Lace in William Larkin’s Jacobean Portraits

written by Sophie | Art History, Lace



The lace used to decorate Elizabethan ruffs is either an early lace called cutwork and/or the slightly later reticella lace. Cutwork is a decorative technique where small areas of fabric are cut out and the edges secured and decorated with (buttonhole) stitches. Sometimes the holes are filled in with decorative stitches as well. Cutwork started as a way of decorating collars and smocks, but when the (often square-shaped) holes became the main element in the pattern, it became reticella. By using this extreme form of cutwork techniques, refined designs of great complexity were created and reticella remained popular well into the seventeenth century.1

Linen drawn thread work, cutwork and needle lace fragment, Italy, 9.2 x 18.8cm, 16th century. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, 1904. Image ID: Fb106445 Web:

A lace handkerchief in the V&A Museum in London (1600-1620) is a good example of refined cutwork, which, at nearly 55 cm square, shows a detailed pattern of squares and rosettes, around a plain linen lawn centre. The scalloped edges are made from needle lace. The main design was created from a fine piece of linen fabric, out of which small squares were cut along the horizontal and vertical lines of the warp and weft of the fabric. This gridwork was probably overlaid with loose diagonal threads, and decorated with buttonhole stitches, which created the dominant diagonal pattern.2

 The pattern seems to correspond with designs found in widely distributed pattern books, such as Federico de Vinciolo’s Les Singuliers et Nouveaux Portraicts pour toutes fortes d’ouvrages de Lingerie, published in Paris in 1588. Vinciolo was an Italian brought to France by Maria de Medici. He was the first to publish cutwork and reticella patterns in 1587 and his book had three editions in the first year alone. Numerous reprints of his later pattern books were produced throughout Europe well into the seventeenth century.3

Lace design from Vinciolo’s Les Singuliers et Nouveaux Portraicts, page 18, Paris, 1588.

Handkerchief decorated with cutwork and needle lace, Flemish, 55 x 53.5cm, 16001620. © V&A Museum, London

A handkerchief with a wide edging of fine cutwork can be seen in the full figure portrait of Lady Diana Cecil, painted by William Larkin (early 1580s - 1619) around 1614-18 (fig. 11). The cutwork consists of alternating rosette patterns and large needle lace scallops and echoes the cutwork handkerchief at the V&A Museum in London mentioned above. Larkin painted the patterns in a highly detailed manner, with tiny paint dots to suggest the picots. The handkerchief, dress, and pose are identical to those depicted in the pendant portrait of Diana’s sister Anne, also painted by Larkin, but the lace in their ruffs and cuffs is different. The two sisters might have been wearing identical bridesmaids’ dresses.4

The portrait of Anne Cecil shows her wearing cuffs and a ruff decorated with drawn thread work (or perhaps cutwork) in a banded design. However, the lace ruff and cuffs in her sister Diana’s portrait are different; the visibly connected threads and loops in the ruff and cuffs suggest Diana is wearing Flemish spidery bobbin lace. The lace has large circular designs, imitating cutwork patterns. Diana’s ruff fades into the dark background behind her head, and her lace cuff goes round and fades away into shadows where it turns around her arm. The shading might have been applied as wash of grey paint on top of the white lace patterns, thereby fading and darkening them. Larkin increased three-dimensional form further as he painted the patterns of Diana’s ruff and cuffs ‘in the round’, following the folds of the lace.  It gains more depth still by showing the edges of the many gathered layers of lace, especially visible in the upper part of the cuff.

In Diana’s ruff Larkin painted the fine lace pattern in white paint on top of a darker underpainting. Where the ruff was gathered more tightly, near her neck, the underpainting is brighter, while it darkens further outwards. This follows the effect a tightly gathered lace ruff provided; it looked brighter and whiter where it was gathered more tightly, compared to the more open folds further out in the ruff, where the transparency of the lace is most visible. The subtle transition in the underpainting, from dark to light, provides a slightly hazy effect, as the white lace patterns become clearer towards the outer edges, where the contrasting underpainting is darker.

Lady Diana Cecil, by William Larkin, oil on canvas, 205.9 x 119.5cm, 1614-1618. © English Heritage, Kenwood. Historic England Archive. 

William Larkin, Portrait of Richard Sackville

Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, by William Larkin, oil on canvas, 206.4 x 122.3 cm, 1613. © English Heritage, Kenwood. Historic England Archive. 

In another full-length portrait by William Larkin, of Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset (1613), the sitter is wearing a large flat standing collar of fine cutwork with large needle lace scallops.5 The pattern of the lace collar has been carefully reproduced, with alternating patterns in the scallops, and two identical scallops at the centre front. The inner section of the collar shows a pattern featuring small hearts and diagonal bands of cutwork. The same heart pattern is also depicted in another portrait of Richard Sackville, attributed to Larkin’s studio (1615), although the scallops are significantly smaller there.6

The pattern of the collar’s inner section in Sackville’s 1613 portrait have been painted with white paint on top of a cream underlayer. This underlayer is suggesting the supportasse keeping the lace collar in place. The lace scallops have been painted with a fine brush with white paint, on top of a dark grey underlayer. The brush marks are consistently even, straight, and show little variety in tone or application. The embroidery of Sackville’s waistcoat and cloak was painted around the scallops and is not visible through the lace, as one would expect, suggesting this was painted at the same time or after the lace was finished.

The portrait shows Sackville in the costume he probably wore for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to the Prince Palatine in 1613. It was an extravagant and expensive outfit, according to the Master of Ceremonies, Sir John Finet which “dazzled the eyes of all who saw”.7 In a description of Sackville’s inventory from 1617 the clothes he wore for the portrait are described in detail, illustrating Larkin took few liberties in depicting it, although the white needle lace collar is not mentioned in the inventory, which would have been listed in a separate inventory for linens.8

Larkin and many of his fellow artists worked from a studio with several assistants, each employed for specific specialities. Some of Larkin’s works were painted by himself, such as the 1613 portrait of Richard Sackville, but others were (partly) the work of his studio assistants.9 Often important elements of the portraits, such as the face and hands, were painted by the ‘Master’, and other areas, such as the clothing and the lace, by specialised assistants. However, lace painting techniques across many of Larkin’s works look similar. It could be the whole studio shared the same ‘brand’ technique.10

Larkin painted lace in a ‘graphic’ and exact manner. Every thread was recorded, and varying patterns are easily read. It is thus possible to recognise a relatively large variety of lace techniques in his portraits, which is not always easy in much portraiture from the early seventeenth century. Larkin’s paintings function as a pivot point in the development of style. The techniques he used to depict embroidery and rich fabrics were still firmly rooted in the techniques brought into England by Netherlandish artists in the late sixteenth century and employed by Larkin and many of his contemporaries.11 Conversely, his employment of shading to suggest depth points forward to the new style of continental artists such as Daniel Mytens and Sir Anthony van Dyck. A pivot in lace making techniques also took place at this time; bobbin lace became increasingly popular and cutwork and reticella would soon be out of fashion.


  1. Santina Levey, Lace. A History (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983), 4, 12; Textile Research Centre (2017): < 
  2. Santina Levey, Lace. A History (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983) p. 12 and fig. 48.
  3. Bury Palliser, A History of Lace (London: Sampson Low, 1865), p. 33; Femke Speelberg, ‘Fashion & Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution 1520 – 1620’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 73.2 (2015), p. 36; Emily Leigh Lowes, Chats on Old Lace and Needlework (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 20.
  4. William Larkin, Portrait of Lady Anne Cecil, Suffolk Collection, Kenwood House, English Heritage, J920336; William Larkin, Portrait of Diana Cecil, Suffolk Collection, Kenwood House, English Heritage, J920334; Laura Houliston, The Suffolk CollectionA Catalogue of Paintings (Swindon: English Heritage, 2012), cat. 22 and 23.
  5. William Larkin, Portrait of Richard Sackville, Suffolk Collection, Kenwood House, English Heritage, J920333; Houliston, The Suffolk Collection, cat. 28.
  6. Studio of William Larkin, Portrait of Richard Sackville, oil on canvas, c. 1610-1624, National Trust Knole, Kent, NT 129915; For a discussion of the ‘Studio’ portrait, see: Sarah Cove, ‘’All That Glitters…’: William Larkin’s Painting Materials and Techniques, c. 1609-19’, in The Suffolk Collection, ed. by Laura Houliston, pp. 63-64; An identical collar to the one seen in ‘Studio’ portrait can be found in Larkin’s portrait of Sir Thomas Pope (1615) (private collection), see: Catharine MacLeod and John Guinness, ‘The Wroxton Larkins’, The British Art Journal 19,1 (2018), fig. 1.
  7. Quoted in Hearn, Dynasties, p. 199 and Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 38.
  8. Aileen Ribeiro, Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England (New Haven/ London: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 34; Levey, Lace, p. 16; Peter Mactaggart and Ann Mactaggart, ‘The Rich Wearing Apparel of Richard, 3rd Earl of Dorset’, Costume 14.1 (1980), pp. 41–55; Hearn, Dynasties, 1995, p. 199; Jones and Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing, p. 38.
  9. Sarah Cove, ‘All That Glitters…’, pp. 52, 61-62; Karen Hearn, Cornelius Johnson, (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2015), 22.
  10. For example, in Sackville’s ‘Studio’ portrait the lace painting techniques seem like the techniques used in the 1615 ‘Master’ portrait
  11. Caroline Rae, ‘Marcus Gheeraerts, John de Critz, Robert Peake and William Larkin: a comparative study’, in Tarnya Cooper, Aviva Burnstock, Maurice Howard and Edward Town, Painting in Britain 1500- 1630 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 175.
Published September 1, 2023

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