More about the ‘Syon Portrait’ from Stephan Edwards

Following up on a comment on Twitter regarding his interview, Dr Stephan Edwards writes:

‘The oval portrait originated in northern Italy in the 1400s. It seems to have been in imitation of ancient Roman cameos.

From Italy, the fashion spread northward, so that oval portraits (whether painted on an actual oval support or painted on a rectangular support with a decorative oval faux-painted frame-image) are known in England as early as the 1520s. Similarly, oval engraved images became popular in English printed books at the same time and were actually quite common in the Elizabethan period.

A perfect example of a non-rectangular portrait from the mid-16th century is the round portrait variously identified as Jane Grey or Elizabeth I when Princess and now in the NPG (NPG 674).
Miniatures were also usually either round or oval, seldom rectangular. This applies throughout the 16th century. Thus the two large portraits at Syon of Katherine Grey and her son are round, because they were copied and adapted from the round miniature original now at Belvoir Castle. Both of those large rounds can be firmly dated to the 1560s and 1570s.

That the painting is on board rather than canvas does itself suggest that the painting pre-dates 1600. Wood panel was the preferred support until the earliest 1600s, whereas canvas became the preferred support after 1600. Ovals painted after 1600 are more typically on canvas, but the larger canvas is itself affixed to a rectangular support, with the oval created by a faux-painted image of a frame. The Audley End copy of the Syon portrait is a perfect example of this oval-painted-on-rectangle 17th-century practice.

Full-sized non-rectangular portraits are, however, still relatively rare in England in the 16th century, which is why I need to continue following up on Ms Hartweg’s suggestion.

Does the oval shape of the Syon portrait indicate that it was, like the larger versions of the Katherine Grey portrait, copied from a miniature or small “cabinet” portrait? Or was it perhaps cut down to an oval at some later date from a rectangular original, in pursuit of a fashion? Dendrochronology will certainly help with this issue.

You can read the interview with him:

Interview with Stephan Edwards

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