Portrait of an Unknown Lady formerly known as Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury by an unknown artist c.1535.  National Portrait Gallery

For many years this was believed to be  a portrait of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, daughter of George Duke of Clarence, and  niece to two kings,  Edward IV and Richard III.  Intriguingly the lady is wearing a black ribbon around her wrist with a jewel of gold fashioned like a little barrel.  Surely this would indicate this portrait is indeed Margaret and of her tacit recognition and acknowledgment of her father’s death by drowning in a butt of Malmsey?  Unfortunately we do not know whether Margaret did in fact wear a piece of jewellery such as this or not but it would come as no surprise if she had.  Margaret was known for her feistiness such as when she actively encouraged Princess Mary’s refusal to return her jewellery to her father, Henry VIII,  so that Anne Boleyn could wear them.  Poignantly Margaret holds a Honeysuckle flower, symbol of devotion and love.  

However I was disappointed to see  this portrait, in the National Portrait Gallery , is now described as that of an Unknown Lady, formerly known as Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.  Baffled by this turnabout I contacted the Gallery who very kindly clarified the matter for me.

barrel 2.png

Close up of the barrel jewel attached to the black ribbon and the W monogram.

In 1963 the portrait underwent detailed investigation by the Gallery’s Scientific Department the results of which showed

‘what appeared to be  extensive repainting,  including the ermine spots on the headdress, scumbling on the white fur of the sleeves, also the ermine edge to the bodice ‘ (1).   Worse still,   ‘the gold barrel shaped jewel  was almost certainly a  later addition as almost certainly were the black ribbon and W monogram jewel.  Without stripping the picture it would be impossible to access how accurately it recreates motifs originally there and how far it is fictitious’  However the report goes on to say there is, so far, no reason why the portrait in its original condition should not have represented Margaret Pole, so there is still hope, although  ‘ these doubts may only be resolved by the reappearance of another  16th century picture of her that was known to have existed.  The W shaped jewel is inexplicable unless the portrait was intended  for her granddaughter Winifred'(2). I am grateful to the National Portrait Gallery Archives for this information’ 

Could it possibly be a direct descendant  of Winifred had these additions added to the portrait in homage and to draw attention  to Winifred’s noble lineage? The portrait was once at  Barrington Hall Winifred Pole had married into the Barringtons and the family prided themselves on their descent from her.   To make matters worse  the Roy Strong catalogue suggests this could be a 17th or 18th century Barrington lady dressed up as the Countess!   Bad news, maybe, for those who once believed this was without a doubt a portrait of Margaret.

However the  matter is  further muddied by notes from Hazel Pierce’s biography of Margaret – Margaret Pole Countess of Salisbury, Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership,  which state:’ The panel is of oak and tree ring dating suggests that it was felled in 1482 thus the most likely period of use is believed to have been between 1515 and 1525 ‘(3).  The notes go on to say that Initially it did appear that the ermine spots on the outer part of the headdress had been painted over the original craquelure, which indicated that these were later additions along with the ermine spots on the outer sleeves.  However when the portrait was finally cleaned in 1973 the ermine spots did not disappear, neither did the barrel bracelet or the ‘W’ suspended from the sitter’s fingers, which suggests they may have been original after all.  The barrel will refer to Clarence and the W to Warwick.  Therefore the results of the cleaning result once more to the portrait being an authentic likeness of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury’ (4).

So there we have it. The final cleaning in 1973 outdates the 1963 information suggesting that the barrel and ermine were added at another date…sigh of relief!   However casting aside for one moment the two reports both of them from experts surely its obvious that the portrait of the older Margaret bears remarkable similarities with that of the young,  fuller faced Margaret,  as drawn by Rous?


Margaret as a young girl from the Rous Roll


Margaret Pole nee Plantagenet?

Can anyone else see the similarity with the almond shaped eyes and small rosebud lips? Or is it just me?  Rous would have known Clarence and his family by sight so we may deduce this drawing is a true likeness of the young Margaret.  I will leave it to you, dear reader,  to make your own mind up…

(1) Roy Strong Tudor and Jacobean Portraits 1969 p 272

(2) Ibid

(3)  Hazel Pierce Margaret Pole Countess of Salisbury Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership p.198

(4) Ibid


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