UCL News


Is this the true face of Lady Jane?

16 January 2006

The possible depiction of Lady Jane Grey, which hung for years in a house in Streatham.

Queen of England for nine days, then dispatched by the axe man at the Tower of London at the age of just 17, Lady Jane Grey and her tragic story have exerted a deep fascination for centuries. She is the only English monarch since 1500 of whom no portrait survives. Or so it has long been assumed.

But experts are now claiming that a painting that hung for years in a house in Streatham, south-west London, is of Lady Jane. The owner inherited the work from his great-grandfather, a collector of 16th-century antiques. …

Were this a painting of Lady Jane, it would satisfy a centuries-old hunger to know the appearance of this unfortunate teenager, described at the time as "prettily shaped and graceful" with a "gracious and animated figure". …

The most famous image of Lady Jane is a 19th-century portrayal of the teenager blindfolded and groping for the block. But Paul Delaroche's painting, which hangs in the National Gallery, owes as much to his romantic imagination as to contemporary accounts - it was painted 300 years after her death.

The "new" portrait, which experts have confidently dated to the second half of the 16th century, shows a slender young woman in an opulent gown and jewels, a book held in her left hand. Above her shoulder is a faint inscription reading "Lady Jayne". The costume she wears was in fashion in the early 1550s; Jane was queen in 1553.

New research by Libby Sheldon, of the painting analysis unit at University College London, suggests that the inscription "appears to have been put on at the same time as the rest of the paint". That helps eliminate the possibility that the inscription was inserted later, as was common at the time.

If it were accepted that the inscription was done at the same time as the painting, the question remains: does the portrait show Lady Jane Grey?

Christopher Foley, who has undertaken work on the painting, thinks it does. A survey by Thomas Woodcock, Norroy and Ulster king of arms at the College of Arms, discovered four possible contemporary "Lady Jaynes". Given the ages and marital status of the other candidates, he believes Lady Jane Grey is the only real candidate.

Mr Foley suspects the painting under consideration to be a near-contemporary copy of a lost original. The practice of copying portraits in order to put images into circulation was common.

The historian David Starkey has not seen the painting after its recent conservation work, nor the new research undertaken by Mr Foley and others. But he remains sceptical.

"To me this picture doesn't 'sing'," he said. "There isn't that over-the-top quality you get with royal portraits of the period, where the sitters look as though they've just come back from Asprey ... at the moment I would be reluctant to support the painting, though that is simply my judgment."

Mr Foley believes the natural home for the painting is in the National Portrait Gallery - though the institution remains noncommittal. "The gallery is always interested to hear about new research," it said. "We will be looking at this particular portrait in due course."

Charlotte Higgins, January 16 2006, 'The Guardian'