What Lies Beneath: Hidden Paintings and Tudor Portraits

If you will be in London between now and June 2nd, make sure you take time to drop by the National Portrait Gallery for a small but fascinating new exhibition, entitled Hidden: Unseen Paintings Beneath Tudor Portraits.  In preparation for a separate exhibition, experts at the National Portrait Gallery have identified that at least two paintings from the  16th-17th centuries in their collection were painted on top of Catholic devotional works.  The underlying, original images were revealed using modern investigative methods including x-rays and infrared reflectography.

It is not entirely unusual to have a new work of art created from an old one, for various reasons, and examples are known from the ancient world through to today.  Thus,  if a pharaoh fell out of favor in Ancient Egypt after his death, sculptures or paintings of him might be recarved or repainted to reflect a subsequent ruler.  In other cases, the artist may not have had access to all of the materials he needed, and so had to re-use what he had available; we know that Van Gogh often had to do this, for example.

While there is no consensus in this exhibition as to why these particular works were used as a base for new paintings, I would venture it is a reasonable certainty that this was partially brought about as a result of the iconoclasm that took hold under Henry VIII and his illegitimate progeny.  Beginning with the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry instigated a period of systematic destruction of the cultural and artistic patrimony of England that continued under his successors.  Anyone interested in learning more should read Cambridge professor Eamon Duffy’s authoritative The Stripping of the Altars, to try to grasp at least to some extent what was lost.

One of the works in this show is a portrait of the 1st Earl of Dorset, which was painted over a copy of Sebastiano del Piombo’s “Flagellation of Christ” – which itself was based on designs by Michelangelo. Another portrait, that of Sir Francis Walsingham, who was employed by Elizabeth I to capture, torture, and execute Catholics, is in a terrible irony of history painted over an image of the  Madonna and Child.  It should be pointed out that neither of these paintings are recoverable, at least with the technology presently available to us, because they were partially destroyed in order to create an even ground for the new painting to be painted on top.

Given that these portraits were painted about twenty years apart, it begs the very fascinating question: what else is out there to be discovered?  For surely now there is going to be a great interest among museums and collections which hold portraits dating from the Tudor period to have them analyzed in order to discover whether a devotional work lies beneath.  Perhaps there might even be a great artistic discovery in the making, of a work long thought to be lost.  It may be that, in reality, it has been hanging in plain sight all this time, in some castle or public gallery, under a thin veil of paint and varnish.


Portrait of Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset by Unknown Artist (1601)
Current state (l) and x-ray showing “The Flagellation of Christ” (r)
National Portrait Gallery, London

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