Early 17th century picture revealed as portrait of important historian's family linked to Berkeley Castle

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Early 17th century picture revealed as portrait of important historian's family linked to Berkeley Castle
The 1612 portrait of Mary Smyth, then aged 35, and her son John Smyth, aged one, the son of John Smyth the Elder, Land Steward and archivist to the Berkeley family of Berkeley Castle. Father and son were both important historians of the first half of the 17th century. The estimate for the portrait at Ewbank’s on December 2 is £1,000-2,000.

LONDON.- An early 17th century double portrait for sale at Ewbank’s on December 2 pictures the family of the author of the Berkeley Manuscripts. It is one of the most important documents on Contemporary English life in the period leading up to the English Civil War.

Research by the auction house showed that the portrait almost certainly depicts the wife and son of John Smyth (1567-1641), an historian and Land Steward for the Berkeley family, who still retain their seat at Berkeley Castle in an unbroken line of more than 850 years.

Inscriptions on the portrait, which is dated to 1612, together with an annotated scrap from a 19th century auction catalogue on the back, show that the woman in the portrait was Smyth’s second wife, Mary Browning, whom he had married two years earlier and is listed as being aged 35 at the time of the sitting.

The child in this portrait is John Smyth the Younger (1611-92), who followed his father as steward of the Gloucestershire lands of Lord Berkeley and continued his practice of writing and archiving papers. The inscription above the child’s head in the portrait notes that he is pictured in his first year, which tallies with the 1612 date inscribed opposite.

For the practical purpose of toilet training, from the mid 16th to late 19th century, it was the custom of well-to-do families to dress all young children in gowns like this until the age of six or seven when they were “breeched” or first put in trousers.

Smyth the Elder was the author of The Berkeley Manuscripts: The Lives Of The Berkeleys, Lords Of The Honour, Castle And Manor Of Berkeley, In The County Of Gloucester, From 1066 To 1618, With A Description Of The Hundred Of Berkeley And Of Its Inhabitants.

The Manuscripts details the lives of people that Smyth himself would have known and is credited with providing an extraordinary insight to the lives and times of the 1500s and 1600s.

Smyth also completed two other important works: The Lives of the Berkeleys and Men and Armour for Gloucestershire in 1608.

Smyth the Younger’s writing shed light on how families were reluctant to take sides in the Civil War.

“The Berkeley Manuscripts are a fascinating record, giving rare insights into life at the time half a century before Samuel Pepys picked up his pen to create his definitive diary,” said Ewbank’s specialist William Parker.

J.H. Cooke, referred to on the auction catalogue cutting pasted to the verso, was James Herbert Cooke, Land Steward to the Right Honourable Lord Fitzhardinge, the illegitimate grandson of the 5th Earl of Berkeley. Cooke was also the Local Secretary of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, founded in 1876, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

In 1873 he published the book A Sketch of the History of Berkeley, and was author of other books too.

He is credited with writing a number of articles for the society, including On the Great Berkeley Law-Suit of the 15th and 16th Centuries, A Chapter of Gloucestershire History (1878-79), and Wanswell Court, and its Occupants for Seven Centuries (1881). The articles appear in Volumes 3 and 6, respectively of the society’s Transactions and both draw on the Smyth papers.

It is thought that an ancestor of the current owners acquired the portrait in the sale of items from J.H. Cooke listed on the back of the portrait, in 1886.

“This portrait, painted four years before Shakespeare died, is not just an important survivor of its historic period and associations with the Berkeley family, but completes a chain of scholarship that continued with Smyth’s son, who is featured in the portrait itself, and continued more than 250 years later with the work of Cooke, who was also closely linked to the Berkeleys,” said William Parker.

The portrait will appear in Ewbank’s December 2 auction of Silver and Fine Art with an estimate of £1,000-2,000.

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