Portrait of a Man of the Delves Family

WAG 3089


It was always clear that this was a portrait of a member of the Delves family. This could be seen from the coat of arms, together with the family motto 'Defy Fortune', visible on the pennant above the discarded suit of armour. The inscription in the lower left-hand corner dates the work to 1577 and states that the sitter is 40 years old. The artist originally painted 38, and changed the figure later. Henry Delves, who succeeded his father as the owner of Doddington in 1566 and died in 1606, had appeared to be a likely candidate for the subject of the portrait. However, it was inconveniently discovered that he was probably born only in the mid 1550s. Attention then switched to Henry's uncle, George Delves, one of his father's younger brothers. Although George's precise date of birth is unknown, he is known to have been an officer in Queen Elizabeth I's army in Ireland by 1559. He was also created a Gentleman Pensioner in Elizabeth's Court in 1561. He was granted an Irish estate, Shian, in 1563, and he spent much wearisome time working for the English cause in Ireland. The fact that these biographical details chime in with the lines of poetry inscribed on the portrait, which express a weariness of court life and disillusion that war has brought neither fame nor riches, provides the strongest evidence that the man in the portrait actually is George. In other respects, the identification remains difficult. In the first place, in 1583 George married for the second time. It is not known whether by 1577, the year in which the painting was made, he was already a widower. However, if the woman - with her undeniably detailed and specific costume - is intended for his wife, there is only a slim chance that the portrait celebrates his first marriage. Against this, however, it can be argued that the figure of the woman does not look like a portrait at all. She is cut off by the edge of the picture and her face is concealed behind a sprig of myrtle (an attribute of the Goddess of love, Venus). Her character is more allegorical than realistic. Leading the man away from his armour and estates on the right of the picture, she is a muse-like figure, the embodiment of an optimistic future in which he has found love and consolation. As the main inscription - mysteriously, in Italian - puts it: "nothing is of importance to me except love and fame". Another mystery surrounding this work is how, if the painting shows George Delves, it arrived at Doddington. George did not live there and the family pedigree describes him as the ancestor of the Devon and Somerset Delveses. He spent a lot of time in Ireland. He also had links through his wives with Northamptonshire and Kent. For a time he was the Member of Parliament for Retford, in Nottinghamshire. His involvement with the court of Queen Elizabeth also required him to spend significant periods of time in London (where he was buried in 1604).