THE UNKNOWN FOLLOWER OF CUSTODIS (fl. 1590-1612)
‘Sir John Fortescue (c.1531-1607)’
Oil on panel: 42 x 32 inches
Inscribed upper right with date and sitter’s age ‘Ano Domini. 1597/ Aetatis Suae.64.’ and upper left with family coat of arms.
Provenance: Gabriel Goodman (1529-1601), Dean of Westminster, The Warden, Christ’s Hospital, Ruthin, Private collection, England
Literature: John Steegman, A Survey of Portraits in Welsh Houses, Vol. I, Houses in North Wales, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 1957, p.91 Thomas, Lord Clermont, A History of the Family of Fortescue in all its Branches, London, 1880, p.94
Sir John Fortescue (c.1531-1607), Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1601-1607), was descended from a distinguished West Country family of administrators and lawyers. He was the eldest of three sons of Sir Adrian Fortescue (c.1481-1539), who was executed for alleged treason on 9th July 1539, most likely because of his close kinship to Anne Boleyn (1500-1536). Nonetheless, the family’s fortunes changed for in 1540 Fortescue’s mother married the royal household administrator, Sir Thomas Parry (1515-1560) and subsequent to this, the family estate was restituted to her eldest son, John Fortescue, by an act of Parliament in 1551. Probably on the instigation of his step-father, sometime around 1555 John Fortescue entered Princess Elizabeth’s household at Woodstock, Oxfordshire, where he was appointed clerk of the library in 1556 and was later appointed Superintendent of the Princess Elizabeth’s studies. Subsequent to Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 1558, Fortescue was made Master (or Keeper) of the Great Wardrobe, a post he held until his death. On 10th February 1588, Fortescue’s loyal and long-standing service was rewarded with his appointment as Privy Councillor to Elizabeth I. Considered a very able administrator, he rose to prominence as Chancellor of the Exchequer to both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. Whilst the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer can be traced from the twelfth century, its significance as an administrative and financial office is generally dated to the late sixteenth century, during Fortescue’s tenure
Our painting has been attributed to an anonymous artist identified as the Unknown Follower of Custodis (fl. 1590-1612). It is characteristic of the artist’s style with an iconic, two dimensional format and limited palate. Hieronimo Custodis himself was a protestant émigré from Antwerp who had fled to England after the capture of the city by the Duke of Parma in 1585. His dated works are from 1589 until his death in 1593, therefore our painter seems likely to have been an assistant of Custodis and perhaps even inherited his pattern book.
Identification of our sitter is based on the elaborate family armorial displayed top left on a red marble pillar. Sir John Fortescue is shown three-quarter-length, wearing a black doublet, white ruff, a high-crowned beaver hat and resting his right hand on the knob of a walking cane. Suspended on a gold cord around his waist, he wears a cameo jewel depicting a bust-profile of Elizabeth I. A noted scholar, Fortescue counted Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), the founder of the Bodleian library, and Sir Gabriel Goodman (1529-1601), Dean of Westminster, among his friends. It is likely that the portrait was painted as a gift for Goodman and it is almost certain that Goodman gave the painting to Christ’s Hospital or the Grammar School at Ruthin, both of which institutions he founded. For many years our painting of Sir John Fortescue hung in the Cloisters of St Peter’s Church at Ruthin. The Cloisters also held a portrait of his good friend, Sir Gabriel Goodman, painted in 1600, and these portraits most likely hung together at Ruthin.
John Fortescue (d. 1432) of Holbeton in Devon, was an administrator in the service of the Courtenay family. His eldest son, Henry (d.1490) held the post of chief justice of the king's bench of Ireland between 1426 and 1429, whilst his second son, Sir John (c.1397–1479), was revered as a justice and political theorist.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 18/05/09. Arnold, J ( 1988) ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d’, pp.163-165. Maney and Sons: Leeds.
As Keeper, Fortescue was responsible for the care of the Queen’s royal attire, textiles and jewellery as well as armour, furniture, state documents and the occasional detention and interrogation of prisoners.
Even after that date, the chancellorship remained a comparatively administrative position, concerned more with the daily administration of the realm rather than parliamentarian policy. However, it grew in importance in line with a shifting balance of power between the crown and parliament and key resolutions passed by the House of Commons in 1706 and 1713 endowed the executive, rather than the monarchy, with the authority to initiate and approve financial legislation. These changes meant that the office of chancellor, formerly administrative, became increasingly political. Since the early nineteenth century, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been the cabinet minister responsible for finance and the head of HM Treasury.
The artist was first identified by Sir Roy Strong on the basis of an identical form of inscription used. See: Strong, R. (1963) Elizabethan Painting: an approach through Inscriptions – Hieronimo Custodis, Burlington Magazine, CV, 1963, p.104. The small corpus of work by this artist was latter published in his seminal work, Strong, R. (1969) The English Icon, pp.207-214
Our thanks to Timothy Duke, Chester Herald, College of Arms for his assistance in identifying the sitter. He confirms that the quarterly Arms and Crest on this portrait are also recorded (with some minor differences) in the funeral certificate of Sir John Fortescue
John Steegman, A Survey of Portraits in Welsh Houses, Vol. I, Houses in North Wales, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 1957, p.91