Sir John Puckering of Kew, Surrey and Weston (c. 1544 – 1596)

Unknown Follower of Hieronimo Custodis (fl. 1592 – 1612)
active 1592 – 1612

Sir John Puckering of Kew, Surrey and Weston (c. 1544 – 1596)

Oil on panel: 35 1/16 x 28 3/4 inches, 89 x 73 cm


  • By descent to Margaret Austen-Leigh, Isel Hall, Cockermouth, Cumbria;
  • thence to Mary Burkett OBE (1924 – 2014), Isel Hall, until 2014.

This charmingly naïve yet exquisitely detailed Elizabethan portrait would undoubtedly have been painted c. 1592 to celebrate the sitter’s appointment as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. The seal burse (purse) that he so proudly holds, and which is spectacularly rendered in intricate detail, is embroidered with the Royal Arms of England, and was used to contain the Great Seal of Elizabeth I. Originally of white leather or linen, by the end of the sixteenth century the burse was transformed into a magnificently decorated velvet purse. This example shows the crowned royal cypher and the letters ‘ER' (Elizabeth Regina) and a Tudor rose. Its heraldic design is set within a scrolling foliate border and its shimmering surface is achieved by the use of gold threads and silver ‘spangles’. Its elaborate design is a testament to the lavish tastes of the Elizabethan court. As a ‘perquisite' or ‘perk' of office the the Lord Chancellor and Keeper of the Great Seal was allowed to keep the old seal with its accompanying burse. Elizabeth I had five chancellors during her reign (1558 – 1603), each with a different burse for the Great Seal, so Sir John’s would have been gifted to him. [1]

Sir John Puckering (c. 1543 – 1596) was a man of modest beginnings, but raised himself to the highest civil office in the state.[2] Admitted to Lincoln's Inn on 10 April 1559, he was called to the bar in 1567 and became an administrator and speaker of the House of Commons before being knighted and sworn in as a member of the privy council on 28 May 1592. When he was appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal he succeeded Sir Christopher Hatton who had died in November 1591. Perhaps unfairly Puckering was reported to be ‘in manners and appearance such a contrast to his gay and gallant predecessor [Sir Christopher Hatton] - he was so dull, heavy, and awkward - his whole deportment was so lawyer-like and ungenteel’.[3]

Nonetheless, Puckering went on to entertain Elizabeth lavishly when she visited him at Kew in Surrey in 1595. With such expenditure, and while petitioning the queen for a grant of land in 1595, Puckering complained that as speaker he had lost £2000 from his practice, and that the lord keepership cost him £1000 a year. But like previous lord keeper to the queen, Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510 – 1579) and his successor Thomas Egerton, 1st Viscount Brackley (1540 – 1617), Puckering bought land on a large scale, acquiring the manor of Weston, Hertfordshire, in 1593, and further Warwickshire lands in 1596. He died intestate of apoplexy on 30 April 1596, aged fifty-two, and according to his memorial inscription, leaving ‘no regret of him.’[4] He was buried in Westminster Abbey where his widow erected a substantial monument.[5]

The portrait can confidently be attributed to an anonymous painter known as the Unknown Follower of Custodis. The artist was first identified by Sir Roy Strong on the basis of the recurring use of an identical form of inscription, as well as obvious stylistic characteristics.[6] 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 and include the ravishingly beautiful portrait of Elizabeth Brydges (Woburn Abbey).

The Unknown Follower seems likely to have been an assistant of Custodis and perhaps even inherited his master’s pattern book. Though his work lacks the subtlety of Custodis himself, it has its own delicacy, as evidenced here by the extremely fine and detailed portrayal of the sitter’s privy seal. The small attributable corpus of the Unknown Follower was assembled by Strong and published in his seminal work The English Icon in 1969.[7] This group of some eleven portraits include a pair of pendant portraits depicting Nicholas Wadham and his wife Dorothy Petre, the founders of Wadham Colege, Oxford.[8] Although more limited in their colour palette, they bear comparison to our portrait as they share a strikingly two-dimensional format.


[1] Two burses from this period still exist: the first belonged to Sir Christopher Hatton which is in the V&A collection (Museum No. T.40-1986); the second is in the British Museum collection (Museum No. 1997, 0301.1)

[2] He was the eldest son of William Puckering of Flamborough, Yorkshire, and his wife, Anne, daughter of John Ashton of Great Lever Hall, near Bolton, Lancashire. On 21 February 1569 he married Jane (d. c. 1599), and had one son, Thomas and four daughters.

Isel Hall was acquired by the Lawson family in 1572

[3] John Campbell, The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, Vol. II, p. 182.

[4] British Library, Lansdowne MS 982, fol. 194.

[5] J. Cole, engraving (after tomb effigy), repro. in J. Dart, Westmonasterium, or, The history and antiquities of the abbey church of St Peters, Westminster, vol. 1 [1723], p. 176.

[6] R. Strong, ‘Elizabethan Painting: an approach through inscriptions – Hieronimo Custodis’, The Burlington Magazine, CV, 1963, p. 104.

[7] R. Strong, The English Icon, 1969, pp. 207-214.

[8] Ibid., nos. 166 & 168 and 167 & 169 respectively.