The Madresfield Court Portrait

Called Lady Jane Grey
Original painting attributed to Lucas de Heere
Seen here as an engraving from the Nineteenth Century
     A painted portrait at Madresfield Court, a stately home near Malvern in Worcestershire, was reproduced as the above engraving in Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower’s The Tower of London in 1901.[1] As a Trustee of the National Gallery and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Gower’s publication lent the identification a degree of authenticity. That authenticity was reinforced less than a decade later when Richard Davey listed the portrait in his influential work Lady Jane Grey: The Nine Days’ Queen and Her Times.[2] Davey perceived a resemblance between the face of the Madresfield sitter and the face of the lady seen in an engraving of circa 1620 also long-said to depict Jane Grey (below, right). He further noted, somewhat weakly, that the costume was ‘one that Jane might have worn’. Though the portrait had previously been attributed to the artist Lucas de Heere, Davey instead suggested William Scrots (an Anglicization of Guillim Stretes), whom he called ‘Streete’.

     The official guidebook for Madresfield Court notes that the portrait is ‘said to be’ of Jane Grey and attributes it to a follower of the Flemish master Ambrosius Benson (d.1550).[3] Experts from Sotheby’s have recently re-identifed the sitter as an unknown lady in the guise of Mary Magdalene.[4] The painting is paired at Madresfield Court with a portrait sometimes identified as Guildford Dudley, Jane’s husband. The portrait of ‘Guildford’ is incorrectly labeled, since it is inscribed ‘1566’ and ‘Æ[tatis] Suae 20’, indicating that it was painted in 1566 when the sitter was aged 20 years. Yet Guildford was executed along with Jane in February 1554 at about age 18 years.

     The painting is in oil on wood panel measuring 28.25 x 22.75 inches. It is in a modern black and gilt frame. No conservator’s report is available. The painting is examined by means of a single photograph taken at an oblique angle (below, left).


Portrait of a Lady as the Magdalene
by a Follower of Ambrosius Benson
circa 1525 to 1550
Collection of the Elmley Foundation at Madresfield Court

Jane Grey
by Magdalena and Willem van de Passe
before 1620
National Portrait Gallery
accession number NPG D19952
     Madresfield Court has been owned by the Lygon family for nearly a millenium. In a recently published comprehensive history of the house, author Jane Mulvagh states that the Lygons of the 1550s supported Jane Grey in her bid for the throne.[5] This would seem to give the family interest in owning a portrait of Lady Jane. Unfortunately, no documentation survives to detail when, how, or whence the painting came into the Lygon collection at Madresfield. Certainly it has been there for over a century, since Davey noted its presence there before 1909. But its precise history is otherwise unknown.

     The portrait depicts a lady seated and in the act of reading a book. She is turned slightly toward her proper right, with her eyes downcast toward a richly illuminated and bound text held in both hands at mid chest. She is positioned before a dark background and heavy green drapery. The turned arm of her chair is just visible below her proper right forearm.

     The sitter has an oval shaped face with a high forehead. Her slightly-wavy auburn hair is parted in the center and pulled down and back across the temples. Her eyebrows are thin and arched, her eyes dark. The nose has a high bridge and is quite straight. The mouth is narrow and the lips full and pink. Her neck is somewhat long but largely hidden by a veil.

     The lady’s costume consists of a gown of bright scarlet velvet with soft, non-boned bodice and full oversleeves. The neckline is horizontal and quite wide, or what would today be called ‘boat neck’. The edge of the bodice of the gown is trimmed with what appears to be both jewelling and embroidery work. A white chemise embellished with complex blackwork underlies the gown. A wide border of lacework, known as a fazzoletto, adorns the edge of the chemise. The lacework is repeated at the cuffs of her undersleeves, which are themselves close-fitting and dark in color, almost brown or black. She wears a long gold neck chain bearing a pendant. The pendant has been attached to the bodice of her gown at the neckline, leaving the chain to hang below on either side. The pendant is set with stones arranged in a cross-like pattern and has a single teardrop pearl hanging beneath it. The lady wears no other jewelry.

     The headgear includes a white lace coif overlaid with a hood in two parts. The anterior portion of the hood fitting closest to the head is white like the coif, but with two thin parallel gold stripes added. The standing posterior portion of the hood is heavily and colorfully embroidered and edged with pearls. The embroidery is distinguished by the inclusion of a large white flower with approximately eight long thin petals. A silk or linen veil, called a ‘gorgerette’ in French or a ‘gorgiere’ in Italian, is attached to the headgear and wraps under the chin, concealing much of the neck. To this is added a gauze standing veil that extends forward in front of the head like the brim of a bonnet, and that also encircles the back of the head and neck.

     The artist of this painting has been identified as ‘a follower of Ambrosius Benson’, meaning his (or her) identity is unknown but the work is in the same style as that of Benson. The lady in the Madresfield portrait does indeed appear to have been modeled on Benson’s work.

      Benson was born Ambrogio Benzone in northern Italy late in the fifteenth century. He moved to Bruges, in modern Belgium, before 1518 and became a very successful artist. His surviving body of work includes a number of depictions of Mary Magdalene (below). Note the inclusion of an emblematic ointment jar in all three of his paintings currently labeled as Mary Magdalene. In the fourth portrait (below, bottom-right), labeled by the Louvre not as Magdalene but rather as ‘Young Woman in Orison [i.e., prayer] Reading a Book of Hours’, no jar is present, while the headgear is remarkably similar to that of the Madresfield lady.

Mary Magdalene
by Ambrosius Benson
circa 1530
Galleria Franchetti, Cà d'Oro, Venice

The Magdalene Reading
by Ambrosius Benson
about 1525
National Gallery, London

Mary Magdalene
by Ambrosius Benson
Groeninge Museum, Bruges

Young Woman in Orison Reading a Book of Hours
by Ambrosius Benson
Musée du Louvre, Paris
     The costume worn by the sitter in the Madresfield picture is not consistent with English fashion. The soft, non-boned bodice and ‘boat neck’ neckline suggest an origin in the Low Countries. The complex headgear, especially the attached veils, likewise indicate a woman from the Low Countries.

     Similarly, the regional origin of the artist appears to have been the Low Countries, and he probably worked in the second quarter of the sixteenth century (based on dating of the sitter’s costume), making it quite unlikely that he had contact with Jane Grey.

      It has been suggested that the portrait depicts a lady in the guise of Mary Magdalene.[6] The color of the gown – scarlet – is often associated with sin and is often used in depictions of Magdalene as symbolic of her penitence. Similarly, depictions of Magdalene often show her reading a book, often identifiable as specifically a religious text. Yet the most common emblem of Magdalene used in sixteenth-century art, a pot or jar denoting the pot of ointment she used to anoint Christ’s feet, is not seen here.[7]

      Whether or not the sitter intended to present herself as a Magdalene-like figure cannot now be known with certainty. But the evidence does indicate quite conclusively that the sitter is not Jane Grey, and was never intended to represent her. That label was mistakenly attached at some point in the painting’s past history and probably stemmed from an interpretation of the book held by the lady as representative of Jane’s scholastic achievements. The true identity of the lady may never be known.
J. Stephan Edwards, Ph.D.
Palm Springs, California
6 November 2010
  NOTES :      
  Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower, The Tower of London, 2 vols. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1901), I: overleaf of page 184.  
  Richard Davey, Lady Jane Grey: The Nine Days’ Queen and Her Times (London: Methuen, 1909), 361.  
  John de la Cour, ‘Madresfield Court’, page 7. Accessed 30 October 2010.  
  Electronic communication, Peter Hughes, Estate Office, Madresfield, 20 April 2010. ‘It is referred to in our inventory of the contents of Madresfield Court, prepared by Sothebys, as “A portrait of a Lady as the Magdalene” by a Follower of Ambrosius Benson. It also says that it was “Formerly called Lady Jane Grey”. Under the painting it says that it was painted between 1521 and 1550.  
  Jane Mulvagh, Madresfield: One Home, One Family, One Thousand Years (London: Doubleday, 2008).  
  See note 3.  
  See my discussion of jars and pots in portrayals of Mary Magdalene by The Master of the Female Half Lengths under The Althorp Portrait.  
    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 King’s College 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’



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Page Created 6 November 2010, Revised 28 December 2011, Updated 20 August 2012

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