William Larkin Mary, Lady Vere

William Larkin was one of the most accomplished portrait painters of Jacobean England, yet remains an enigmatic figure. It is almost certain that he was the son of an innkeeper, also named William Larkin, who lived in the parish of St Sepulchre in London, a short walk to St Paul’s Cathedral. He was a close neighbour of the eminent artist Robert Peake, portrait painter to Henry, Prince of Wales, and it well may have been Peake who introduced Larkin to painting.

Larkin was working as a portrait painter in his own right by 1609, and received commissions from various members of the English nobility. His portraits are highly stylised and project the status and wealth of his sitters, and the outward image they wished to project. This portrait can be favourably compared with Larkin’s celebrated series of nine full-length portraits that were formerly in the collection of the Earls of Suffolk, now at Kenwood House, London. As in this portrait, the sitters of the Kenwood house portraits are framed by silk curtains, a conceit that first saw Larkin’s work ascribed to ‘The Curtain Master’.

The sitter here is Mary, Lady Vere (1581–1671), a highly distinguished member of the English aristocracy. Mary was in her early thirties when she sat for Larkin, and she is sporting a sombre yet opulent costume befitting a married noblewoman. She lived an extraordinary life that spanned the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, until her death at the age of ninety-one – a remarkable age at a time when the average life expectancy in England was thirty-five. At the age of nineteen she was wed to William Hoby, with whom she had two sons prior to his death in 1602. In 1607 she married Sir Horace Vere and would have five daughters from this second marriage. A professional soldier, Sir Horace saw active service during the Dutch wars against Spanish rule. Lady Vere accompanied him to the Netherlands for a number of years, during which time the couple became actively involved with Calvinism. Throughout her life Lady Vere supported a number of puritan and protestant ministers, promoting their careers and fortunes. In 1643, at the start of England’s Civil War, Lady Vere was asked by parliament to care for two of Charles I’s seven children (the other five having been taken to safety in France by the queen, Henrietta Maria).

While the National Gallery of Victoria boasts a number of fine French, Dutch and Flemish portraits from the seventeenth century, the English school is poorly represented before 1700. Indeed, this painting is now the earliest English portrait by a known artist in the NGV collection. Larkin’s very finely painted work has a restrained austerity typical of English portraiture before the arrival at Court of Flemish and Dutch artists, such as Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Huysmans, who transformed portraiture in England. This work therefore provides a key point of contrast to the later seventeenth-century portraits painted in England of Lord Ashburnham (c. 1628) by Daniel Mytens and Rachel de Ruvigny (c. 1640) by van Dyck. This painting truly transforms this area of our Old Master collection.

Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)
Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)