Painting of Lady Margaret Beaufort smuggled to Cambridge to protect it from King Henry VIII’s henchmen unveiled
Lady Margaret’s original facial expression in the portrait had been painted over and changed to be made more ‘pious and sombre’
A painting of Lady Margaret Beaufort, matriarch of the Tudor dynasty and grandmother of King Henry VIII, has gone on display at the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery after a painstaking restoration project.
The ‘extremely rare’ 16th-century painting, owned by St John’s College, is the earliest large-scale portrait of an English woman and one of the earliest large-scale portraits of a single individual in the UK.
During the restoration process it was discovered that Lady Margaret’s original facial expression in the portrait had been painted over and changed to be made more ‘pious and sombre’ in keeping with the public image of her after her death – her expression has now been returned to the repose intended by the original artist.
Lady Margaret Beaufort was an educationalist, philanthropist, and mother of the Tudor king Henry VII who seized the throne from Richard III in the Wars of the Roses. She was one of the wealthiest women in England and her money was used to build schools, churches, and two colleges at the University of Cambridge – St John’s College and Christ’s College.
The painting is on loan to the National Portrait Gallery for three years and is the centrepiece of the exhibition in the Tudor Gallery
The historically significant work is one of three full length portraits of Lady Margaret owned by St John’s and was commissioned in 1510 by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Lady Margaret’s advisor until her death in 1509. It was through his effort that St John’s College was founded in 1511.
But in 1534 Fisher fell out of favour with King Henry VIII – Lady Margaret’s grandson – because he refused to accept him as supreme head of the Church. Fisher’s home was raided by the King’s henchmen and many of his possessions were stolen or destroyed, including books he had promised to the St John’s College Library.
The portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort was spared because it was at the Bishop of Rochester’s palace so it was smuggled to St John’s to make sure it wasn’t destroyed. Fisher was later imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of treason and was beheaded after a rigged trial.
Now the newly-restored portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort has been unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery.
The conservation project began in 2018 after Dr Andrew Chen, Art Historian, solved a 500-year-old mystery and discovered the portrait was painted by 16th century Netherlander artist Meynnart Wewyck. Wewyck was an active member of King Henry VII’s court during his reign and became his preferred painter.
Dr Chen secured financial support from St John’s College’s Annual Fund for the portrait to be restored by experts at the Hamilton Kerr Institute. The portrait is 180cm tall and 122cm wide and had hung in the Master’s Lodge of the College for many years.
Conservators found evidence of at least ‘four campaigns’ of extensive overpainting of the original portrait with Lady Margaret’s face being ‘fully repainted’ at one point in history
Conservators found evidence of at least ‘four campaigns’ of extensive overpainting of the original portrait with Lady Margaret’s face being ‘fully repainted’ at one point in history. Close inspection revealed Lady Margaret’s ‘real face had been in hiding’ and that overpainting had made her face appear tauter, her eyes more deep-set and her mouth pursed tight.
A report said: “Studying the two sets of outlines might cause one to wonder if the mouth may have originally been slightly more generous and less unsmiling (Lady Margaret was, apparently, not without humour).
“This instance of artistic licence may have accorded more closely to a particular image of Lady Margaret that was in favour at the time, namely, that of the pious, regal, and sombre.”
The portrait’s frame showed previous evidence of woodworm and the paint was flaking. The extensive restoration by the team of experts, led by conservator Christine Kimbriel and delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, has now concluded and the painting is on loan to the National Portrait Gallery for three years.
The National Portrait Gallery has just reopened to the public after being closed during a £41 million revamp. The portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort is now the centrepiece of the exhibition of images in the Tudor Gallery.
“One of the reasons the painting is so important is because paintings of women depicted on their own in a large-scale format are incredibly rare”
Kimbriel said: “Few English panel paintings from the reign of Henry VII and early reign of Henry VIII exist and surviving large-scale portraits such as the St John’s College Margaret Beaufort are extremely rare.
“The context within which such a portrait got commissioned would necessarily be one placing it within the innermost circle of the royal court. It constitutes an early example of the English adoption of the expanding subject matter represented in painting and other art forms on the continent.”
Dr Chen said: “One of the reasons the painting is so important is because paintings of women depicted on their own in a large-scale format are incredibly rare.
“The composition, significantly, shows the woman standing alone and literally gaining independence. This innovation in format seems to be related to the fact that she was the foundress of institutions.”