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The Xtra Diary: Sir Francis is not amused

Sir Francis Walsingham, Unknown artist, late 16th century (left) X-ray image of the portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham (right) IMAGES © National Portrait Gallery, London

Published: 4 January, 2013

THE last artistic laugh may be on one of the most feted spymasters of all time.

Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-1590), you will recall, was to Good Queen Bess what Geoffrey Rush was to Cate Blanchett in the Oscar-winning Elizabeth: The Golden Age which had yet another outing on the television over Christmas.

Walsingham had been in voluntary exile in Europe when Catholic Queen Mary was on the throne only to return, after her death, and become Elizabeth I’s principal secretary of state.

It was his spy network that would uncover the plot to assassinate Elizabeth and lead to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

Now X-ray, infrared reflectography and dendrochronology work by experts at the National Portrait Gallery has revealed traces of a painting under its portrait of Walsingham. Dating from 30 or 40 years earlier it shows the Virgin and Christ child and another figure thought to be either Joseph or an angel.

Chief curator at the gallery Dr Tarnya Cooper said: “The reuse of wooden panels is an example of Tudor recycling… yet the people in the portraits painted over the top were perhaps unlikely to have known the panels were secondhand. In the case of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Protestant spymaster with the Roman Catholic image of the Virgin and child beneath, you do wonder if the artist might be enjoying a private joke at the expense of the sitter.”

The portrait, with other works and the experts’ technical images of what they have discovered, is on display from this week at the gallery. The exhibition, Hidden: Unseen Paintings Beneath Tudor Portraits is free and runs at the gallery in St Martin’s Place WC2 until June 2.
www.npg.org.uk

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