether the sitter's clothing would fit with this date? Any help with deciphering the text on the left would also be helpful – we can see the word 'fugit' and an hourglass, but not the rest.

This portrait was believed to be of a Merchant, William Hart (the later painted text at the bottom of the painting states that it is him); however, with the earlier date and the fact that William Hart died in 1633, is this now highly unlikely?

The inscription in the panel beneath the figure reads: 'William Hart sometimes Pastor of the English Church at Embden, and afterwards at Stode beyond the seas did give 600 pounds to the companie of Merchants Adventurers to be lent to twelfe young men exercising the same trade for two yeares, and then to other twelfe successivelie for ever – and also 300 to ye poore'.

Information on the state of the panel:
The portrait has been painted on a joined, quartered oak panel which has warped into a concave shape and split. There are various paint losses and erasures from over-zealous cleaning, including the loss of the word ‘tempus’ from the phrase ‘tempus fugit’ above the memento mori of the hourglass. (from Pamela Hartshorne, ‘The York Merchant Adventurers and their Hall’, 2011, p. 135)

Merchant Adventurers' Hall, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Laura Quigley,

The Merchant Adventurers sent a ship load of 'pilgrims' from the Emden Church in Holland in 1619 to the New World. Only 30 of the 180 travellers survived, 150 dying of a nasty disease called the flux. Hart would have known them. Stode though must be the town in Sweden, as I can find no record of a Stode in the new world.

Detailed images of the 'tempus fugit' inscription and the date would be very helpful.

The shape of the ruff and beard are compatible with portraits of the 1570s, for example

and, dated 1570, https://www.lempertz.com/en/catalogues/lot/1076-1/1014-flemish-school-16th-century.html

It seems that ruffs got bigger soon after the 1570s with the advent of starching etc.

So a date of 1579 seems plausible but does cast serious doubt on the identification of the sitter.

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

Hello Andrew

We did attach close-up images with the initial enquiry but they don't appear to be with it now so please find them attached.

As far as identification goes, William Hart was not a Merchant Adventurer but did leave money in his will to the Company - other family did become members. So we wonder whether in fact this is an earlier 'Hart' who has been mistakenly identified or perhaps neither and a mystery Tudor gentleman!

2 attachments

Thanks, Merchant Adventurers.

The '79' looks clear enough, although in principle it could refer to his age. There also seems to be lettering either side of the hourglass - has any attempt been made to decipher those?

Rbt Brown,

Could be word read as 'fugit' actually be 'fecit' and appear after the artists name or ...near the date?

Paula Marmor,

I agree with Andrew Greg that fashionable ruffs of the 1570s are about this size, but similar size ruffs are seen into the early 17th century especially on persons of modest means. See the portrait of a captain of the Trained Bands. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Captain_of_the_Trainband.jpg

Also, the slightly casual 'set' of the figure-of-eight folds in the ruff is more 17th century than 1570s to my eye - 1570s ruffs have very stiff folds.

I'd also agree that the '79' is very clear but I don't see a '15' at all, so I'd lean towards this being an age and not a date.

Regarding 'fugit', I am pretty sure there's a horizontal descender visible on the g (rather than just a decorative 'swash' under the text).

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

It is very difficult to see but there is a '15' before the '79' - we will endeavour to take some closer-up photos if this would be helpful? We'll take the painting down tomorrow prior to the Hall opening to the public.

I can confirm that the word on the left is fugit but we have been unable to read the rest of the text.

Christopher Foley,

The yellow pigment of the inscription looks very much like lead-tin yellow (and could be confirmed by pigment analysis) which would be completely appropriate to a British portrait of 1579. There is clearly a great deal of old abrasion/damage and repaint to the picture, but it would certainly benefit greatly from a programme of conservation and cleaning. It is extremely rare to be able to assign a certain attribution to portraits of this routine quality in the 16th century, but (with strong caveats) it does bear a notable relationship to the very rare signed work by John Bettes the Younger of John Aldersey of Aldersey in Cheshire (c. 1520 - 1582), landowner and merchant. The great expert in this field, both iconographically and in terms of painterly technique, is Dr Tarnya Cooper, whose recent departure from the National Portrait Gallery was such a lamentable loss to scholarship at that institution. I think she is now at the National Trust: an enquiry to her would be helpful. Her 2012 book "Citizen Portraits" has quickly become the default reference for portraits of British merchants and their families in the 16th century, and should be consulted. One last thought: the feigned oval at the top of the painting would be very unusual for c.1579: it is much more a compositional device of the period 1615-1630. Perhaps it has been added later to an earlier picture.

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

Thank you Christopher for the information - we too have thought that the feigned oval was not quite right for the age of the portrait. We suspect that this may have been done at the same time the later text on William Hart was added?

We have purchased Dr Cooper's book, "Citizen Portraits" as we are sure that this will not only help in our research on this painting but on a number of other Tudor and Jacobean portraits in our collection. We will in the mean time try and contact her for further advice.

We do agree that this portrait would benefit from an extensive clean and also some restoration. As this portrait may now (if the date of 1579 is correct) be the oldest painting in our collection.

Suzanne Maitland-Wood,

Hello - a slight tangent but hopefully still relevant. There are three generations of Cordell portraits at Melford Hall (cataloguing on the National Trust website is currently amiss). The first (Robert Cordell (d. 1548)) has similarly been derided (National Trust Annual 2013, p.21). My take on the situation is that later generations, after having accumulated some wealth, appointed a painter to produce a likeness of their father, maybe from a miniature? In this case the manner of dress might go adrift. Surely it is likely that Merchants all went to the same painter/s? Comparing Merchant portraits makes sense - if there were trends in inscription, pose, size, materials etc - and obviously they all had 'Merchant Marks', which I find fascinating. How much work has been done on this?

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

Hello Susan. Thank you thoughts on this, we had also thought that this might be possible as there were other Hart family members who were Merchant Adventurers.

We do have an update which may be of interest. We contacted the National Portrait Gallery about the painting and Charlotte Bolland, their Curator of 16th Century Portraits has suggested that the 1579 date looks about right in terms of clothing – particularly the ruff. The style of the inscribed date also looks contemporary, possibly in a lead-tin yellow rather than the text below, which looks to have more ochre.

Charlotte is going to share the images with the Yale Centre for British Art, who are collating data on a large number of portraits from this period, to see if they have any thoughts. We have also approached Dr Tarnya Cooper, now at the National Trust for her thoughts.

So the plot thickens...

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