26. A Portrait of Unknown Gentleman, by Cornelis de Zeeuw

by Dr Georgy Kantor – 18 February 2021
Dr Georgy Kantor introduces us to a portrait that lends itself to discussion of the research required to discover more about the College's collections
Item+098+OU_SJNC_PH04 resized.jpg A Portrait of Unknown Gentleman, by Cornelis de Zeeuw, oil and metal leaf on oak, H 113 x W 81.3 cm
Item+098+PH+04+de+Zeeu-1426arms.jpg Detail of the coat of arms
Item+098+PH+04+de+Zeeu-1429.jpg Detail of the signature

The identity of both the sitter and the painter of this picture is a bit of a mystery, and, apart from being an impressive example of sixteenth-century portraiture, it may serve as a good example of the ongoing research on our collection.

This lovely sixteenth-century portrait is first recorded as belonging to the college in the 1748 catalogue, and in the 1767 catalogue is identified in an attached note by President Fry as a portrait of Sir William Cordell, Solicitor General for Mary Tudor in 1553-7, Speaker of the House of Commons in 1558, Master of the Rolls, and the college’s Visitor between 1566 and his death in 1581. The origin of the identification and the provenance of the portrait are uncertain, though one wonders whether there is some connection with the decision taken at about the same date to bind in one volume a considerable collection of Cordell’s letters to the college.[1] Cordell is an interesting figure, with his page both in this college’s and in Tudor England’s history, and we periodically get requests to reproduce this portrait as a depiction of him, but unfortunately the identification cannot stand, and was dismissed already by Rachael Lane Poole in her 1926 catalogue of Oxford portraits. The gentleman in the portrait looks nothing like the portraits of Cordell in his own house, Melford Hall in Suffolk (perhaps the weakest argument as the dress in the Melford Hall portrait is sometimes supposed to be at least half a century too late for Cordell).[2] The crest of arms in the upper right corner looks nothing like the Cordell arms.[3] Most importantly, the age of the sitter does not fit. The inscription in the top left corner says ‘an(n)o 1565, aetatis 75’ (in the year 1565, aged 75), which puts his birth in 1490. This is far too early for Cordell, who was born sometime about 1522-4, based on the known facts of his career.[4]

The key to the sitter’s identity must be in the coat of arms, but this seems to have suffered some changes in colour, and is now difficult to identify with certain. Ruth Bubb, who expertly restored this painting for us in 2016, has identified two possible eighteenth century coats of arms showing some of the same element: one belonged to Dr Gibson of Hatton Garden, London in 1716, and the other is associated with the names of Mager or Major in Southampton, and Mayor in Rugby, but neither fits exactly. There is a possibility that the portrait is not of an Englishman at all, but was brought from the Netherlands.

We fare better with the painter, but again much remains to be discovered. The picture is signed ‘Cornelius de Zeeu pinxit’. While nothing further is known about the personality of the painter (and ‘de Zeeu’ or ‘de Zeeuw’ might be simply a geographical designation, ‘from Zealand’ in the Netherlands), a number of portraits either signed by him or identifiably by the same hand, all from the 1560/1570s, are known, most notably at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.[5] A lovely portrait of a young man belonging to the same year as the portrait in our collection can be seen at the Bristol Museum, and another was recorded in a private collection in Richmond back in 1968. Interestingly, infrared reflectography done for us by TSR Imaging in 2016, shows, as they have pointed out to us, the techniques to be consistent with those used by Netherlandish painters (including those who moved from Antwerp to work in London, as de Zeeuw may have done) and different from those used in the workshops of native English artists. There is an underdrawing in dry medium, most likely in black chalk, but it is followed very loosely. Reserves are left for the face and the hands, and some of the important elements of the painting, for example the small dog and the book in the sitter’s left hand, have been added at the painting stage without previous sketching.

Many threads for us to pursue further, in collaboration with other collections, but in the meanwhile we may all enjoy this sympathetic portrayal of a shrewd old man, and try to fill the gaps in what we know about him or about the painter in our own imagination.

View the painting on Art UK here.

[1] W.H. Stevenson and H.E. Salter, The Early History of St John’s College, Oxford (Oxford 1939), 479-501.

[2] Discussed in a splendid article by Edward Town, ‘Pirates, brewers and merchants’, National Trust Historic Houses and Collections Annual 2013, 20-25.

[3] W. Hervy, The Visitation of Suffolk, 1561, ed. by J. Corder, vol. 1 (London 1981), 28-9, gives fullest detail on the Cordell arms.

[4] P.W. Hassler, The House of Commons, 1558-1603, vol. 1 (London 1981), 657, gives ca. 1522. The date of ca. 1524 on the History of Parliament website, and the firm date of 1522 in Oxford DNB do not seem to be based on any new evidence.

[5] See P.J.J. Van Thiel (ed.), All the Paintings of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (Amsterdam 1976), 620.

Georgy KantorDr Georgy Kantor, Tutorial Fellow in Ancient History and Keeper of the Pictures