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Painting of mother of King Henry VII revealed as oldest large-scale portrait of an English woman

“This portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort is one of the most important portraits of the early 16th century”

A portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort has been named as the first piece of work identified as being painted by 16th century Dutch artist Meynnart Wewyck – solving a 500-year-old mystery.

Wewyck was an active member of King Henry VII’s court during his reign and became his preferred painter. But until now the absence of a signed or documented work has made it impossible to attribute paintings to him meaning that despite the importance of his work, his name has been unknown.

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 once her son was on the throne she used her money to build schools, churches, and two colleges at the University of Cambridge – Christ’s College and St John’s College.

Portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort

The portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort by Meynnart Wewyck

Even though Wewyck died several centuries ago this could introduce his paintings to the art world for the first time

The portrait of her held at St John’s College was originally believed to have been given to the College in the late 16th century. But Dr Andrew Chen, Art Historian and Fellow of St John’s, found documents in the College archives which referred to a painting of Lady Margaret by Wewyck arriving at St John’s in 1534.

The tree rings in the wooden frame of the portrait were studied to date the painting and the analysis showed it was made before 1521. This discovery enabled Dr Chen and Dr Charlotte Bolland, Senior Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, to link the painting to the one referenced in the College records. Their findings have been published in The Burlington Magazine today.

The painting, which is 180cm tall and 122cm wide, 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.

Dr Chen said: “This portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort is one of the most important portraits of the early 16th century. It demonstrates that elite patrons were working with European painters who had the skills to realise large, ambitious compositions even before Hans Holbein the Younger arrived in the England in 1526.”

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.

Dr Chen explained: “On smaller scales, portraits of women would be displayed in houses or circulate as part of marriage negotiations. Women are also shown on larger scales as donors in altarpieces, but in these contexts they are associated with religious subjects and normally paired with men.

“The composition of our Lady Margaret portrait derives from the art of sacred settings, but, significantly, here the woman comes to stand alone, literally gains independence. This innovation in format seems to be related to the fact that she was the foundress of institutions.”

Dr Andrew ChenDr Andrew Chen

“These paintings can serve as touchstones for further research into Wewyck’s work”

The portrait was commissioned shortly after Lady Margaret’s death, around 1510, by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Lady Margaret’s advisor, but in 1534 he fell out of favour with King Henry VIII – Lady Margaret’s grandson. Fisher’s private 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 kept safe only because it was in another location – at the Bishop of Rochester’s palace in Lambeth Marsh. It was transported to St John’s shortly afterwards to ensure it would not be destroyed.

Dr Mark Nicholls, Tudor Historian and Fellow of St John’s, said: “In contrast to the similar portrait of Lady Margaret in the College's Hall, which was commissioned from the artist Rowland Lockey in 1598, the origins of this painting have long been mysterious.

“Now, thanks to a productive coming together of scientific analysis and close reading of surviving documents in the College's collection, we can recognise a remarkable early Tudor portrait for what it is, and place it accurately in the long tradition of portraiture on display in the College.”

Identifying Wewyck as the maker of the Lady Margaret Beaufort painting also meant that the researchers could connect him to a stylistically similar portrait of Henry VII owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London.

It is hoped further technical analysis of the two paintings may help discover further pieces produced by the Netherlandish artist. Even though Wewyck died several centuries ago this could introduce his paintings to the art world for the first time.

Dr Chen said: “These paintings can serve as touchstones for further research into Wewyck’s work. As perhaps the first Netherlandish painter to find work at the Tudor court, Wewyck stands at the beginning of a process of the transfer of artistic skills that would dominate the production of painted portraiture in England throughout the 16th century. It’s a very exciting discovery.”

Published: 29/03/19

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