Unknown English Artist
Sir Henry Unton, c. 1596
Oil on panel
29 ⅛ x 64 ¼ in. (740 x 163 mm)
National Portrait Gallery, London


This unusual narrative portrait, painted in oil on a wooden panel around 1596, chronicles the achievements of Sir Henry Unton, who lived during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor monarchs. While many Elizabethan portraits celebrated a single significant moment in a sitter’s life, this landscape-format painting spans Sir Henry’s entire life. Indeed, much of the painting’s unique character lies in the multiple appearances of its subject. The Englishman appears no less than 10 times throughout, in a series of highly-detailed scenes unfolding around a large, central portrait. Anchoring the painting from opposing corners of the panel, a smiling sun and a crescent moon look down upon Unton’s life and death, serving as a reminder of the passage of time. Affirming the sitter’s place in history, the sun’s rays pinpoint his figure in each of the scenes from his life. Flanking Unton at his desk, two complementary allegorical figures overlook the events of the Englishman’s life. At his left shoulder, a skeletal figure of Death holds an hourglass. This commonly-used symbol serves as a memento mori, an inescapable reminder of fleeting time, which was intended to spur meditation on mortality. At Unton’s right shoulder, a triumphant, winged figure of Fame offers him her crown and trumpets his everlasting memory, underscoring the purpose of the portrait itself.
Unton’s widow, Lady Dorothy, commissioned the work after her husband’s death in 1596. It is not known who painted the portrait, but it is evident that it was extended at an early point in its history. The wooden panel is comprised of three horizontal boards; the top two appear to be made of walnut, while the much narrower lowest board is made of oak. The length of dark red-brown wall running beneath the line of mourners and buildings in the lowermost section of the work shows where the painting was extended. Compositional differences, varied paint handling and simplified figural style indicate that the later addition was painted by a different artist.



To hear more about  Sir Henry Unton from Charlotte Bolland, London’s National Portrait Gallery’s 16th Century Collections Curator, go to the App Store and download the app.
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