Attributed to William Peake
(c. 1580 – 1639)
Three children, possibly James (1607 – 1651), later 7th Earl of Derby; Robert (d. 1632) and Anne Stanley, later Countess of Ancram (d. 1657)
Painted Dated and inscribed with the sitters’ ages: ‘AETA:7/ 1614 ‘ (on the column, centre right); ‘AETA:4’ (centre left); and ‘AETA:2’ (centre)
Oil on canvas: 48 ¾ x 50 in. (124 x 127 cm.)
with Leslie Hand;
from whom acquired by Ronald Alfred Lee (1913 – 2000), The Manor House, Byfleet, Surrey; until his sale at
Sotheby’s, London, 28 November 2001, lot 31; bt. by
The Weiss Gallery, London;
Private collection, U.S.A., until 2018.
Two brothers dressed in regal purple stand astride their young sister, who wears a fashionable red and white dress replete with farthingale hooped petticoat. She's bearing fruit - cherries and an upturned apple - to represent her own future fruitfulness. It's all about the finery; the coloured silks, the expensive ‘punto in aria’ Italian lace, the embroidery, bows and rosettes. This iconographic and decorative style of painting represents a precious moment in British art where the formality of Elizabethan portraiture still infused the Jacobean aesthetic, before the informality of netherlandish art was brought over by the likes of Anthony van Dyck.
The eldest son is fully breeched in miniature imitation of adult fashion for the day, while the younger is still in his skirts. The eldest’s jaunty red hat is pinned with an elaborate and costly hat jewel or ‘aigrette’, close to a design by the Hugenot craftsman, Daniel Mignot (examples of which can be seen in the collection of the British Museum). All three children are dressed with a number of dangling golden aiglets or ‘lace chapes’. These were particularly fashionable in the early seventeenth century, functioning as decorative markers of wealth, as much as to tie open seams together.
Although the definite identity of the sitters in this portrait has been lost over time, their great wealth and status is clear from their costumes. They almost certainly ranked among the nobility, rather than gentry. With this in mind, there is one family whose children’s birth dates fit the ages of our sitters: that of William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, and his wife Elizabeth de Vere, daughter of Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford. Their eldest son, James Stanley, later 7th Earl of Derby, was born at Knowsley Hall on 31 January 1607. Later in life James and his wife and daughter were painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck, circa 1631 – 1641 (The Frick Collection, New York), moving in elite royal circles. He was created a Knight of the Bath on the coronation of Charles I, and was a staunch supporter of the royal cause during the Civil War. In 1651 he was chosen by Charles II to command the troops of Lancashire and Cheshire, in support of his invasion, but after a series of defeats was captured on 29 September and found guilty of treason. He was taken to Bolton for his execution on 15 October 1651.
The present painting bears stylistic comparison to a portrait of an unknown boy of the Howard family historically attributed to William Peake, in the Suffolk Collection at Kenwood House. The script in that portrait, with its idiosyncratic dashes and curlicues is notably similar to the script in ours, and clearly owes much to the distinctive method of inscribing dates and ages of sitters as devised by William’s father, the artist Robert Peake. Likewise, the use of columns in the background here is a shared conceit with the Suffolk portrait, while generally the handling of the faces and costume is alike. Yet despite William’s apparent status, very few works have been confidently attributed to him over the years. On his father’s death in 1619, William inherited his father’s practice, and must have been successful in his own right. It is known that the portraitist William Dobson was apprenticed to William’s studio, and like his father before him, William was also a freeman of the Goldsmiths’ Company. Only two years before the present portrait was painted, both William and his father had attended the funeral of Henry, Prince of Wales, in December 1612, described in the Lord Chamberlain’s book as ‘Mr Peake thelder’ and ‘Mr Peake the Younger Paynter’.
In its more recent provenance, this portrait graced the walls of fine art dealer Ronald Alfred Lee’s Manor House in Surrey, on the site of Byfleet Palace, erected for James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark. Ronald himself was a second-generation art dealer, mainly in English furniture, clocks and works of art, from a premises on Bruton Place in Mayfair.
 In the seventeenth century, when a boy reached the age of six, it was usual for him to be ‘breeched’, an event which was a proud and celebrated family occasion. In 1679, Lady Anne North described the breeching of her son, Frank, aged six: ‘You cannot believe the great concerne that was in the whole family here last Wednesday, it being the day that the taylor was to helpe to dress little Frank in his breeches in order to the making an everyday suit by it. Never had any bride that was to be drest upon her wedding night more hands about her, some the legs, and some the arms, the taylor butt’ning the others putting on the sword, and so many lookers on that had I not a finger amongst them I could not have seen him.’
 Mary Edmond, ‘Limners and Picturemakers’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXVIII, 1976, p. 79.
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