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'Portrait of George Delves and a Female Companion', (1577), by an unknown artist of the British School


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About the artwork

Medium: Oil on oak panel
Dimension: 218.5 x 133.5 cm
Accession number: WAG 3089

This fascinating portrait has been in the collection of the Walker for nearly fifty years. It was acquired from a dealer in Chester in the mid-1950s. It had come from Doddington Hall, in Cheshire, the ancestral home of the Delves (later Delves-Broughton) family. It was believed to have hung there for the four centuries since it was painted. On arrival at the Walker, it was in poor condition, and for many years it was kept in store. Its surface was secured by adhesive paper to prevent the paint from flaking. In the early 1990s, however, it was painstakingly cleaned and restored by Katherine Stainer-Hutchins of NMGM's paintings conservation department. At the same time, curators subjected the work to new research. The occasion for this attention was a major exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, 'Dynasties'. This was a comprehensive survey of portraiture in Britain in the Tudor period. The Delves portrait was one of the most exciting discoveries showcased by this exhibition - even if the work raised more questions than it supplied answers.

It was always clear that this was a portrait of a member of the Delves family. This could be seen from the coat of arms, together with the family motto 'Defy Fortune', visible on the pennant above the discarded suit of armour. The inscription in the lower left-hand corner dates the work to 1577 and states that the sitter is 40 years old. The artist originally painted 38, and changed the figure later. Henry Delves, who succeeded his father as the owner of Doddington in 1566 and died in 1606, had appeared to be a likely candidate for the subject of the portrait. However, it was inconveniently discovered that he was probably born only in the mid 1550s. Attention then switched to Henry's uncle, George Delves, one of his father's younger brothers. Although George's precise date of birth is unknown, he is known to have been an officer in Queen Elizabeth I's army in Ireland by 1559. He was also created a Gentleman Pensioner in Elizabeth's Court in 1561. He was granted an Irish estate, Shian, in 1563, and he spent much wearisome time working for the English cause in Ireland. The fact that these biographical details chime in with the lines of poetry inscribed on the portrait, which express a weariness of court life and disillusion that war has brought neither fame nor riches, provides the strongest evidence that the man in the portrait actually is George.

In other respects, the identification remains difficult. In the first place, in 1583 George married for the second time. It is not known whether by 1577, the year in which the painting was made, he was already a widower. However, if the woman - with her undeniably detailed and specific costume - is intended for his wife, there is only a slim chance that the portrait celebrates his first marriage. Against this, however, it can be argued that the figure of the woman does not look like a portrait at all. She is cut off by the edge of the picture and her face is concealed behind a sprig of myrtle (an attribute of the Goddess of love, Venus). Her character is more allegorical than realistic. Leading the man away from his armour and estates on the right of the picture, she is a muse-like figure, the embodiment of an optimistic future in which he has found love and consolation. As the main inscription - mysteriously, in Italian - puts it: "nothing is of importance to me except love and fame".

Another mystery surrounding this work is how, if the painting shows George Delves, it arrived at Doddington. George did not live there and the family pedigree describes him as the ancestor of the Devon and Somerset Delveses. He spent a lot of time in Ireland. He also had links through his wives with Northamptonshire and Kent. For a time he was the Member of Parliament for Retford, in Nottinghamshire. His involvement with the court of Queen Elizabeth also required him to spend significant periods of time in London (where he was buried in 1604).

To establish a closer connection with Doddington, it has been argued that the mansion and garden in the background may be intended, however fancifully, to represent the Doddington estate. Curiously, it has been shown that the artist's underdrawing of the mansion, before it was differently painted, has certain similarities with a medieval pele tower which still survives at Doddington. But the formal garden, on a grand scale and elaborately designed, is completely incompatible with the couple of orchards which are all that are recorded at Doddington in the late 16th century. Only a handful of gardens in Britain at that date contained even some of the features (such as tunnel arbours and a maze) which are visible here. A property which had a garden of this kind would have had to be a royal palace or similar. Again, underdrawing is present, which reveals that the artist took special care with this part of the painting and suggests that it had a special meaning for the patron. It is conceivable that George Delves wished to depict retrospectively what he had hoped to achieve at his castle in Ireland. It may also be that he simply wanted to show off the sophistication of his courtly tastes, should his fortunes ever permit him to acquire an estate.

It is in any case clear that the artist must have relied almost entirely on verbal descriptions of what to include, rather than on visual reality. This is borne out by the way the painting was constructed. The head of the man is painted on a separate piece of wood spliced into the rest of the work, which is made up of six vertical lengths in all. Almost certainly, therefore, the artist painted only his patron's head from life. The remaining contents - and the overall theme - were probably based on instructions received. Idiosyncratic features of the painting, including elements of both the male and female costumes (such as the strings of beads worn by the man, the enamelled ring attached to his wrist by a cord, and the foreign hood and gown worn by the woman) could well have been entirely the artist's conception, even if reflecting his client's desire to be portrayed in the height of fashion.

One of the biggest puzzles of all is who painted the portrait. Its ambition, with an elaborate allegorical narrative married to meticulous technical detail, proclaims an artist of the front rank. No British-born artist is known who regularly produced works of this scale and sophistication at this date. It has been tentatively proposed that the portrait is the work of a Dutch or Flemish painter temporarily active in London. Because the science of attribution depends on close scrutiny of the original painting technique and comparison with other secure examples of artists' works, it is likely that this painting, now extensively restored, will never be ascribed to a given individual.