Sir Thomas Drake of Buckland Abbey, Yelverton (1556 – 1606)

Hieronimo Custodis
active 1585 – 1593

Sir Thomas Drake of Buckland Abbey, Yelverton (1556 – 1606)

Oil on panel: 30 x 24 3/4 inches, 76.2 x 62.8 cm


  • Presumably commissioned by the sitter,
  • and to his daughter Elizabeth Bampfylde (1592 – 1631);
  • by descent to the Barons Carew of Clopton, Devon (according to an interpretation of the wax seal);
  • Private collection, Ireland, until 2015.

The sitter in our portrait is likely to be Sir Thomas Drake, younger brother of the famous explorer Sir Francis Drake, as identified by a pencil inscription, ‘Sir T. Drake’, on the reverse of its former old frame. Its provenance through the Barons of Carew of Clopton, Devon, would certainly allow this, as Drakes’s direct descendant married into that family: His daughter, Elizabeth Drake, married John Bampfylde (c. 1586 – c. 1657), whose great-great-grandson, Sir Coplestone Warwick Bampfylde, 3rd Bt. (c. 1689 – 1727), married Gertrude Carew, daughter of Sir John Carew, 3rd Bt. (d. 1692), confirming the connection to the Barons Carew, as identified by the wax seal.

Sir Thomas Drake was one of twelve children of a Protestant farmer from Devonshire, Edmund Drake of Crowdale (1518 – 1585), and his wife Mary Mylwaye (1520 – 1586). Due to religious persecution during the ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ of 1549, the family fled Devonshire for Kent. There Edmund obtained an appointment to minister to men in the King’s Navy, and was ordained deacon and vicar of Upnor Church on the Medway. It was likely through their father’s connections that Thomas and Francis went to sea.

The intriguing motif in the upper left corner of the painting depicts a vase of gillyflowers (carnations), on a grassy bank, with a sparrow ‘nipping the bud’ of a gillyflower, above which is an inscription ‘fatto a tempo’, (‘done in time’, i.e., ‘just in time’). Though the choice of these symbols would have had immediate and clear personal resonance for the sitter, his family and immediate circle, unravelling them today is somewhat more difficult. They are not the emblems of the Drake family, whose arms were Argent a Wyvern wings displayed Gules,[1] and there is no mention of the motto ‘fatto a tempo’ in any of the contemporary printed books of mottoes both British and Continental. The choice of bird, crudely identifiable as a sparrow due to its ‘seed eating’ beak, nipping the bud of the gillyflower, is likely significant. We do know that a gillyflower or ‘July flower’, was generally used to symbolise marriage, and that Sir Thomas Drake married a widow, Elizabeth Elford, née Gregory (c. 1550 – 1632), some time between 1585 (the likely birth year of Elizabeth’s last son by her first husband), and 1588 (the birth year of Sir Thomas and Elizabeth’s first son, Sir Francis Drake, 1st Bt.).[2]

The artist, Hieronimo Custodis, was a protestant émigré from Antwerp who fled to England after the capture of the city by the Duke of Parma in 1585. His dated English works are from 1589 until his death in 1593.[3] Our portrait is significant as perhaps one of his first English commissions. The simple, plain collar seen here, which replaced high, concertinaed collars and was a precursor to much larger cartwheel ruffs, was in fashion at exactly this time. With its vibrant palette and delicate detailed brushwork, particularly in the costume, this fine and jewel-like portrait is a testament to the artist’s skill and ability to capture his sitter’s likeness.

[1] In heraldry a ‘wyvern’ was said to represent a flying serpent, an imaginary creature resembling the dragon, but having only two legs, like an eagle's, and a barbed, serpent-like tail. ‘Argent’ refers to the tincture of silver, and ‘Gules’ to the tincture of red.

[2] They had three children – Sir Francis Drake, 1st Bt. (1588 – 1637), Elizabeth Drake later Bampfylde (1592 – 1631), and George Drake (b. circa 1593).

[3] Including the ravishingly beautiful portrait of Elizabeth Brydges at Woburn Abbey - see Strong, The English Icon, Elizabethan & Jacobean Portraiture, London, 1969. p.197, no.149.