Unknown Man, Aged 32 (allegedly but not Thomas Harriot, geographer)
Topic: Subject or sitter

Could we ascertain this sitter’s identity?

Edward Stone, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Trinity College, Oxford have commented:
'We would be delighted if the true identity of this unknown man could be ascertained. The portrait came into the College's possession through the bequest of the Old English scholar and antiquary James Ingram (President of Trinity College 1824-50). It was one of a pair; the other is 'Portrait of an Unknown Man, Aged 38'. (http://bit.ly/3tweb1Y) Neither portrait has any earlier provenance.

It was only in 1941 that this unknown sitter was identified as Thomas Harriot. The identification was made by Jean Robertson, in 'Some Additional Poems by George Chapman', published in the Journal of the Bibliographical Society. The identification was based on the inscription data and a supposed facial similarity with an engraving of Harriot by Francis Delaram which is in the British Museum.

The inscription on the portrait when it was acquired by Trinity gave the sitter's age as 42, corresponding with Harriot's known age in 1602. In 1957 however, the portrait was cleaned and the 4 was found to have been painted over a 3. In 1964 the portrait was x-rayed, and this revealed the numeral 0 in the space between the 3 and the 2 - giving an original age of 30.

The best summary of all the evidence for and against the Harriot identification is in an article by J. M. Dudley, 'A Tale of Two Portraits: a note on two alleged portraits of Thomas Harriot', which was published in 'The Harrioteer: the newsletter of the Thomas Harriot Association' (University of Durham) (April 2000) (attached)

Note - Trinity does have photograph of the x-ray of the painting that is mentioned, but unfortunately it is not possible to access it at present as we are working from home

2 attachments
Hat Jodelka,

Could it be a botanist? That looks very like a Lotus seed pod in his hand.

Andrew Thrush,

William Lower (c.1570-1615) of St Winnow, Cornwall and Trefenti, Carmartheshire, might fit the bill. Educated at Exeter College, Oxford in 1586, he was an avid scientist and friend of Harriot. His interests included not only astronomy but also geometry, algebra. mathematics and the refraction of light.

Angela Lennox,

It is a pomander in this hand, an orange with cloves embedded and believed to ward of smells, germs and the plague. There are a great number of cloves in a dried orange and cloves were second in cost to nutmeg and more than the price of gold in Elizabethan times. Cloves were a symbol of wealth as they were only grown in the Moluccus islands in Indonesia. They were displayed by sailors and navigators to prove their travels to distant lands.
In 1602, the plague was still spreading across Europe having arrived in 1595 and not disappearing until 1626.
If the portrait was painted in 1602, the collar design is a little late as this is the flatter figure of eight design which came into fashion around 1590. It could just be that the wearer was not a follower of fashion. Ruffs was getting smaller and softer and were replaced by the new French lace collars in 1900's amongst the wealthy across Europe.
None of this identifies the sitter and it is a great shame the sitter is not decked in detailed attire. Perhaps the x-ray will show more clues.

Luke Aaron,

I think this is Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford, and that this fellow https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/portrait-of-an-unknown-man-aged-38-223752/search/venue:trinity-college-university-of-oxford-7543/page/7 is Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy, Earl of Devonshire, Lord Deputy in Ireland, later Lord Lieutenant in Ireland.

However when I have told people who the sitter of a portrait is on this site before, I was told to the effect of: “you can’t determine who it is by looks and dates alone” or something similar. I said that calls into question the very purpose of this site.

How about I say who it is, using intuition, dates, looks, and comparative visual resemblance to relatives or other portraits of the sitter, and then highly educated, highly learned people, who might be able to look on the back of it for a name, or stick the thing in a machine to scan it, can then try to see if I might be correct. I can throw something insightful out there, and it is a beginning, and I reckon I’m right, as why would I bother saying anything?

Of Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford, I don’t think there are any other portraits of him out here that can be trusted as a good likeness or of even being him.

He would be the correct age, and correct status of a person to be the person in the portrait. ATATIS SVE may well mean in the year of his life that he is in, not his age, (I got that from James Innes-Mulraine on his site) so if originally said 30, he would be 29, and Edward Russell is 29 in 1602, born December 1572.

Of his relatives who have good likenesses that we can compare to:

His father, Sir Francis Russell, Lord Russell:


His uncle, Lord Edward Russell:


His cousin, Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford, who took over the Earldom:



Here is his grandfather, Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, as a young boy, in a Holbein sketch:


Anne Dudley (née Russell), Countess of Warwick, is an Aunt:


Of its companion portrait:


Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy, Earl of Devonshire, Lord Deputy in Ireland, later Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, if he is in his 38th year in 1604, that would make the sitter born in 1564 or 65. Charles is said to be born in 1563 or ‘c. 1662’ so there is disagreement as to his birth date. Perhaps this portrait is giving a more accurate date rage for when it actually was.

This is him:



Here is our man when young:



The sitter also looks remarkably, unmistakably like Mountjoy Bount, 1st Earl of Newport, his son:



Thanks for reading.

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