Send for the Serjeant-Painter!

Yesterday I wondered who would’ve mended The Field of the Cloth of Gold after the Spanish Ambassador’s staff had cut bits out of it while they waited for a meeting to end. Then I realised this being a Court there could only be one person.

No doubt when his guests had finally gone, King James would’ve taken a closer look at his gouged paintings, whistled through his teeth, muttered something about ‘the De’il’ and ‘gamplin haunds’ and called for the Serjeant-Painter. This was the man responsible for everything painted and gilded in the palace, from producing State Portraits to mending scuffed gilding on the bannisters and restoring damaged paintings.

The Serjeant-Painter in 1620 was John de Critz (1551/2 – 1642). By then about seventy, De Critz had had an interesting career. He was born in London but his family was originally from Antwerp, and with his Continental background Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, used him as a courier to take letters abroad. Walsingham became a great patron, and De Critz’s portrait became Walsingham’s official and only image.


Sir Francis Walsingham (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

De Critz was popular with men who only needed the one portrait. Sir Robert Cecil – the supreme statesman, who managed James’s succession – also chose De Critz for his only portrait.


Sir Robert Cecil Earl of Salisbury (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

And King James in turn chose De Critz for the official portrait at the start of his reign.


National Trust, Montacute House (c)Sothebys

Attributable examples of De Critz’s work are very rare. His workshop ran a production line of copies, and the portraits of Walsingham and Cecil have the hardness you expect in a much-repeated image. Rightly so. They are the official images of hard men.  But this portrait of King James I of c.1605 was presented by the King to Sir Robert Phelips of Montacute House – and happily returned there after it appeared at Sotheby’s in 2011 – and it shows what how fine an autograph De Critz is.

The waters with these Royal portraits is further muddied by the fact that De Critz’s fellow portraitists – Robert Peake and De Critz’s cousin Marcus Gheeraerts – seem to have shared the big commissions, and their workshops produce a uniform product. This collaborative approach is typical of the Anglo-Flemish painters workshops. This must have worked across diplomatic line to judge from one of De Critz’s best-known but most enigmatic paintings.

The Somerset House Conference c.1604 shows the last stages in the talks between England and Spain to end the war that began with the Armada.


(c) National Portrait Gallery, London

The painting has often been given to De Critz, and the portrait of Sir Robert Cecil is De Critz’s type, but the two surviving versions, in the NPG and the National Maritime Museum, are signed Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, the Spanish Court painter in Madrid. It isn’t Pantoja de la Cruz’s signature, but it is old. The Somerset Conference was a huge event. The execution of the NPG panel is surely English, but were these panels produced as part of a big run for all the participants, licensed to studios in England, Spain and the Netherlands? It’s an exciting thought, and quite possible given the high degree of organisation painters had as international businessmen.

By 1620, when Sir Anthony van Dyck first visited England and painted this for the Duke of Buckingham


The Continence of Scipio (c) Christ Church, Oxford

-De Critz’s High Jacobean style and the Long Gallery world it belonged to were already old-fashioned. As he watched a new generation of Baroque portrait painters take over, first Paul van Somer, then Daniel Mytens and and finally Van Dyck, the post of Serjeant-Painter would have been a useful one to have. He’d been appointed in 1604 at a salary of £40 a year, a reasonable sum with commissions on top, at a time when a full-length Royal portrait would cost about £20. He shared the role with Leonard Fryer, Queen Elizabeth’s Serjeant-Painter, until Fryer’s death in 1605, when Robert Peake was appointed. Peake’s death in 1619 left De Critz in sole charge, and thus the person whose job it was to mend mend The Field of the Cloth of Gold. The process would be very familiar. The hushed conflab in front of the painting on the wall, before it’s taken down to the studio and something else is whisked up in its place.

George Vertue unearthed accounts, bills and commissions to De Critz as Serjeant-Painter in this period, which Horace Walpole published in his Anecdotes of Painting as evidence that the Serjeant-Painter was a glorified handyman more than an artist. This distinction feels less important today. The Jacobeans thought that art was craftsmanship; we believe that craftsmanship is art. It’s satisfying to read of De Critz’s other commissions at this date. In 1621 he demanded payment for work done on the Royal barge:

‘John De Critz demaundeth allowance for these parcells of Worke following, viz. For repayreing, refreshing, washing and varnishing the whole body of his Majesty’s privy barge, and mending with fine gould and faire colours many and divers parts thereof, as about the chaire of state, the doores, and most of the antiques about the windowes, that had bene galled and defaced, the two figures at the entrance being most new coloured and painted, the Mercury and the lion that are fixed to the sternes of this and the row barge being in several places repayred both with gould and colours.’

The total for this work does not survive, but Walpole quotes a wardrobe account in 1634: ‘To John De Critz, serjeant-painter, for painting and gilding with good gold the body and carriages of two coaches and the carriage of one chariot and other necessaries, 179l.3s.4d. anno 1634′

That figure would include materials, but it’s a decent price for a job that could be delegated to De Critz’s assistants.

De Critz guarded the Serjeant-Painter’s prerogative jealously. When Queen Elizabeth’s tomb was finished in 1605, Nicholas Hilliard suggested that he should paint the effigy, because he had ‘the skill to make more radiant colours like unto enamels than yet is to Painters known.’ As Hilliard says in a letter to Sir Robert Cecil, De Critz reminded him that painting the Queen’s tomb was firmly ‘within the Serjeant’s patent.’

Whether De Critz himself would have repaired The Field of the Cloth of Gold, or one of his studio may be impossible to know for sure. By this date much of the work may have been undertaken by his son, the painter John De Critz the younger, who worked with him. De Critz was very keen for his son to succeed him, as he did in 1642, so a prestigious piece of restoration like King Henry VIII’s portrait would have been ideally suited for him.


Royal Collection  (c) Her Majesty the Queen






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s