At the moment I am hoping to establish that this portrait is a painting of Lady Mary Sidney Lady Wroth, who published The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania in 1621, the first novel in English by a female writer. So far all I have to go on is the sitter’s age – aetatis suae 19… anno 1607 meaning 19 years of age in the year 1607 – and the fact that she appears to be an exact match in likeness with two portraits identified as Lady Mary in the collection of the Viscount De L’Isle. I have been to see them at Penshurst Place, Lady Mary’s birthplace, and I am looking at them now in Margaret Hannay’s superb biography Mary Sidney Lady Wroth (Ashgate 2010). Professor Hannay uses one of them, a double portrait with Lady Mary’s mother the Countess of Leicester by Marcus Gheeraerts 1612 as her cover, and I hope she will not mind me advertising her superb book, available here.
A reversed engraving after the second portrait of Lady Mary at Penshurst, a full-length of c.1620 attributed to John de Critz is illustrated on Lady Mary’s wikipedia entry.
Likeness and age, of course, are not enough to fix a portrait’s identity, so I need to find out where our painting has been in the last 400 years, and whether its provenance connects with Lady Mary, or anyone else who is likely to have owned her portrait. Just to see what other portraits have been identified as Lady Mary I also tried a google search. I was interested to see this example here on Jennifer Wong’s pinterest page of a Talbot family portrait at Ingestre.
If you blow the image up you can see that above the much later inscription identifying the sitter as Lady Alatheia Talbot there is an original inscription Aetat 32/ 1619. This means the sitter was, as Jennifer Wong says, born in 1587, the same year as Lady Mary Wroth. Is this, therefore another candidate for a portrait of Lady Mary Wroth?
Lady Alatheia’s date of birth is not given in the Dictionary of National Biography – simply her date of death, 1654 – and the face in the 1619 Ingestre portrait looks unlike the more famous portrait of the Countess of Arundel, painted by Sir Peter Paul Rubens the following year.
You might not even say they were the same sitter, if it wasn’t for the pendant of IHS, the name of Christ, that the devout Lady Arundel is wearing in both portraits. And on closer comparison they are both portraits of the same sitter, Alatheia Talbot Countess of Arundel. The two portraits are a good illustration of how two painters can view the same sitter completely differently. But who painted the 1619 portrait? It is catalogued as ‘English School’ but stylistically it is very close to Robert Peake the elder who died in 1619. The date/age inscription is similar to the calligraphy that Sir Roy Strong identified in portraits by Peake (Burlington Magazine February 1963 ‘Elizabethan Painting an approach through inscriptions – 1. Robert Peake the elder ‘pp.53 – 57), but it is not identical. For the moment this late flowering of English Elizabethan style must stay as ‘Close to Robert Peake’ and I must be content with learning the Countess of Arundel’s date of birth.
The Talbot sisters are connected with Lady Mary Wroth through the Herbert family, and specifically through William Herbert 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Lady Mary Wroth’s love for William Herbert and his marriage to another – Lady Mary Talbot, Alatheia’s sister – were the driving force in her life and art. She had an affair with Pembroke over many years, and two illegitimate children by him. The Herberts were relatives of both families, and though the Sidneys were not connected by blood to the Talbots they grew up together almost as cousins, and their portraits reveal a curious likeness. This portrait called Lady Mary Talbot c.1620 by Cornelius Jonson – viewable on Angela Mombers’s fashion history – is interesting. The jewel that she is wearing at her breast is like the jewel that the sitter in our portrait is wearing in her hair. Lord Pembroke’s wife and his lover have very similar looks – you could say that he had a ‘type’. Might their portraits have become confused over time? What is Lady Mary Talbot’s date of birth? Clearly the next stage is to find out where the Cornelius Jonson portrait is, and to look into the iconography of Lady Mary Talbot Countess of Pembroke.