Interview with Dr Tarnya Cooper

The Making Art in Tudor Britain Team in front of a portrait of Thomas Wentworth, NPG 1851. Top left: Sophie Plender (Senior Research Conservator, Tudor Project), bottom left: Tarnya Cooper (Curator, Sixteenth Century Collections), top right Catherine Daunt (Leverhulme PhD Student, Tudor Painting), bottom right: Sally Marriott, Assistant Paintings Conservator (Tudor Project). © National Portrait Gallery, London

Dr Cooper, you work at the National Portrait Gallery as the Curator of Sixteenth Century Collections, could you share with us a little about what this position involves?

A museum curator’s job differs from institution to institution dependent on size and specialism, but my job involves responsibility for research, collections care and the display of the Tudor collections at the National Portrait Gallery. There are also five other curators who look after our collections from the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th centuries and the contemporary period.  Each day is different but it may involve; responding to enquires from researchers and the public, working on displays and exhibitions to be shown in the gallery in London or at our regional partnership at Montacute House in Somerset, doing more general research into artistic practice in the sixteenth century, attending conferences, and working with our conservation staff to both research and conserve our own collections.

When did you first become interested in Tudor portraiture?

I have always been interested in museums and I studied art history at university and I went on to work on Dutch and Flemish painters for my masters degree. I became interested in Tudor portraiture during this period and worked on Dutch and Flemish artists working in England.  I completed a PhD in Tudor and Jacobean portraiture in 2001.

How many Tudor portraits are there housed in the gallery and how are these treasures generally acquired?

There are around three hundred portraits of Tudor sitters at the National Portrait Gallery. Many were acquired as gifts during the early years of the Gallery’s development. Portraits are still acquired through gifts and bequests but some have also been purchased if they are considered to be of particular importance to the nation and to be an authentic record of the appearance of the sitter. A recent example of this is the purchase of a portrait of the poet John Donne, which is one of the earliest surviving examples of a portrait of an Elizabethan author. This was achieved through the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund and numerous other generous donors.

When did portraiture become fashionable in England?

Very few portraits were produced in England before 1500 but portraiture became increasingly popular during the sixteenth century. The first commissions were mainly portraits of royalty, and often the exchange of portraits played a key role in marriage negotiations between courts. Portraiture was then adopted by courtiers as a means of displaying status and power through the display of their costly dress, jewellery, coats of arms and symbols of office. From the 1540s portraiture spread beyond the court and came to be commissioned by merchants and citizens. For all of these different kinds of sitters, portraiture performed an important role in recording a likeness. This allowed portraits to act as memorials and to be exchanged as a means of reinforcing friendships between individuals. The use of patterns enabled portraits to be reproduced and reinvented through changes to costume or other details, and thus many versions of a portrait could be produced from a single sitting. As portraiture became more popular it began to be displayed in different areas: moving from royal palaces to town halls, livery company halls and private homes, often in the main room of the house or the bedroom. In the late sixteenth century sets of portraits – such as kings and queens – also became popular and were produced in quantities in order to be displayed in the houses of the nobility and gentry.

Apart from producing portraits, what other works did the artists of the Tudor court produce?

The portrait painters at the Tudor court were often highly versatile artists who shared the same status as other artisans and craftsmen. Portraits represented only one aspect of their output and they can often be found receiving payments from the Office of Works and the department of the Revels. Within this context artists were responsible for producing the large amount of decorative work that covered the walls of domestic interiors, and also for designing decorative imagery for temporary events, such as theatrical set designs and banners. This approach to the employment of artists is exemplified by the career of Hans Holbein in England. During his time working for the crown, as well as painting portraits of the monarch and prominent courtiers, he also produced designs for goldsmith’s work, decorative canvases for the entertainment of the French embassy at Greenwich in 1527, and there is even a design for a chimney piece at the British Museum which has been attributed to him.

If you were an artist employed by one of the Tudor monarchs, were you payed well?

In contrast to the high cost of clothes, jewellery and household goods – such as tapestries – painted portraits were relatively inexpensive. The price of a portrait depended on the skill of the artist, the size of the portrait and the complexity of the composition, but it was possible for modestly wealthy individuals to afford their own portraits. New portraits probably cost around 10 to 20 shillings to commission but distinguished artists could be paid much more. Holbein was paid £30 per year, with extra payments for individual pictures, such as the £13 6s 8d that he received for two portraits of Anne of Cleves and her sister Amelia in 1539. By contrast, a few years later John Bettes received only £3 for six paintings and portraits of the king and queen, although the scale of these works is not known and they could have been miniatures. Prices do not seem to have risen much during the second half of the sixteenth century. In the early Elizabethan period the Flemish artist Levina Teerlinc received £40 per year, which was the cost of a moderately sized house, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century John de Critz was paid £5 for a picture of Sir Thomas White by the Merchant Taylors Company.

In the past there have been portraits identified as Anne Boleyn, Mary Tudor, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey only to be ‘re-identified’ years later. How do you go about identifying the subject of a portrait and why is this such a challenging task?

Many Tudor portraits incorporate painted inscriptions and heraldic symbols which can help to identify the sitter. Recent advances in technical analysis have made it possible to ascertain whether these identifiers are original to the painting. For paintings on panel, dendrochronology can also be used to date the wood, which often provides a start point from which to assess the authenticity of an image. For example, recent analysis of a portrait of Catherine of Aragon at the National Portrait Gallery has revealed that the panel dates from the eighteenth century, so the likeness cannot be considered authoritative. By contrast, a work depicting Mary Queen of Scots, which had been assumed to have been painted in the eighteenth century, has recently been shown to date from the sixteenth century, and may even have been painted during Mary’s lifetime.

Where there are no obvious means of identifying the sitter research into their clothing can be used as a means of gauging their social status. Textiles and tailoring were extremely expensive and items of clothing were often the most costly and prized possessions of the Tudor nobility. Fashions also changed quickly which makes it possible to date a portrait to within five or ten years. However, this, as with research into the jewels of a sitter, can only ever be used as a guide because the sitter may have deliberately chosen to wear clothes that were of a slightly older style or the costume and jewels may have been invented, or elaborated, by the artist. Research into the provenance of a portrait can also provide clues as to the identity of a sitter, and support the findings of technical analysis. However, it is important to note that the high level of interest in certain portraits – such as those of Henry’s queens – often only developed after the sitter’s death. This means that it is often difficult to trace the original from which the many images in circulation stem, and to identify whether it came from an actual sitting. At the same time, comparative images with which to confirm the sitters’ identity are also rare.

Do you believe that a full-length portrait of Queen Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein once existed?

I think this is very difficult to say.  There is a drawing by Holbein which is labelled ‘Anna Bollein Queen’ in the Royal Collection, although the identity is disputed. It is one of a large number of drawings of members of Henry’s court and it does not appear to be a study for a painting.

Do you have a favourite Tudor portrait and/or artist and why?

Sir Henry Lee by Anthonis Mor

The portrait of Sir Henry Lee by Anthonis Mor is one of the most engaging portraits within the Tudor collection at the National Portrait Gallery. Recent technical analysis has allowed us to understand the artist’s skill and technique in much greater depth, whilst the sitter himself is also of great interest because of his role in commissioning one of the most famous portraits of Elizabeth I – the ‘Ditchley’ portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Lee most likely sat for Mor during his visit to Antwerp in June 1568, which was the first stage of a diplomatic tour that also took him to Germany and Italy. The pose of the sitter and his costume remain a puzzle. Lee is depicted wearing Elizabeth I’s personal colours of white, gold, red and black, and his sleeves are decorated with armillary spheres – an emblem associated with the queen – and lovers’ knots. The inclusion of gold rings tied onto red cord and worn at his wrist and upper arm, and the attention that is drawn to the ring around his neck, cannot be easily explained. The depiction of the thumb on Lee’s left hand was altered by the artist in order to give greater emphasis to the downward pull on the cord and this gesture would seem to indicate an offer of love and devotion, either to the queen or to a lover. Each viewer may have interpreted it differently.

My readers and I have been working hard to raise awareness of the urgent conservation work that Anne Boleyn’s iconic portrait requires. Could you share with us a little about the conservation work that will be undertaken on the portrait once the required funds are raised?

The portrait of Anne Boleyn requires urgent conservation work because of problems with the panel on which the portrait is painted. Vertical cracks have appeared in the panel, which are visible in raking light, and these have resulted in paint loss from the surface of the portrait. In order to stabilise the panel an unsuitable cradle – an applied wooden panel support – needs to be removed. Removing this cradle and replacing it with appropriate conservation framing will ensure that the condition does not deteriorate further, thus preserving this record of Anne Boleyn’s likeness.



  1. Anne Barnhill says:

    This is fascinating! Do you happen to know if there are any portraits of Sir John Shelton or his wife, Lady Anne (Boleyn) Shelton? I would also like to know if Lady Mary (Shelton) Scudamore or Lady Margeret (Shelton) Wodehouse has a portrait that anyone knows about. Thanks so much for this great interview!

  2. Thanks for posting such an interesting interview. I love going to the Tudor Gallery at the NPG and it is fascinating to learn what happens behind the scenes.

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