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Alathea Talbot

Alathea Talbot
I recently came across this portrait that usually hangs in Ingestre Hall in Staffordshire but which is currently on exhibition at Wednesbury Museum, near Birmingham, as part of a small exhibition. I was interested in the portrait as soon as I saw it online and soon after decided to visit it in Wednesbury to have a closer look.

What struck me immediately was the beauty of the painting, it certainly deserves to be let out a bit more often! It was also immediately apparent that this painting belonged in the Jacobean period, as it fits in perfectly with the portraits by Larkin, Gheeraerts and others which I have looked at in the past year. The lady in the portrait is wearing typical dress of the period, with an abundance of lace, jewels, silk and feathers.

On the portrait it is written that this is Alathea Talbot (1585/90 - 1654), Countess of Arundel and wife of the famous art collector Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. Her grandmother was Bess of Hardwick. The writing, however, has most likely been added at a much later date and is not part of the original painting. Still the painting belongs to the collection at Ingestre Hall which is the home of the Talbot family. I do not know the provenance of the attribution or the inscription and perhaps the attribution is correct. It is very difficult to say. An original inscription states eta 32, 1619, providing us with the age of the sitter and the year of the painting. 

There are two other relatively well-known portraits of Alathea known, one is by Cornelis Johnson, which is inscribed by the artist as ‘Countess of Arundel” and dated 1619 (the same year as the Ingestre portrait).

Cornelis Johnson, Portait of a Woman, usually identified
as the Countess of Arundel, 1619. Yale Center for British Art.

Another well-known portrait is at the National Portrait Gallery in London and was painted by Daniel Mytens around 1618

Daniel Mytens, Alathea, Countess of Arundel and Surrey
1618. National Portrait Gallery London
And this one by Rubens from 1620 and hangs in Barcelona. Others are known, in particular one by Van Dyck.

Peter Paul Rubens, Alathea Talbot, 1620
Museo Nacionale D’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

Most of these portraits, except the Jonson and the Ingestre portraits, clearly show the same lady. They are also surprising close in date of creation. This leaves us to wonder if indeed we are looking at the same woman. A woman who went from slim and almost skinny to a more full figure within a year raises questions. Of course it might be possible that the painter was flattering the subject, but that seems an anachronistic idea which belongs more in the 21st century than the 17th. Of course it might have been that the artist was just not very good at getting a likeness. We know very well that portraits of the same person done by master artists and lesser-skilled followers can vary enormously. But if that is the case she could be anybody.

I have read referrals to the huge IHS pendant she is wearing and a similar (but not the same) pendent that Alathea is wearing in her other portraits. This is intriguing. The Ingestre portrait shows a huge pendant, probably showing the letters IHS (the letters refer to Jesus in Hebrew) in, most likely, diamont and gold. The diamonds are painted with green, black and white paint so perhaps they could be emeralds but it seems too dark and we must assume diamonds. A similar diamond jewel we can find at the V&A. These jewels are not very common (as far as I could find) in contemporary portraits so the fact that Alathea wears a similar one in other portraits might be telling. But did she have two different ones? Did she amend it (unlikely as the dates or the paintings are so close together), did the artist not paint it correctly (unlikely as it seems to have been painted quite meticulously)  or is it simply a different jewel, owned by a different lady?

Detail of the Ingestre Portrait, showing the IHS pendant

The spectacular headdress worn in the Ingestre portrait is not only rich but also painted with great care and detail. The enormous ostrich feather and abundance of jewels is also not something that common in contemporary portraits. Although we see ostrich feathers, they are usually not this large (unless they are part of a masque costume - Alathea is know to have acted in Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queens, with costumes designed by Inigo Jones in 1609) and most caps are edged with lace, sometimes pearls, but rarely this extensively. 

Detail of the Ingestre Portrait

Her face, head-dress and ruff seem to have been painted with considerable skill. Although the painting is badly cracked we can still make out the subtle features of her face and the delicately painted reticella lace of the ruff (so typical of late 16th and early 17th century fashion), which fades away and upwards towards the back of her neck.
Less skill has been applied in the painting of her jacket, although from a distance it looks quite rich and impressive, a closer inspection shows either damaged paint or a slightly sloppy application. The lace on the neckline has been painted slightly skewed in an attempt to create perspective depth but which failed and just looks awkward. The lace on her cuff is mechanical and does not seem done by the same hand as the ruff. The hundreds of glistening paillettes on her costume look wonderful but lack the precision that William Larkin or Daniel Mytens would have applied. I would imagine that the body of the portrait was painted by assistants and the face, ruff and headdress by a master painter like William Larkin. Especially the way the ruff fades into the background is a method Larkin used although this of course is by no means a solid attribution - more a guess. But painters like Peake, Mytens or Van Mierevelt do not apply this technique. The soft edges of the face, the jawline and hair line all find echoes in Larkin’s work (like in the portrait of Anne Clifford). 

Whomever this lady is, whether she is wearing a masque costume or not, whether she is royal or an aristocrat or not, whomever it is painted by  - it remains a beautiful painting and deserves to come out of the woodwork a bit more often. Recently she has made a trip to the Museum of London where she was included in the exhibition ‘The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels’ and I am grateful to Ms Forsyth for sharing some of her ideas about the IHS jewel in this painting with me. 

More research is what is needed and although I am going back to my easel, I will keep an eye out for any info I can find. Who knows, maybe one day we find out the answers to all the questions this portrait raises.

The Alathea Talbot portrait is exhibited at Wednesbury Museum until 30 August. The museum is only open Thur, Fri, Sat 2-5pm. More information can be found here: 


  1. I just met Alathea Talbot (well, her portrait) this morning at the 400 Years Of The Selfie exhibition. I haven't been that utterly blown away by a picture for quite some time - the encounter seemed all the more unexpected and intense because I was utterly alone in this somewhat neglected little museum face to face (no dividing wires or ropes) with this treasure, this 400 year old woman. I was utterly captivated! I felt almost drunk on it!

    Thank you for this wonderful article on her.

    I too noticed that the face and lace looked as though they were painted by a superior artist while other parts of the costume looked much more loosely-painted, probably by an apprentice. That was not at all unusual.

    It happens that I looked looked very, very closely at the IHS pendant there this morning (I think I was looking at her for hours!) and to my eyes, rather than looking like green diamonds, it seemed to be almost impossibly minutely rendedered malachite. The artist painted in the veins that you see in the green stone with incredible precision. I would guess the green one in this painting must be a different or altered version of the one in the V&A because it appeared to me at least that that was malachite beyond a shadow of a doubt. The artist was that good!

  2. Hi Emma, thanks for your comment! Glad you found my post. Yes I thought it was an interesting experience as well: this tiny museum, with nobody there, a tiny exhibition with a couple of true gems there. The Alathea portrait is way too beautiful to be put away like this - and soon it will go back to its home - only to be seen when on loan or when you sign up for a course there!
    Interesting that you think the pendant is not diamont but malachite! I thought initially it was emerald but a curator convinced me it must be diamont. I must research malachite! Any of that in, for example, the Cheapside Horde? I think the IHS pendant must also be a clue as to who this lady is - and I have some doubts it is Alathea, as not everyone owned a jewel like this. All very interesting and intriguing! Thank you!


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