Many an artist dreams of leaving a legacy that cements their place in history, but some of them miss perhaps the simplest step in that process: signing one’s work. That’s the case with a group of paintings being presented for an exhibition at Compton Verney in England, Tudor Mystery: A Master Painter Revealed, which seeks to put a name to a Tudor-era painter whose identity has been obscured by time, though his subjects were extremely venerable.
“The artist didn’t sign his paintings, so ultimately his identity remains speculative,” curator Amy Orrock told Hyperallergic. “But there are ways to put together a logical case by considering the documented painters who were active in London in the same time period and moved in similar artistic circles.”
The artist created portraits of subjects with high social status, many of whom knew Elizabeth I personally, including Anne Russell, Countess of Warwick, who was one of the Queen’s maids of honor. Master of the Countess of Warwick wasn’t a live-in painter or an official court artist, and that moniker was coined in the 1960s in reference to a portrait of Anne Russell, Countess of Warwick, which was seen as “being the touchstone work by his hand,” according to Orrock.
“The term ‘Master of …’ is often used by art historians when we don’t know the name of an artist, it enables us to identify a specific work and start putting together a body of similar works, even when the identity of the artist responsible for these works is not known,” said Orrock.
The artist does have a signature style, which includes extremely still posture and intense eye contact — not to mention the elaborate detail in the finery of the sitters.
“A portrait was a way to record your status forever, so sitters chose to be painted in their finest outfits and sometimes also included their families,” said Orrock. “Elizabethans did not smile! Even the children look very serious, as was the convention of the time.” Serious is one word for it, yes. Plotting your painful demise would be another characterization. The noble predecessors of the children of the corn, perhaps. Master of the Countess of Warwick or He Who Walks Behind the Rows? You decide.
Research for the exhibition, which ultimately posits an identity for the mystery painter, based on similarity of style and common circles of acquaintance, also used infrared analysis of the painting in the Compton Verney collection.
“This tells us more about how the artist started his work,” said Orrock. “There is little sign of underdrawing, but bold, painterly brushstrokes were used to map out areas such as the hands. As the amount of technical data about paintings increases we can slowly start to build up clearer pictures of how individual artists worked. When paintings show similarities below the surface it can help support the argument for attributing them to a specific artist.”
The exhibition seems to posit that a student of Hans Eworth, named Arnold Derickson, is the mystery painter, and presents several examples of Ewoth’s work for comparison. Known works by Eworth, such as “Portrait of Elizabeth Roydon, Lady Golding” (1563) bear many aesthetic similarities to certain of the unattributed works, such as “Queen Elizabeth I, ‘The Clopton Portrait’” (c. 1558–1559). The lavish exhibition catalogue presents deep analysis and several works on the same subject for side-by-side comparison, offering a new painter to the canon, and allowing the reader to reconstruct the process of speculative art history.