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Students and Gallery Reveal True Identity of Elizabethan Portrait
Tracy Chevalier at the Conservation Studio, National Portrait Gallery beside her chosen mystery portraits. Photo: Maht Hussain. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- A sixteenth-century portrait of a young man, that belongs to the National Portrait Gallery, has been identified as Sir Robert Dudley, the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I's favourite courtier, the Earl of Leicester. The discovery coincides with the publication of a book in which the author Tracy Chevalier penned her own short story imagining the sitter's identity.

The discovery was made by Bristol University students who were working under the supervision of the National Portrait Gallery on a display of paintings of mystery figures which opens tomorrow (March 17) at the Gallery's 16th century regional partner, the National Trust's Montacute House.

Previously thought to depict the poet Sir Thomas Overbury, who appears to have been killed in 1613, research now shows that both the facial likeness and the past history of the painting is more likely to represent Dudley. In her new story inspired by the portrait, entitled Rosy, Tracy Chevalier has written about a portrait of a handsome young man with a flushed complexion as the object of homosexual desire.

Over the last 450 years, the identities of the 13 sitters featured in the portraits on display have been either lost or mistaken. This will be the first opportunity to see these paintings, which have either been recently restored or not exhibited for over half a century.

To coincide with the display, the Gallery invited Tracy Chevalier, bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, together with John Banville, Julian Fellowes, Sir Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters to contribute short imaginative stories on what the lives of the mystery sitters in the portraits might have been like.

New research undertaken by History of Art MA students at the University of Bristol, working with Dr Tatiana String - and supervised by the Gallery's 16th Century Curator Dr Tarnya Cooper - has meant that they can now be brought back into full view with a clearer understanding of their past.

The display features portraits of men and women whose identities are no longer known. They appear to depict courtiers, musicians, writers, soldiers and others who hoped to preserve their memory by sitting for a portrait. They were purchased by the National Portrait Gallery from 1858 to 1971. When the identity of these portraits was disproved or disputed, the paintings were often removed from display or lent to other collections. Recent conservation work and new research has meant that some portraits can now be re-identified.

In the nineteenth century the Dudley portrait was part of a large collection of paintings at Ditchley in Oxfordshire. The house had been part of the estate of Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), Elizabeth I's champion and godfather to Robert Dudley. It is possible that either Lee commissioned the portrait or that Dudley presented it to Lee and that it remained at Ditchley thereafter. In 1591 Dudley took part in his first ceremonial tilting tournament and also married Margaret Cavendish (d.1595). These events may well have been a reason to commission this portrait. The panel painting has been cut down on three sides and was originally larger (perhaps showing both head and torso or even full length portrait).

Imagined Lives: Mystery Portraits 1520-1640, (17 March 2010-October 2011) is at The National Trust's Montacute House, near Yeovil, Somerset. The display is a collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery, the National Trust and the University of Bristol.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: 'I am delighted that the Gallery will once again be working with the National Trust and the University of Bristol, this time bringing together some fascinating, unseen portraits from the Gallery's Collection and revealing their research into them. Visitors will also be able to read the inspired responses to the portraits of some of today's most accomplished writers.'

Richard Higgs, Property Manager of Montacute House, says: 'This exciting new exhibition will give visitors a unique way of looking at this fabulous collection of paintings. The fact that they are unknowns is intriguing in itself but I think the biographies created by the writers will really spark the imagination and get people thinking about the possible lives of the sitters.'

Dr Tatiana String, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History of Art, University of Bristol, says: 'Our unique collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery and the National Trust has attracted students to our course from Japan, Chile, Cyprus, Australia and the United States, as well as some of the most talented students from across the UK. Their research for this exhibition has uncovered important new ways of interpreting these "unknown" portraits.'

National Portrait Gallery | Elizabethan Portrait | Sir Robert Dudley | Tracy Chevalier |

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