The King’s College (Cambridge) Portrait

Called Queen Jane Seymour or Lady Jane Grey
Unknown Artist
26 x 21 inches
Oil on canvas
Collection of King’s College, Cambridge
     This portrait is never on public view and has never been published, though King’s College of Cambridge University was kind enough to share the above photograph with me. The following is an edited version of the report sent to the College.

Object Description:

     The painting is oil on canvas and measures 26 x 21 inches (66 x 53.6 cms). It is in a gilded gesso frame of the eighteenth or nineteenth century and bears an affixed label at the lower margin, but this label cannot be read in the photo provided. Because the painting was not examined in person, it is not possible to assess its condition, though extensive crackalure is evident in the photo provided.

     The portrait depicts the head and upper torso of an adult female who appears before a plain dark background. She is turned slightly to the proper left (the viewer’s right), though her eyes engage the viewer directly. Her face is an elongated oval in shape, with a high forehead. Her hair is reddish-brown in color, appears straight, and is worn parted at the center of the crown and pulled back over the ears and under the headgear. The eyes appear dark in color. The eyebrows are thin and arched. The nose is very straight with a high bridge and slightly flattened tip. The lower lip is quite full, almost ‘pouty’ in appearance. The chin is rounded. Her shoulders appear unusually broad, while the breast is quite flat.

     The lady’s costume includes a headpiece reminiscent of a French hood, but here consists of little more than a single billiment of jeweling securing the forward edge of the black fall that encases her hair. The jeweling itself is comprised of numerous pieces of goldwork in the form of roses set with a single dark stone, and between each rose are four pearls set in squared clusters. The same motif is repeated in the sitter’s two necklaces. A large pendant of goldwork is suspended from the upper necklace. The pendant is roughly triangular in shape, with scalloped edges, and set with seven faceted dark stones. Three diamond-shaped stones are arranged vertically down the center of the pendant, with the center stone slightly larger than its companions above and below. These are flanked on either side by two pairs of square faceted stones arranged vertically. A large teardrop pearl is suspended from the bottom edge of the pendant.

     The edge of the bodice of the lady’s gown is also jeweled and again uses the goldwork-roses-and-pearls motif established in the headpiece and necklaces. Here, however, the roses are interspersed with pearl clusters consisting of five pearls rather than four: one larger pearl surrounded by four smaller pearls set to form a square. At the center of the breast lies a jeweled element that is rendered by the artist in such a way as to make it difficult to determine whether it is a separate brooch pinned to the bodice or part of the embroidery-work of the fabric of the gown itself (see detail below). The element takes as its central feature a coronet surmounted by two fleur-de-lis alternated with three roses (rather than the customary strawberry leaves). The band of the coronet appears to be set at its center with a single tiny dark stone. Immediately above the coronet can be seen one square faceted stone, with a smaller triangular stone above that. This pattern is mirrored below the coronet and supplemented by one triangular stone on either side. Three teardrop pearls are suspended along the lower margin of the jeweled element.

     The gown itself is constructed of a greyish fabric heavily embellished with gold embroidery or brocading in a mixed geometric and floral pattern. The upper edge of the bodice is squared, and a linen lining or separate chemise protrudes slightly along the entire bodice margin. Each sleeve has a pair of parallel encircling bands created by voiding of the embroidery.

     No identifying inscription is readily visible on the painted surface. The quality of the photograph provided is not sufficient for purposes of detecting an artist’s signature, monogram, or mark. No photograph of the reverse is available.
Detail of coronet jewel at bodice
     The painting is currently in the collection of King’s College, Cambridge. No documentation is available to identify when or how the painting came into the collection at King’s. The provenance prior to its arrival there is entirely undocumented.
     The portrait is reportedly currently thought to depict Queen Jane Seymour, third wife of King Henry VIII of England and mother of King Edward VI. It has also recently been suggested that the sitter may be Lady (or Queen) Jane Grey, briefly Edward VI’s successor to the throne in July 1553.[1] The basis for the first identification is unknown, though the identification as Jane Grey may have been based on the relationship of this painted image to a purportedly ‘authentic’ engraving of Jane Grey published in 1620 (see discussion below).

     When this portrait is compared to a fully documented portrait of Jane Seymour created by Hans Holbein in about 1536-37 (below), little physical resemblance can be seen. Seymour’s nose in the Holbein portrait is more pointed, and her chin recedes slightly. And although the jewels in the Holbein portrait, especially the billiment on Seymour’s Spanish hood and her necklaces, do indeed match those seen in this portrait, the Spanish hood is itself noteworthy. Seymour is reported to have preferred the gabled Spanish hood so as to distinguish herself more markedly from her predecessor Anne Boleyn, who in turn preferred the rounded French hood. The presence in this portrait of a French-hood-like headpiece is therefore anomalous in the context of Jane Seymour. Despite the similarity of the jewels, the evidence drawn from the sitter’s physical appearance and her headgear suggests that the sitter in this portrait is unlikely to be Queen Jane Seymour.
Queen Jane Seymour (detail)
The King’s College Lady (detail) 
     No fully authenticated portrait of Jane Grey is known to exist, making a physical comparison to her impossible. Only one portrait of Jane Grey is currently known to have been created and was documented in 1566 in the collection of Elizabeth Hardwick, later Countess of Shrewsbury (a.k.a. Bess of Hardwick). That portrait disappeared from the Hardwick collection prior to 1601 and remains lost.

     Certainly the portrait depicts a woman of the first half of the sixteenth century. The style of the gown, especially the squared bodice and flat breast, is entirely consistent with English fashions of the period between about 1530 and 1550. The headgear, however, is less easily categorized. The overall rounded shape suggests the late 1530s and earliest 1540s, too early for Jane Grey (b.1536/7). By and after circa 1545, French hoods became more angular in appearance and flat across the crown, resembling an inverted triangle. But the absence here of a standing crown gives the piece the appearance of a headband rather than a true hood. It is as though the artist worked from some source other than life and was unfamiliar with ladies’ headgear of the period.

     Accurately identifying the sitter hinges on the jewels. As noted, the design of the necklaces and headpiece billiment is essentially identical to similar types of jewels worn by Jane Seymour in the portrait of her by Holbein. Such jewels were bespoke items in the sixteenth century, so that each piece was often unique. Importantly, the same necklace design is seen in numerous portraits of other wives of Henry VIII, including those of Katherine Howard, also by Holbein (below left), and of Katherine Parr (below right). This repetition suggests, and many other scholars conclude, that the necklaces and billiment may have been part of the royal jewels, accessible by each of the successive wives of Henry VIII. The lady may therefore have indeed been one of Henry’s six wives, though someone other than Jane Seymour.
Katherine Howard,
jewel detail
Katherine Parr,
jewel detail
     The most critical jewel in this portrait, for purposes of identifying the sitter, is the coronet brooch worn on the bodice of the sitter’s gown. In 1996, Susan James was able to definitively re-identify the sitter in a large-scale portrait in the National Portrait Gallery based on the presence of a similar coronet-shaped brooch. James argued that the brooch in the painting, NPG accession number 4451, was an essentially unique design that exactly matched the written description of an item listed among the jewels used or owned by Katherine Parr. James concluded that the sitter in the NPG portrait must therefore indeed be Katherine Parr, though the painting had by then been exhibited for thirty years as a portrait of Jane Grey.[2] My own research, as yet unpublished, has identified the same coronet brooch seen in the NPG portrait of Parr in at least three other portraits, all of which have long been assumed to depict Lady Jane Grey. These include paintings in the separate collections of Lord Hastings and the Earl of Jersey, as well as an engraving dating to circa 1620 created by Magdalena and Willem van de Passe.[3] Of these latter three, only Lord Hasting’s picture has thus far been ‘officially’ relabeled as Katherine Parr.[4]
Called Lady Jane Grey,
Magdalena and Willem van de Passe
Called Jane Seymour/Jane Grey,
unknown artist
     The portrait at King’s College bears striking similarities to the van de Passe engraving of 1620 (above left). For example, the sitters in both the College portrait and the engraving face the viewer’s right, the opposite of the customary positioning used by Tudor portrait artists.[5] This reversal is accounted for in the engraving by reference to the engraving process. When an image is engraved on a metal plate and that plate is then inked and the image printed on paper, the image becomes reversed (thus text for a print from an engraving must necessarily be originally engraved as though reversed in a mirror). Because the sitter in the King’s College portrait does face the ‘wrong’ direction, it is likely that the painting was based on a engraved image reversed by the printing process. That engraved image was almost certainly the van de Passe engraving. The vagueness of the nature of the coronet element, whether it is an affixed brooch or an embroidered and jeweled pattern of the fabric of the gown, can be appreciated in both images, for example. Likewise, the pattern of scalloping surrounding the entire element is present in both depictions. Further, banding of the sleeves, like that seen in the College portrait, can be seen on at least the proper right arm of the sitter in the van de Passe engraving. There are, however, numerous differences between the painted portrait and the engraving, including the presence of three points on the engraved coronet rather than the fleur-de-lis and roses seen in the painting, the presence in the engraving of a full French hood, and markedly different patterns of brocading on the gown. Taken as a whole, however, it seems very likely that the King’s College portrait was based upon the van de Passe engraving, albeit with certain embellishments and alterations made in the final painted image, especially in the design of the coronet device.

     The van de Passe engraving was originally published as an ‘authentic’ portrait of Lady Jane Grey and was, at least according to its publisher, itself based on an authentic original painted image. Recent research has shown, however, that the engraving is a perfect mirror image of the figure in the painted portrait of Katherine Parr now owned by Lord Hastings. As noted above, though also long known as a portrait of Jane Grey, it has been re-identified as Parr based on the designs of the numerous jewels, including the coronet brooch, and comparison of those designs to jewels listed in Parr’s inventories. In short, if the NPG portrait is indeed Parr, based on comparison of the coronet brooch to an identical item in her jewel inventory, then the Hastings portrait must also be Parr for the same reason, as must the van de Passe engraving. And though the King’s College portrait differs slightly from the van de Passe engraving, it seems altogether very likely that it was based upon that (misidentified) engraving.
Dating the Painting:
     The King’s College portrait is on stretched canvas rather than wood panel and, on that basis alone, almost certainly dates to sometime after 1600.[6] The artistic technique, though difficult to assess in the single photograph provided, suggests an even later date of creation, after 1700. This is particularly true with regard to the treatment of the face (e.g.: the wide dark circles under the lower eyelids, a characteristic that was almost ‘faddish’ around 1700). The presence in the painting of fleur-de-lis and roses rather than points on the coronet may aid in further dating the painting. The designs of coronets used by the nobility were based in ancient tradition, as evidenced by tomb effigies. But the use of fleur-de-lis on a coronet was limited in England after the Restoration of 1660 to wives, children, and grandchildren of the monarch. The apparent change here from points to fleur-de-lis and roses may well be a reference to post-Restoration practices and intended to aid the viewer in identifying the sitter as a close relative of the monarch. If so, the painting dates to no earlier than 1660.

     A date of creation sometime after 1660 is also very consistent with the cyclical rise and fall of Jane Grey as a popular historical icon. Between her death in 1554 and the middle of the nineteenth century, she tended to re-emerge in the popular consciousness only in association with disputed royal successions or religious controversy. She was resurrected at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I in separate plays by John Banks and Thomas Dekker, for example, as a literary mouthpiece through which the authors could advocate for the candidacy of James VI of Scotland as the next hereditary heir of the founder of the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII. She was again popularized in religious histories and polemics of the 1680s, during the Exclusion Crisis that ended in the deposition of the Catholic James II in 1688. But her greatest popularity came as a dramatic and literary figure at the time of the Protestant Hanoverian accession of 1714 and the subsequent pro-Catholic Jacobite Rebellions. In fact, the poet and playwright Nicholas Rowe was named Poet Laureate in 1715 largely on the strength of his immensely popular stage play Lady Jane Grey: A Tragedy in Five Acts, which aggressively supported the Act of Settlement of 1701. Jane was again deployed at the beginning of the nineteenth century in response to calls for Catholic emancipation, but reconfigured in the middle of that century as a model of propriety for young Victorian-era women to emulate. The King’s College portrait was most likely produced as a result of and a response to Jane’s popularity following the accession of the first Hanoverian king, George I, and thus probably dates to the first decades of the 1700s or later.
     The painting was almost certainly based on an engraving by Magdalena and Willem van de Passe published in 1620. Because that engraving was originally published as a depiction of ‘Queen’ Jane Grey and was believed until recently to be an authentic image of her, it is all but certain that the unknown artist who created the King’s College portrait originally intended it as a depiction of Jane Grey. But as has happened with so many other early portraits lacking original identifying inscriptions, this portrait of ‘Queen Jane Grey’ was at some unknown but early point relabeled as ‘Queen Jane Seymour’. Yet even if the King’s College portrait were returned to its probable original labeling as Jane Grey, it is altogether likely that the actual subject is Queen Katherine Parr. A more correct modern labeling for this painting might be ‘Called Queen Jane Grey but based on a portrait of Queen Katherine Parr’.
J. Stephan Edwards, Ph.D.
Palm Springs, California
13 July 2012
See, for example, Christopher Wright et al, eds., British and Irish Paintings in Public Collections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 121.
Susan E. James, ‘Lady Jane Grey or Queen Katherine Parr?’, Burlington Magazine 138: 1114 (January 1996), 22.
The portrait owned by Lord Hastings and now at Seaton Delaval, Norfolk, is a seventeenth-century copy of a sixteenth-century original formerly in the Royal Collection but lost in the dispersals of 1651-52. Though long thought to depict Jane Grey, it has recently been relabeled by the National Trust as Katherine Parr. See The Melton Constable Portrait.
The painting in the Earl of Jersey’s collection has commonly been reported as destroyed in a warehouse fire in the 1940s, but is now known to be extant at Radier Manor, Jersey, though little is known about it.
The van de Passe engraving was published in 1620 as an illustration in H.H. (Henry Holland), Herωologia Anglica: Hoc Est, Clarissimorum et Doctissimorum. Aliqout [sic] Anglorum, qui floruerunt ab anno Cristi. M.D. vsq[ue] ad presentem annum M.D.C.XX viuae effigies vitae et elogia: duobus tomis (Arnhem: Printed by Jan Jansson at the expenses of Crispijn van de Passe and Jan Jansson for Henry Holland, London, 1620), I: 33. The engraving was reportedly based on an original painting by Hans Holbein, yet Holbein died in 1543 when Jane Grey was at most 7 years old. The engraving was almost certainly based on the same life portrait of Parr as was the seventeenth-century Hastings copy.
As of this date, 13 July 2012, relabeling of the van de Passe engraving is pending with the National Portrait Gallery. It is not yet known whether the Earl of Jersey accepts the re-identification of the sitter in his painting.
The motifs used in Tudor portraiture adhered relatively rigidly to standard patterns of practice, one of which involved depicting solo female sitters turned or facing the viewer’s left. Left was considered the place of authority, so that a woman facing the viewer’s left was herself in a position of submission to authority, culturally appropriate in the sixteenth-century English context.
Stretched canvas did not become the preferred support for paintings in England until the beginning of the seventeenth century, though it was used occasionally in the last couple of decades of the sixteenth century. Prior to about 1600, the preferred support was prepared wood panels, usually oak imported from the Baltic region.
    Introduction to Portraiture of Lady Jane Grey
    The Althorp Portrait     The Anglesey Abbey Portrait  
    The Bodleian Library Portrait     The Chawton House–Hever Castle Portrait  
    The Elliot–Gedling House Portrait     The Fitzwilliam Museum Portrait  
    The Houghton Hall Portrait     The Jersey Portrait  
    The Madresfield Court Portrait     The Melton Constable Hall Portrait  
    The Norris Portrait     The Northwick Park Portrait  
    The Portland Portrait     The Rotherwas Portrait  
    The Somerley Portrait     The Streatham Portrait  
    The Syon House Portrait     The van de Passe Engraved Portrait  
    The Wrest Park Portrait     The Yale Miniature  
    Other Portraits Called
‘Lady Jane Grey’


Historian "at" somegreymatter "dot" com

Page created 18 July 2012, Revised 30 July 2013

Copyright © 2005 - 2014, J. Stephan Edwards
May not be reproduced in part or in whole without written permission of the author.