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Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
  • Date: c. 1560 - 1564
  • Object Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil on oak panel
  • Image size: 91.2 x 71 cm
  • Inv: P534
  • Location: Great Gallery
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Further Reading
  • Robert Dudley (1532?-1588) was a key figure at the Elizabethan court, and one of the most influential art patrons of the age. He was a favourite of Elizabeth I from the time of her accession in 1558 until his death: she installed him as a Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1559, appointed him to the Privy Council in 1562 and granted him the title Earl of Leicester in 1564.
    Robert Dudley is said to have commissioned a greater range of portraits of himself than any other courtier at that period, rivalled in number perhaps only by those of the queen herself. Highly ambitious and self-regarding, he was keenly aware of the power of portraiture for self-promotion in political circles. This portrait is held to be the earliest surviving accepted portrait of Dudley. Although it is unsigned, the date is inscribed in barely legible letters on the hilt of the sitter’s sword, ‘aetatis 28 156[…]’, i.e. ‘at the age of 28, in 156(?)’. Thus, because we don’t know precisely when Dudley was born, we can only say that the portrait must have been painted between 24 June 1560 and 23 June 1562.
    The confident-looking Dudley is portrayed turned to the viewer’s right, and directly meets the viewer’s gaze. His face and sumptuous costume are evenly lit, against a dark, plain background. His rich court attire emphasises his wealth and status: he wears a black velvet cap with gold and white feathers secured by a jewelled chain, a golden doublet with a high collar that is heavily embroidered and decorated with pearls and white enamelled roses. His Order of the Garter pendant is suspended from a long necklace composed of pearls and gemstones.
    Dudley wears a dagger at his hip, to the left, while on the right he touches the guard of his sword with his hand. His other hand rests on the top of a morion helmet which bears a medallion of a warrior’s head. His matching sword and dagger are in the latest Italian style, appropriate for a fashionable and highly cultivated courtier. They also allude to his military accomplishments and ambitions.
    This arresting portrait may have been intended to remind the viewer of Dudley’s eligibility for marriage. It was painted at a time when Dudley enjoyed the favour of Elizabeth I and, after the death of his wife Amy Robsart in September 1560, when he began to present himself as a serious contender for her hand.
    Numerous portraits of Robert Dudley have been attributed to this artist and his workshop, including likenesses at Waddesdon Manor and the Yale Center for British Art. However, his actual output remains unclear. He died in 1563 or early 1564, as his will was proved on 25 January 1564.