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

written by Sophie | Art History, Lace



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.

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. 

Larkin used a common set of materials for his work consisting of a double ground (water soluble chalk ground, bound with glue or size) overlaid with lead white oil primer. He created an underdrawing in a variety of materials, including a graphite like drawing medium, and he used a grey-green under paintings for painting skin tones. He might have experimented a little with a new zinc 'drier' to speed up drying. His palette was quite common at the time and consisted of chalk, lead white, lead tin yellow, red, yellow and brown earths, vermillion, red lead, two organic red lakes, azurite, smalt (blue), possibly natural ultramarine, verdigris (blueish green), green verditer, and lamp, ivory and charcoal black.  He worked on panel as well as canvas. Many of his red lake glazes have faded over time and had to be restored where possible but his reds are now generally a lot more 'vermillion' looking and less rich than originally painted. 

The painting of Diana is huge. Even when it would rest on the floor you would never see her face close up and properly. The figure stands in the centre of the painting, full figure, against a black background. Warm bottle green curtains and a green velvet x-framed chair frame her figure that stands out from the dark in all its silky, shiny lightness. There is very little colour in her pearl grey dress, the golden embroidery and golden silk lining of her skirt peeping through the slashes being the only interruption of this pearly vision. 

The figure is drawn in a very exact manner, all the details of folds and shapes are there. Some sense of depth is created by the soft edges used all around her figure. The only sharp edging is on her long open sleeve on (our) right which works as a sharp arrow-head pointing us toward the face.  The slashed dress is what attracts attention first and foremost. It is most unusual to our modern eyes and almost looks like coming from the 20th century punk movement instead of 17th century court. It was a short-lived fashion that showed off the rich fabric of the skirt lining. The slashes are finished off neatly and non-fraying. They are cut at regular intervals in-between the golden embroidery that zig-zags over the skirt. The side panels show the pattern clearly and in the middle skirt panel the same pattern is used, but the whole pattern is turned 90 degrees so that the slashes fall open. The skirt and bodice are made from a heavy silk, beautifully painted by Larkin with white highlights. Larkin wasn't called the 'Curtain Master' for nothing: he was a true master of depicting fabrics, drapery, embroidery and lace. 

The meticulously painted dress contrasts slightly with the much softer and life-like face which is surrounded by soft edges. Diana's hair and ruff fade into the dark background. Her ruff shows a staggeringly detailed depiction of early reticella needle lace, which would have been held up by a wire frame underneath. Her handkerchief is edged off with a beautiful design of reticella lace and finished with scalloped border of needle lace. The detail in the painting is so very fine that the artist probably had access to the dress and the lace in their studio, without the sitter being present and so they could copy the material and design very precisely.

The painting of the gold thread embroidery is one of Larkin's trademarks. His meticulous depiction of the highlights dotted all over the painting could not be copied by his assistants and experts can still tell whose hand applied the dots.  He did not use gilt or metallic leaf but created the effect of metallic shine in mere paint.  He had a method of a triple layered application of brown, orange and yellow for gold, and dark grey, light grey and white for silver. Raised dots of paint added to the realistic effect. The embroidered fabrics in his paintings are built up in 7 or 8 layers of paint. 

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.

Further reading:

  • Laura Houliston, The Suffolk Collection, English Heritage, 2012
  • Karen Hearn, Dynasties. Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, Tate, 1995
  • Roy Strong, Icons of Splendour, in; The Tudor and Stuart Monarchy: Pageantry, Painting, Iconography, 1998.
  • Lees-Milne, James, "Two Portraits at Charlecote Park by William Larkin", The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 94, No. 597, Dec., 1952
  • Wikipedia, V&A Museum
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 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

Published September 25, 2018

Related Posts


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}