Completed Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 16th and 17th C, Yorkshire, The Humber and North East England: Artists and Subjects 25 Who is the 'Unknown Gentleman with a Red Book and a Skull' and who is the artist?

Topic: Artist

This portrait of an early 17th Century man (who we think is a possible York merchant) is of interest to us and our visitors and we'd like to know a little more about the possible artist and to narrow down the time period in which it was painted. The gentleman in question rests his hand on a skull and has in his other hand a book (presumably the bible) with a skull on a ring – we are assuming that this is allegorical.

Unfortunately the identity of the sitter remains unknown and we have no information on the artist or if the portrait is English or whether it is European in origin. We have guessed at his identity but without really knowing for sure! It has been speculated that the painting may depict John Kendrick, a merchant, and later a citizen and draper of London in 1624 or William Breary, a merchant adventurer and alderman of York in 1637 who was Governor from 1611–1614 and 1632–1635.

He wears a black robe with white cuffs, a ruff, and a black skull cap edged with lace. The photograph of the painting has identified what could be later additions such as the larger shoulders on the robe that he is wearing.

Merchant Adventurers' Hall, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

Alice Read,

This discussion has now been closed. No conclusion was reached. If any contributors have new information about this painting, we encourage them to propose a new discussion by following the Art Detective link on the Your Paintings page:

Thank you to all for participating in this discussion. To those viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all comments that led to this conclusion.


R. Stephens,

I wouldn't like to comment on the dress, as an indicator of the age of this picture, but doubtless others can. I'd have guessed 1610s, 1620s. The hand resting on the skull serves to remind us of the sitter's awareness of the brevity of life, that there is no time to waste & of the equality of all of us in the face of death - we'll all end up as skeletons in other words. Are there further objects behind the skull? It looks like there is part of a folio volume and, above & behind it, some kind of large L-shape or perhaps that is simply part of the clothing.

Is not the shape behind the skull an open coffin (spikes coming in from the sides?), or possibly open tomb and the size of the book likely to make it a breviary, or similar, rather than a bible. The shape above looks like a pentimento, as if the right arm and shoulder were further out to the edge of the picture, but have been brought in in order to include the skull element as possibly an original or at least early artist alteration, to beef up the 'vanitas' element originally only represented by the skull on the ring. X-ray might be interesting at some future point.

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

We had never noticed the shape in the background Pieter but it certainly looks like an open coffin. The idea of the sitter demanding the skull and the coffin be added is rather brilliant! Do you think the artist is likely to have been local to York or is it continental in background?

Al Brown,

The shape behind the skull might jusy be a table top - which would make sense if the skull were resting on it. The "spikes" in this instance would be indicative of folds or creases at the edges of the cloth covering the table - I recollect other works representing material like this.

My screen shows not just the pentimenti mentioned above but what seems to be another - extending from the proper right shoulder to the edge of the painting (there is a smaller on extending from the left shoulder too). They give the overall impression that at some stage the sitter was portrayed with a short cloak.

For a similar ruff, dating to around 1585, see:

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

Thank you for the feedback Al, it does pose some interesting questions. If we could say with some certainty that it was from around 1585, it would potentially make it the oldest painting in our collection.

Is it possible that the figure had a fairly straight and narrow cloak and the pentimenti is the addition of the broad shoulders?

R. Stephens,

Agree about the table, and the size of the book making it unlikely to be the bible. For early 17th century ruffs, which don't compare exactly with your example, see these:

I suppose both of your candidate sitters would have travelled a fair bit, as did some jobbing portraitists. But it's not of a quality that the sitter would have travelled far. I would've thought this could be the work of a good provincial artist, equally it could have been done by someone fairly uninspiring in London. There is some little character in the face, but the hands are awful.

Bendor Grosvenor,

The composition, and especially the painting of the hands and the table, remind me of a picture I looked into a few years ago, which was attributed to John Souch, a peripatetic and little-known artist, dated to around 1620:|-John-Souch

Attributing pictures at this date is fiendishly difficult, however, so it's probably not worth getting high hopes. All we can say with confidence is that it's English; the long shape on which the skull rests is certainly a table, albeit inexpertly painted; and that it was most likely painted in the early 17th Century. The ruff might well be dated a little earlier in some portraits, but such things lasted longer than one might expect, especially in the provinces.

As to the sitter, this will be almost impossible to examine purely on the visual evidence. Is there any provenance with the painting?

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

We agree Richard, the hands are a little 'naive'! Bendor, it's good to hear that we have the date about right, thank you also for the example of John Souch's work, it makes sense that it is a table in the background and to see something very similar in other portraits.

Unfortunately like many of the early portraits in the Hall's collection we have no provenance for this particular painting. We believe it was acquired (although with no certainty) not long after it was painted. We also have two other contemporary portraits in the Hall of known Merchants (attached below) of varying quality so I suspect we have to assume that this gentleman was a Merchant as well.

2 attachments
Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

I have written and sent the image of this painting to Prof. Diana Hayward, Univ of Southampton and to Kejerstin Vedel, Frederiskberg Castle, Denmark for their comments on this portrait. It is a momento mori portrait clearly.

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

Paula, thank you for the information on the caps - it appears that from the dress, the date of around 1620 seems to be the right date.

Lou, we shall wait to hear back from Prof Hayward and Kejerstin Vedel. If you require any further information from us please do let us know.

Louis Musgrove,

Here in Ipswich we have a few tudor paintings which have a similar feel- so without having read any of the above- I would have said about 1540 ish. Of course "The Ambassadors" features a skull.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

From Lou Taylor. Observation comment when more light is put into the portrait.: The man's gown has half length caped, sleeves with the narrow sleeves of his doublet/jacket showing beneath with their plain white cuffs. The gown seems to tied around the waist with a twisted black braid cord.

From Prof. Maria Hayward
I think the Dutch suggestion sounds very likely – either that he was Dutch or that he spent a lot of time there and bought clothes there. I can see why the dated 1610-20 have been suggested (the shape of cap and style of cuffs looks similar to those in the portrait of Phineas Pett, 1612, at the NPG). It could be a little earlier – in that sense the style of ruff that he is wearing was in fashion for quite a long period and overlapped with other styles of neckwear so it is not that helpful for pinning this down to a particular decade. I don’t think this was painted after his death – he looks far too pink and healthy! When they are painted after death they often look less vibrant and having his hand on a skull could just be a reminder of his mortality rather than an indication of his being dead.
The diamond? ring on his little finger and the book with what could be an embroidered textile binding or a stamped leather binding are both very nice details. Little expressions of wealth offset by the understated but expensive black.

Kjerstin Vedel, Frederiksborg Castle Collection Denmark.
The date you have given to the portrait fits very well with the man’s beard, the ruff collar and the ‘wings’ on his shoulders. And I agree with you on memento mori motive. I have no idea whether he is painted post mortem, but I think his skin colour indicates a man very much alive… As for the cap, I have seen similar hats without the lace brim though on Danish and Swedish civil servants’ heads (I don’t know the old English tem for civil servant). As for his nationality, I would see him as coming from the reformed countries, that is Nordic countries which fits well with his red hair and fair skin. My first impression of the portrait is that the man is a priest / a vicar. This is due to the combination of the bible, the skull along with the very serious looking garments in black and white. Black and white alone do not indicate a religious profession, of course. I see no indication of him as a trader in the portrait, so indeed this is a mysterious portrait.

Tracy Cooper,

There are a number of similar paintings at Blackfriars Hall and St Andrews Hall in Norwich. They depict civic dignitaries and Lord Mayor's of the region. Many of them show the sitter with a book and Skull.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

The distinctive dress features in this portrait are the tight fitting little black cap with maybe reticella lace edging, the black robes and the plain white linen shirt beneath. We now have 3 other similar portraits (see attached) all showing similar black caps and robes with white linen shirt/collar/cuffs beneath of around the same date- 1610-40??
 1: The unknown man from the Merchant Adventurers Hall.
2: Sir Henry Spelman, (Norwich Museums Collection,) Sheriff of Naresborough and a member of the College of Antiquaries. Undated.
3: Sir Roger Mostyn, 1634, (Nat. Mus. of Wales) Justice of the Peace for Flintshire from 1601 to his death and for Caernarvonshire from 1621 to his death. He was High Sheriff of Flintshire for 1608-09.), wearing an identical cap (bar the size of the lace trimming) to the one in unknown portrait.
4: Sir  George Booth- 'Old George,' 1566 - 1652. (NT Dunham Massey.) He was  granted the Baronetage of England on 22 May 1611,  when he was High Sheriff of both Lancashire and Cheshire. Undated.

I have contacted Dr. Andrew Moore, Senior Curator Fine Art, Norfolk Museums Service to find out if that collection does have other similar portraits as suggested.

The link so far seems to be that these gentlemen were all Sheriffs of their counties, around 1610-1640 .

Merchant Adventurers' Hall,

Thank you Lou for this interesting information on the High Sheriff links. We have looked at the High Sheriffs for North Yorkshire during this period and there are no links to the Merchant Adventurers (although this doesn't necessarily point to it not being a High Sheriff). There has always been a thought that the sitter was William Breary; twice Lord Mayor of York, Governor of the Company in 1611-1613 and perhaps more interestingly when reading the information above - Sheriff of the City in 1598.

There have been valuable contributions to this discussion, but not for two months now, suggesting that we are probably unable to take it much further.

As it seems highly unlikely that a specific painter’s hand can be identified and as the possible date range (based largely on costume evidence) spreads across several decades, I suggest – subject of course to the views of the owning collection – retaining for the artist ’British (English) School’, but giving the date as early seventeenth century or c.1610–1640.

In view of the portrait’s provenance, it is almost certain that the sitter was a member of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York, quite possibly Governor of the Company or holding some other office. The cap edged with lace, ruff, jewelled(?) ring and leather-bound bible or prayer book all indicate (in an admittedly understated way) that the sitter is well-to-do, no doubt having profited from trade. The skull is clearly a vanitas element, a memento mori – warning that worldly possessions cannot be taken beyond the grave. By extension, this suggests that the sitter has indeed prospered in material terms. However, the inclusion of the skull and the bible or prayer book also conveys the message that the sitter is devout (the York merchants’ hall was originally built by the Guild of Our Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, later absorbed within the Company of Merchant Adventurers). What is more speculative is whether or not the sitter was Lord Mayor of York at some stage. Had the portrait been painted at the time of office the distinctive mayoral (triple) chain would have been included; and had the sitter become Lord Mayor in a year later than the date of the portrait then the triple chain might well have been added, in the way that badges of office or honour often were. For the sitter I suggest – again subject to the views of the owning collection – 'Unknown Man/Gentleman, probably a member of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York, and possibly Governor of the Company'.

Gabriel Wolf ,

He look like Van Gogh. We have the 20th century and people still dress like the 18th century. He was a great fan of Shakespeare - 16th century. Quote “Let me stop there, but my God, how beautiful Shakespeare is, who else is as mysterious as he is; his language and method are like a brush trembling with excitement and ecstasy. But one must learn to read, just as one must learn to see and learn to live.” The skull and the book could be a hint to Hamlet! A kind of cosplay maybe?

Bendor Grosvenor,

I think we ought to close this one now, as we're unlikely to be able to progress it further on visual evidence alone. I think we can all agree he's not Van Gogh...