Lute of the Month
Hans Holbein the younger (1497/8 - 1543)
The third, John Russell, first Earl of Bedford, was made Lord High Admiral in 1540 at the age of 54. The sitter in the Berlin portrait looks markedly younger than this, but of course such things can be deceiving. In fact there is a portrait of John Russell in Woburn Abbey ascribed to Holbein which shows some facial resemblance, but it is certainly of a much older man. However what would seem to cast more doubt on John Russell as the sitter is the fact that he was blinded in the right eye by an arrow at the sack of Morlaix in 1522 while the Berlin Holbein shows the sitter three-quarter face with the right eye forward and noticeably clear and bright. The Woburn Abbey portrait tactfully half hides the right eye by showing the face looking from right to left, even though the drawing mentions the one eye in its text.
The fourth possible sitter is John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, later Duke of Northumberland. Born 1502(?), he was made Lord High Admiral in 1542 so his age fits the apparent age of the sitter very well. This was only a year before Holbeins death from the plague and is eight years later than the usual date ascribed to the Berlin picture on stylistic grounds. However, as Jane Roberts remarks in her book on Holbein [London 1988 p.19], dating on the basis of style is notorously difficult in the case of Holbein and he was certainly busy with court and other portrait commissions right up to his death in 1543. There is another, anonymous portrait of the Duke of Northumberland in Penshurst which shows a figure of about the same age, with the same straight nose and prominent lower lids to the eyes and, indeed, a remarkably similar pose. It is noteworthy that the Berlin portrait, with the six course lute grasped like a staff in the left hand, shows his musical and humane interests more prominantly than his badge of high office as Lord High Admiral. It is perhaps therefore significant that, according to a letter from Roger Ascham, Northumberland had literary interests and was particularly careful to give all his children a good education. Towards the end of his eventful life, indeed, he became chancellor of the University of Cambridge.[ Dictionary of National Biography Vol - p.111] So, on the basis of office, age, likeness and interests I believe it is possible that the sitter of this Holbein portrait is John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, and that it was painted in 1542-3.
David Van Edwards
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