Mystery hangs over our early English portraits, and none is more mysterious than that of the brash young man in flashy armor, fanciful red earring, and steely gaze that we call Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Breastplate—an intriguing but elusive figure from late 16th-century England.
Who is this blond-haired man-child with peach fuzz on his upper lip? Research has revealed some of the secrets of this painting, which once was identified as Col. George Goring. It almost certainly is not he.
Conservation treatment and six years of research have revealed some of the painting’s secrets. It arrived at the Museum in 1967, along with six other portraits from the Scott family of Kent, England, the gift of North Carolinians Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc. An inscription on the painting identified the young man as Col. George “Lord” Goring, a well-known English Royalist soldier. Our analysis shows that the work was painted about 1590, all but ensuring that its subject is not George Goring (1608–57).
British School, Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Breastplate, circa 1585–90, oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 33 5/8 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc
So who is this blond-haired man-child with peach fuzz on his upper lip? His clothes and possessions are much too rich for a common soldier and too extravagant for the battlefield. His lace collar, flamboyant yellow sleeves and breeches, officer’s staff (spear), and extraordinary breastplate suggest some kind of parade costume. Both the frilly embroidered handkerchief on his arm and jeweled glove on the helmet must be lady’s favors, telling us that he is probably dressed for a tournament. Finally, the earring makes a bold statement: earrings were typically worn by sailors, poets, actors, and fashion-forward young noblemen, often to give the Puritans of the day a good poke.
Detail of the elaborate breastplate after conservation treatment. Our gentleman's clothes and possessions are too rich for a common soldier and too extravagant for the battlefield.
This portrait is part of the History and Mystery exhibition, on view in West Building through June 25. Free admission.
The painting holds as many secrets as the man. A 19th-century engraving shows it at full length.
The painting itself holds as many secrets as the man. The portrait was once full length, as seen in an early 19th-century engraving, which reveals that our young gentleman has lost his legs from the knees down. The drab green tablecloth was once a bright emerald color. The yellow garments are still bright, but the red dye-based pigments that created an elaborate decoration have faded and are now almost invisible, except under ultraviolet light. These clues reveal that the painting was a much richer product than it now appears.
There are a number of candidates for the identity of the sitter. The most interesting is Sir Robert Sidney, a relative and close friend of our Sir John Scott. Sidney, a regular at important tournaments, was nephew and surrogate son of Robert Dudley, Queen Elizabeth's first great love. Dudley doted on Robert and his older brother Philip, passing along his love for poetry, art, and exotic imported goods. Confined to England by Elizabeth, Dudley sent Philip and Robert to trade and collect for him in Europe. The top-quality armor in our portrait, attributed to the Collaert family of Antwerp circa 1585, and the unusual red earring could be just the thing Dudley inspired the Sidney boys to acquire. Other portraits of Robert Sidney show him with curly blond locks and minimal facial hair, just like our mystery man, at a time when many English men had dark hair and nearly all wore beards.
Although affected by the ravages of time, our portrait remains powerful and evocative. Was our gentleman fresh from battle in Flanders defending the Virgin Queen, or a rebellious young lord about to joust for a fair damsel’s favor? Like a character in a play by his contemporary Shakespeare, this young man with the red earring has many tales to tell.
UNC-TV's North Carolina Weekend recently featured a segment on the exhibition, including interviews with David Steel, Perry Hurt, and UNC–Chapel Hill professor Tania String. On the show's homepage, click January 12, then “Watch Video.”