Unknown Nobleman in Armour

Gillis Egidius Claeissens
circa 1536 – 1605

Unknown Nobleman in Armour

Painted circa 1565-70

Oil on Panel: 13 1/2 x 11 1/4 inches, 34.3 x 28.5 cm


  • Possibly in the collection of Jacob Duijk, Middleburg, Zeeland, 1740s;[1]
  • Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847 – 1929), Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire; and by descent to
  • Neil Archibald Primrose, 7th Earl of Rosebery, Mentmore Towers, his sale,
  • Sotheby’s, 25 May 1977, lot 2419 as ‘School of Sir Anthony Mor’;
  • Private collection, Wilton Crescent, Belgravia, London.
  • [1] Before the picture’s recent restoration, it had a later coat-of-arms in the upper right background which was removed as it was a later addition. This included in its left shield a blue and golden fess (wavy) between three golden canards, with a canard between a golden and blue pair of wings on the top of the helm. The bearer of these arms was Jacob Duijk of Middelburg in the province of Zeeland, circa 1740; however, the symbols in the right shield were not decipherable.

The painter of our portrait can clearly be associated on stylistic grounds with a group of works by a recognizable but as yet unidentified artist, all of which are notable for their high finish, remarkable attention to costume detail, similar designs and comparative small scale. Amongst these is a pair of portraits of an unknown noble couple of almost identical dimensions as ours, in the collection of the Hallwylska Museum in Copenhagen, and which bear the monogram ‘G.E.C’, hence the nomenclature ‘Monogrammist G.E.C.’. This artist was clearly Flemish-trained and a close contemporary of the Bruges portraitist Pieter Pourbus, to whose work his bear some similarities, and whose name is often attached to his work.[1] Interestingly enough, whilst Pourbus’s clientele was predominantly the bourgeois merchant class, the Monogrammist clearly worked for the nobility on the Franco-Flemish borders. There is a portrait of an unknown French child by the artist in the Royal Society of Antiquaries, London, and the present portrait also depicts a French nobleman, for notably his costume and armour are in the French fashion of the time.

Sixteenth century portraits of sitters depicted in armour traditionally portray royalty, a pictorial tradition whose Renaissance precedents notably include François Clouet’s Equestrian Portrait of François I (c.1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) and Titian’s portraits of Emperor Charles V on Horseback (1548, Prado Museum, Madrid) and Philip II in Armour (1551, Prado). Our young nobleman was therefore likely to have been of some distinction, and certainly of wealth; such fine and ornate armour would have been very expensive indeed. His costume is chosen to display his wealth and heroic prowess, for he wears a richly gilded breast-plate and his left hand clasps the golden hilt of a sword. His right arm rests on a French-style close-helmet, which could be worn open-faced for a parade or ceremony, or with a removable ‘falling-buffe’ visor for combat, while jaunty red hose emerge from his breeches, intricately embroidered with costly silver thread.

This portrait, recorded at Mentmore Towers, near Leighton Buzzard, was in the collection of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, Prime Minister of England in 1894 – 1895. He was known by the courtesy title of Lord Dalmeny and was educated at Eton and Christchurch, Oxford from 1865 – 1869, when he was sent down for buying a horse, Ladas. Rosebery was reputed to have three aims in life, all of which he achieved: to win the Derby,[2] marry an heiress and to become Prime Minister. In 1878 he married the greatest English heiress of her day, Hannah de Rothschild, only child of the famous Jewish banker Baron Mayer de Rothschild. Through Hannah, he acquired Mentmore Towers, which had been built by Mayer Amschel de Rothschild. It is possible that this picture may have been acquired by de Rothschild, and already hung at Mentmore before it was inherited by Rosebery.

Rosebery served as Foreign Secretary in Gladstone’s brief third ministry in 1886, and became leader of the Liberal Imperialist faction of the Liberal Party. When Gladstone retired, Rosebery succeeded him as Prime Minister; his selection was largely because Queen Victoria was known to dislike many of the other leading Liberals, but according to his biographer, Robert Rhodes James, Rosebery soon lost interest in running the government. After the government lost a vote on army supply in June 1895, he chose to regard this failure as a censure, thus on 22 June he and his ministers tendered their resignations to the Queen. In later years he turned to writing, publishing biographies of Lord Chatham, Pitt the Younger, Napoleon and Lord Randolph Churchill.

[1] See for example a portrait of a ‘Gabriel Cambry’ in the collection of The Royal Museum in Antwerp

[2] Amongst the most famous of Rosebery’s horses, Ladas won the 1894 Epsom Derby, Sir Visto in 1895 and Cicero in 1905.