William Larkin’s Style of Painting and the End of an Era

Larkin’s Portrait of Diana Cecil

The huge portrait of Diana Cecil (1596 - 1654) (it is over 2 meters tall) is one of 9 that are attributed to William Larkin (1580s-1619) and that belong to the Suffolk Collection. They now hang in Kenwood House in London. They are a sight for sore eyes. In this article I would like to re-introduce William Larkin to you (see also an earlier blog post) , and next week I will explore his portrait of Diana Cecil; surely one of the most extraordinary portraits of the Jacobean period. 

Image above: Detail of William Larkin, Portrait of Lady Diana Cecil, oil on canvas, 205.9x119.5cm (81 1/4x47 1/16”). Kenwood House. ©English Heritage. 

William Larkin

William Larkin was born in London in the 1580s, he became a freemason of the Worshipful Company of Painters Stainers (a sort of guild for painters) in 1606 and was mostly active between 1609 and his death in 1619. Around 40-odd portraits are known by his hand but we must remember that he worked within the common studio practice of the time. That meant that he was the master painter, in charge of the studio and responsible for its products, and there were numerous studio assistants who would paint parts of the paintings. Some of the more prestigious portraits are most probably by Larkin's hand in total, but for others he painted the important parts, like hands and faces, and left the dress and background to his assistants. Not much is known about his practice but he gained some very important commissions. 

Until 1952 Larkin was a mostly unknown artist. The paintings were attributed to the 'Curtain Master' but in the 1950s architectural historian James Lees Milne found the missing clues and could attribute some paintings to Larkin. Roy Strong subsequently made the case for a number of other portraits and some more extensive research has since gone into Larkin's masterly paintings.

Larkin's Style of Painting

The style of Larkin's 9 Suffolk portraits continues the Elizabethan tradition of fairly static and decorative poses and costumes. A fairly limited range of props and poses were used for these poses and, for example, the x-frame backed chair appears in many portraits of Larkin as well as of his contemporaries, as does the pose with the casually dropped hand holding a handkerchief. The richly decorated costumes, covered with embroidery, ruffs and cuffs, needlelace and cutwork are typical of renaissance style. Most earlier and continental examples, however, show only royals in these poses and in this decorative gear. Only in England in the seventeenth century do we start to see non-royals in similar portraits of grandeur and status. With the arrival of Van Dyck in the middle of the 17th century poses and costumes became less formal and more life-like.

The dress of Diana is identical to the one her twin sister is wearing in an accompanying portrait. It was quite common in those days for siblings close in age to wear the same clothes but they could have been wearing bridesmaids dresses as well. Her matching bodice and petticoat show a fairly formal court dress in an extreme and short-lived style of fashion with slashes across the front panel of her skirt.  The portrait was probably painted around 1618 when Diana was about twelve, perhaps a little older. She was unmarried. She stands on the same carpet as her twin sister in the accompanying portrait, and also in the portrait of their mother a carpet of the same pattern, but with different colours is depicted. 

The End of of a Painting Tradition

He has taken the Elizabethan tradition of full dress portraiture to its utmost glory, but at the same time he marks the end of this tradition. His faces are much more life-like and subtle than his costumes and certainly a world away from the mask like portraits of the 16th century. They look forward to the arrival of more naturalistic painters from the continent such as Van Dyck. With this new style we gain liveliness but we lose the breath-taking riches of the tudor paintings. It seems indulgent but I am sure we don't need to feel guilty in finding visual pleasure in such a splendour of rich colour, meticulous detail, and impressive scale.

William Larkin, Diana Cecil, Sophie Ploeg Blog

William Larkin, Portrait of Lady Diana Cecil, oil on canvas, 205.9x119.5cm (81 1/4x47 1/16”). Kenwood House. ©English Heritage.

William Larkin Portrait of Anne Cecil - Sophie Ploeg Blog

William Larkin, Portrait of Lady Anne Cecil, oil on canvas, 205.8x118cm (81x46 7/8”). Kenwood House. ©English Heritage.

This article appeared earlier in my book The Lace Trail

Further Reading

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