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500-year-old mystery surrounding portrait of Henry VII's mother solved at St John's College

An intriguing mystery surrounding one of the most important portraits of the early 16th century has been solved by an art historian at St John’s College.

Portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort by Meynnart Wewyck Image supplied by: St John's College, University of Cambridge (8154679)
Portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort by Meynnart Wewyck Image supplied by: St John's College, University of Cambridge (8154679)

The painting of Lady Margaret Beaufort - mother of King Henry VII - is the first piece of work identified as by Dutch artist Meynnart Wewyck, and the oldest large-scale portrait of an English woman.

While Wewyck was Henry VII’s preferred painter, his name has been unknown because the absence of a signed or documented work has made it impossible to attribute paintings to him.

His 180cm tall by 122cm wide painting is the earliest large-scale portrait of an English woman, and one of the earliest large-scale portraits of a single individual in the UK.

Educationalist and philanthropist Lady Margaret was one of the wealthiest women in England and, once her son was on the throne, used her money to build schools, churches, and two University of Cambridge colleges – Christ’s and St John’s.

The portrait of her held at St John’s was originally believed to have been given to the college in the late 16th century.

But fellow Dr Andrew Chen, an art historian, found documents in the college archives referring to a painting of Lady Margaret by Wewyck arriving at St John’s in 1534.

Analysis of tree rings in the wooden frame of the portrait showed it was made before 1521, enabling Dr Chen and Dr Charlotte Bolland, senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery, to link the painting to the one referenced in the college records.

Dr Chen said: “This portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort is one of the most important portraits of the early 16th century. It demonstrates that elite patrons were working with European painters who had the skills to realise large, ambitious compositions even before Hans Holbein the Younger arrived in the England in 1526.”

Paintings of women depicted on their own in a large-scale format are very rare.

Dr Andrew Chen Picture: St John's College, University of Cambridge (8154681)
Dr Andrew Chen Picture: St John's College, University of Cambridge (8154681)

Dr Chen explained: “On smaller scales, portraits of women would be displayed in houses or circulate as part of marriage negotiations. Women are also shown on larger scales as donors in altarpieces, but in these contexts they are associated with religious subjects and normally paired with men.

“The composition of our Lady Margaret portrait derives from the art of sacred settings, but, significantly, here the woman comes to stand alone. This innovation in format seems to be related to the fact that she was the foundress of institutions.”

The portrait was commissioned shortly after Lady Margaret’s death, around 1510, by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Lady Margaret’s advisor.

In 1534 he fell out of favour with King Henry VIII, Lady Margaret’s grandson, and his home was raided by the king’s henchmen, who stole or destroyed many of his possessions, including books he had promised to St John’s College Library.

But the portrait of Lady Margaret was safe at the Bishop of Rochester’s palace in Lambeth Marsh and was transported to St John’s shortly afterwards to ensure it would not be destroyed.

Dr Mark Nicholls, Tudor historian and fellow of St John’s, said: “In contrast to the similar portrait of Lady Margaret in the college's hall, which was commissioned from the artist Rowland Lockey in 1598, the origins of this painting have long been mysterious.

“Now, thanks to a productive coming together of scientific analysis and close reading of surviving documents in the college's collection, we can recognise a remarkable early Tudor portrait for what it is, and place it accurately in the long tradition of portraiture on display in the college.”

Researchers have now connected Wewyck to a portrait in similar style of Henry VII, owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Further technical analysis of the paintings may help discover further pieces.

Dr Chen said: “These paintings can serve as touchstones for further research into Wewyck’s work. As perhaps the first Netherlandish painter to find work at the Tudor court, Wewyck stands at the beginning of a process of the transfer of artistic skills that would dominate the production of painted portraiture in England throughout the 16th century. It’s a very exciting discovery.”

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