Captain Thomas Lee (c.1551-1601) had his portrait painted by 33-year-old Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (Bruges, 1561-1636) in London in 1594. Captain Lee was 43 years old and had worked as a military adventurer for English colonization in Ireland since the early 1570’s.
The young artist was the son of Gheeraerts the Elder(c. 1520–c. 1590), a painter and printmaker associated with the Tudor court in the late 1560’s and 1570’s. Fleeing religious persecution in Flanders, Gheeraerts the Elder arrived into England with his 7-year-old son Marcus in 1568. In 1577, Gheeraerts the Elder had likely returned to Flanders.
By 1594, when the portrait of Captain Lee was made, Gheeraerts the Younger was a rising young contemporary artist working in Elizabeth I’s Tudor court. Sir Roy Strong, the English art historian who served as director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is unequivocal about Gheeraerts the Younger’s artistic importance to English art history. Strong wrote that Gheeraerts is “the most important artist of quality to work in England in large-scale between (Hans) Eworth (c. 1520 – 1574) and (Anthony) van Dyck (1599-1641).”1
In addition to a discussion of the early painting of Captain Lee, a complete collection of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s 33 art works– including signed and dated works, documented and dated works, inscribed and dated works, and inscribed and undated works– is included in this post following this introduction.
Marriages in the social and cultural worlds of the late-16th-century Tudor court.
At 22 years old in 1583, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s world in and around London was ideally enclosed by marriage to the sister of talented Tudor court painter John De Critz (c.1555-c.1641). De Critz, like his new brother-in-law Gheeraerts the Younger, was a child expatriate from Flanders to England in 1568.2 In 1571 Gheeraerts the Elder had married his son’s future wife’s sister, making father and son Gheeraerts also eventually brothers-in law.3 Over two decades later, in 1602, Gheeraerts the Younger’s sister married the court artist Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617).4 This was typical social behavior at the Tudor court where many active artists were connected by ties of marriage, family, and artistic training as well as shared European origin. In Gheeraerts the Younger’s circle, for instance, John De Critz was apprenticed to the wealthy portrait painter Lucas de Heere (1534-1584) who may also have helped train Gheeraerts the Younger. De Heere – like Gheeraerts the Younger and De Critz – was a religious refugee to England from Flanders. Isaac Oliver, Gheeraerts the Younger’s other brother-in-law, studied under leading Tudor portrait miniaturist and goldsmith Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619) 5 Roy Strong links Hilliard to Gheeraerts by way of the supreme artistic quality found in both of these contrasting artists’ masterpieces.6 One remarkable technical innovation that the young artist applied in his portraits was the use of stretched canvas in place of wood panel that allowed for larger and lighter surface areas on which to paint and more easily transport pictures of the grand gentlemen and ladies of the time.
By way of marriage to an Irish Catholic woman, Captain Thomas Lee became a man of considerable property in Ireland but had separated from his wife by the time of his portrait. The next year -– in 1595 –- Lee remarried an Englishwoman. Over the decades, Captain Lee’s military reputation became one of an enfant terrible which did not mellow over time. Powerful friends looked to explain Thomas’s frequent reckless political and military behavior. It was justified as the occupational hazard of a longtime English soldier in Ireland.
Devising and posing for the portrait of Captain Lee.
Lee posed for Gheeraerts when the captain was straight off the battlefield from Ulster chieftain Aodh Mag Uidhir (Hugh Maguire, d. 1600) and in London for delicate negotiations. To presumably express Thomas’s faithful service to the Crown, the portrait includes a Latin inscription in the tree that refers to Mucius Scaevola (c. 500 BC), an ancient perhaps mythical Roman fighter who remained loyal to Rome even after he was captured by mortal enemies.
Thomas was related to Sir Henry Lee– they were paternal half cousins. Until his retirement in 1590, though still active and influential in political affairs, Sir Henry was Queen Elizabeth I’s Champion for nearly a quarter of a century. Henry was the creator of the stunning imagery included in her publicly-popular Accession Day festivals that he annually planned. Along with Gheerearts the Younger’s Elizabethan allegorical portrait Lady in Fancy Dress (The Persian Lady) (#30 below) as well as the Ditchley portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (#31 below), both painted in the early 1590s, Henry at the same time may have helped devise the symbolism in Captain Lee’s portrait which also came from Ditchley, Sir Henry Lee’s timber-framed family house set in north Oxfordshire wooded farmland.
While the painting’s landscape where Captain Lee stands is likely a representation of Ireland’s wild landscape, Henry Lee’s symbolism may provide other more subtle and humorous features. Troublesome Thomas, for example, stands under an oak, which may refer to Sir Henry’s political protection but also that these trees are prone to dangerous lightning strikes. The final seven years of Captain Thomas Lee’s life iterated this legendary standard: at times negotiating with or killing Irish enemies he also served time in prison in Ireland on a charge of treason. Ultimately, Sir Henry could not save his familial junior– in 1601 Thomas faced execution in England for treason against Elizabeth I.
English colonial vice tightens in Ireland.
English power became increasingly absolute in 17th century Ireland. In the 1590’s, the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland believed turning their backs on the mostly Catholic natives was the most effective governing strategy. While an oath of allegiance to the Crown remained law to divest Irish rebels of their property to English rule, it was not vigorously applied until the arrival in 1604 into Ireland of Lord Deputy Arthur Chichester (1563-1625) and thereafter. The 1590’s continued to implement England’s new plantation system in Ireland which amounted to confiscating Irish property for English and Scottish settlers. While this provided quick and lucrative rewards for the conquerors, the political situation was not free of ambiguity. English laws were attacked by Irish chiefs seeking protection under older common law. Protestant settlers had their own uneasy relationship with the English Crown who, in turn, fought a tug of war with an English Parliament. About half of settlers in Ulster were Presbyterians who were dissenters from the English church at war with Anglo- and Gaelic Irish Catholics. Moreover, London viewed new Protestant landowners in Ireland –- such as Captain Thomas Lee –- with as much, if not more, suspicion as despoiled Catholics. The Crown believed that the new Protestant vanguard in Ireland had power to usurp the island’s treasure more readily than pillaged Catholics who could, ironically perhaps, better be disposed to the idea of royal governance.7
While Thomas Lee’s special status is expressed in the painting’s lace embroidery on his rolled-up shirt and inlaid pistol and Northern Italian-made helmet, the Captain is dressed as a common foot-soldier who traveled through Ireland lightly armed and, in itself both serious and humorous, barelegged. Sir Henry must have been one of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s earliest patrons, as the Ditchley collection had several portraits which can be ascribed to him.8
Strong, Roy, The English Icon: Elizabethan & Jacobean Portraiture, The Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art London Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited New Haven Yale University Press, 1969, p.22.
Hearn, Karen, Marcus Gheeraerts II: Elizabethan Artist, In Focus (Tate Publishing), 2003, p. 11ff.
The Captain Thomas Lee portrait was first recorded at Ditchley by Vertue in 1725 who noted there a portrait of ‘Lee in Highlanders Habit leggs naked a target & head piece on his left hand his right a spear or pike. Ætatis suae.43.ano.Dni 1594’.
1. SIGNED AND DATED WORKS (8 works):
2. DOCUMENTED AND DATED WORKS (3 works):
3. INSCRIBED AND DATED WORKS (18 works):
Here then concludes the complete collection of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s signed and dated works (Strong 255-262); inscribed and dated works (Strong 266-283); and, inscribed and undated works (Strong 284-287). Not included here are works dated and attributed to the artist (Strong 288-294) and attributed and undated (Strong 295-313). The last group includes several well-known portraits including William Cecil, Lord Burghley, c. 1595, in the National Portrait Gallery (Strong 295) and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, c. 1596, in collection of the Duke of Bedford. (Strong 300).
Strong 255 – Hearn, Karen, Marcus Gheeraerts II, Elizabethan Artist (In Focus series), Tate Publishing, 2002, p. 29.