The Library News

The Library Portraits

Gerrit von Honstrorst 2There is a very interesting group of portraits in The Library at Combermere Abbey, about which, unfortunately, we know very little indeed. Before Sir Kenneth Crossley bought the house and its estate in 1919, the last of the Viscounts Combermere to live at the house dispersed all the contents in a huge three-day sale (click here to read about the auction), and to the best of our knowledge there was absolutely nothing in the house when Sir Kenneth took possession.

It seems most likely that he purchased the portraits, and one criterion was that they were acquired specifically to fit the spaces on the Library wall which cried out for paintings, regardless of the subjects. The two portraits on canvas have been cut down and have additions top and bottom, which is a clue (not all were removed from their frames for restoration, so we cannot say if the width was reduced in all cases, but the others had part of the painted image showing on the sides of the stretchers).
There is no common denominator between them. All seem to be continental, and the one who is possibly of an Englishman – above and below – has no known association with the Abbey.

Gerrit von Honstrorst face 2In my opinion this gentleman looks older than he probably was when he stood for the portrait because of his fleshy face, but was probably only in his thirties. His complexion is slightly florid, indicating that he is perhaps a country gentleman.
He is wearing full battle armour from themed-Sixteenth century, plus or minus ten years either way – coloured in burnished black, and with elaborate gold panels.

This is very expensive armour (made for fighting on horseback, of course); far more elaborate and ostentatious than that which a mere chevalier would have worn, and it is as fine as that worn by King Charles I in his portraits. This man’s armour is as ostentatious and expensive as that worn by the Princes Charles and Rupert in the 1637 double portrait by Anthony Van Dyck. He is very definitely of the officer class, and a senior one at that.

z1010It is interesting to compare the gentleman in armour from Combermere with contemporary portraits of military figures. Above, James Butler, first Duke of Ormonde (school of Sir Peter Lely).

James_II,_when_Duke_of_York_-_Lely_c._1665James II while Duke of York, 1665, Sir Peter Lely

images_larger_05592King Charles II after 1660 (after Sir Peter Lely)

d299287xKing William II (school of Sir Peter Lely). These portraits of four very great and grand men all show them in armour of the very highest quality. There are similarities in the leather strap-work and the metal detailing on the armour (especially with that of the Duke of Ormonde).  None though has anything like the magnificence of the Combermere gentleman’s gold skirt. Note that three out of the four are also holding staffs of office.


The royal Princes Charles and Rupert in armour equalled in quality by that worn by our gentleman from the Combermere Abbey Library

Our man is wearing a far from elaborate lace cravat at his throat (unlike the more complex high lace collars usually worn by Royalist officers, in particular; it resembles one worn by the Royalist officer Marmaduke D-Arcy in his Civil War-era portrait), tied with a racy scarlet ribbon.

On his left hip is a sword with a fancy grip and pommel, both of which might be gilded. The scabbard is held by a brown belt which goes round his waist, and an attached strap which supports the scabbard. This is finely stitched. His protective skirt (or chausses), which takes the weight of the armour on his hips and helps protect his groin, is very finely wrought in gold thread. If this is real gold thread than it obviously a garment of very great value (and weight!).

He is wearing a gauntlet on his left hand, but his right hand is bare and is holding a rod or staff of office – much broader than a mere swagger stick – which is his mark of authority. It was probably made of ebony, topped and tailed in brass (or even gold). His other gauntlet sits on a table to his right, along with a helmet surmounted by a white plume.

Gerrit von Honthrorst exrayWhile this portrait was being conserved it was revealed that another painting had been added below and over-painted

Gerrit von Honthrost 4The gentleman now stands in an herbaceous  border, albeit one that is upside down

The full length portrait of the man in armour was originally two thirds of its current length, though it is possible that the picture was full length originally and the lower portion was damaged. At some point the picture was extended downwards, with a new panel attached to the bottom of the existing picture.

Incredibly this new extension already had a rather high quality image on it already, as was revealed by x-rays. This painting was of flowers in an urn, on a shelf with one flower lying on the shelf – which now appears top left of this lower half of the painting, as the flower piece was attached upside down. The flower painting dates from the Seventeenth or Eighteenth century, so was later than the portrait. A smaller section from the flower picture had also been added to the top of the portrait.

It was then over-painted with the lower half of the body and the legs of the man in armour, against a dark brown background. The flower painting had been quite damaged before it was re-used (which is perhaps why it was re-used). The fillings of these damages did not show in the X-rays as they were made of gesso (chalk), whereas the whites in the flowers – being lead white – did show.

The question was what to do with these two images during the conservation process. To over-paint the flowers once more seemed a rather sad option, but the weight of paint on the man’s legs meant that fully restoring the flower painting was not viable. Had it been then there would have been an argument for removing the paint and fully restoring it, and then painting new ‘replica’ legs on the man in armour, on a replacement panel.

In fact the decision was made to remove the over-paint of the background and show the flowers, but to leave the legs – so that our man is now standing in a flowerbed, albeit an upside down flowerbed.

It is understanding that the portrait was the work of Gerrit von Honthorst, who was born in Utrecht in 1592, and died there in 1656. He was probably the son of Herman Gerritsz, who painted tapestry cartoons. He trained with Bloemaert, the leading local painter, before travelling to Rome. After returning to Utrecht in 1620, he began to specialise in portraiture, and was very fond of candle-light scenes.


Gerrit von Honthorst of Utrecht, almost certainly the painter of the portrait of the gentleman in armour

We know that he was working in London in 1628, in the court of King Charles I, and that he returned to The Hague in December of that year. He then was in the service of Prince Frederick Henry of Orange (died 1647), and was his favourite portrait painter. He also created a series of classical and historical pictures commissioned by King Christian IV of Denmark.
Honthorst’s chronology does not help us much with the identity of the sitter (and what is most surprising about this portrait is that there is no coat of arms or any inscription to indicate who this gentleman was).

He could have been an Englishman, painted in 1628, or he could have been an English Royalist painted in exile during The Commonwealth. The law of averages suggests that he was continental however; the over-riding piece of evidence is the very high status of his armour, which suggests that he was not English – because any Englishman as wealthy as he would be recognisable to us. Further research is needed, and we are hoping that the National Portrait Gallery will be able to assist us.

 Andreas Gaill 2

In terms of quality the best painting in this group is the one of Andreas Gail (above, and detail below). What we see is a stern-looking gentleman of some wealth, who is very certain of his position in society. Gaill (or von Gaill) was born in Cologne in 1526 and studied to be an advocate in his home town, as well as studying in Orleans, Leuven, and Bologna.

In 1558 he was appointed to the Imperial Chamber Court, and from 1569 onwards, he served on the Aulic Council in Vienna. Just prior to his death in 1587 he was Chancellor to the Elector of Cologne. He is remembered as a great jurist and man of law. His 1578 work Practicae observationes ad processum iudiciarium imperialis camerae was the first systematic compilation of Chamber Court jurisprudence, which exerted a great influence on the practice of law in the Holy Roman Empire, and served as a template for most later German compilations of court decisions.

In the Combermere portrait his profession is expressed by the letter in his right hand and the folded document in his left. Aged perhaps in his fifties (he was sixty one when he died), he wears a felt or fur cap, with an expensive fur coat or cape over his shoulders. The rest of his clothing is a very sober black, but he has an exquisitely-creased ruff at his throat, and is wearing a gold chain if three loops, with a medallion. His hair is shaved quite closely, though he has a generous but well-trimmed beard. To say he is unsmiling is an understatement.

An expert at the National Portrait Gallery made the point that Andreas’s style and obvious wealth makes him resemble a member of the international merchant elite of the Sixteenth century; “The way his opulent beaver pelt lining to his cloak is displayed is quite marked, and [if he indeed were] a merchant it would suggest that he trades with Muscovy, the prime source of fur in the European trade. The hat, chain seal ring and documents are all typical of merchant portraits. He must have been outstandingly successful to afford to purchase arms.”

In the top right corner of the painting we have his full coat of arms, helpfully. There is a helmet on the shield, which – unadorned by a coronet or crown, is the mark of a knight. The two red roses on the shield are part of the arms of Cologne. A symmetrical double-fleur de lys appears both on the lower half of the shield, and in the plume.

The original coat of arms was in fact given to the family in 1532 – when Andreas was six years old – by a “concession d’armoiries”. Régis de Gail, a descendant of Andreas, very kindly got in touch with us here at the Abbey and told us that the correct heraldic description of Andreas’s arms was:

Coupé : au premier d’or à deux roses à cinq feuilles de gueules boutonnées d’or ; au second d’azur à une fleur de lis partie de gueules (dextre) et d’or (senestre) ; L’écu timbré d’un casque de tournoi couronné d’or et orné de lambrequins de gueules et d’or ; Cimier : une fleur de lis partie de gueules et d’or, soutenue par un vol coupé d’or et d’azur, l’or chargé de deux roses de gueules boutonnées du champ.

Exactly the same coat of arms is shown on a 1557 portrait of Nicolaus von Gail, who was a cousin of Andreas (painted by Barthel Bruyn the Younger, 1530 – 1607).

The Gail family were persons of considerable importance, and that was reflected in their improving status. In 1545 they were presented with a lettre de confirmation de noblesse confirming their position in society (in German, an Adelspatent. On the first day of January 1573 Andreas von Gail received a diplôme d’ampliation de noblesse, which gave him and his descendents the title of Freiherr (literally a ‘free lord’ – equivalent to a position above a Knight but below a Baron) in perpetuity.

So far we do not know who painted this portrait, but our research continues.

Andreas Gaill face 2

Andreas Gaill arms 2


A mono rendering of an earlier portrait of Andreas von Gail, circa 1560 by Pieter Pourbus


Andreas von Gaill’s coat of arms; a detail from a contemporary book plate in an edition of Practicae observationes ad processum iudiciarium imperialis camerae


The arms on the portrait of Andreas Gail are the same as those of his cousin, Nicolaus von Gail (on the left hand panel), seen here with his twenty one-year old wife, Sophia Von Wedigh in 1557.

The two remaining portraits are believed to be a matched pair of a husband and wife, from the studio of Sir Anton van Dashorst Mor. Born around 1517 in Holland, he was a very successful portrait painter, and painted many crowned heads, including King John III of Portugal, Catherine of Portugal, William of Orange, King Philip of Spain, Margaret of Parma, and – most famously in England – Queen Mary I.

Circle of Anton Mor - husband 1

Circle of Anton Mor - wife 1

In his lifetime (he died in 1577) he was referred to as Antoon, Anthonius, Anthonis or Mor van Dashorst, and as Antonio Moro, Anthony More – though he signed the majority of his portraits simply as Anthonis Mor. Born in Utrecht, then one of the great art centres of western Europe, his first known work is from 1538. He worked in Brussels as well as in Utrecht, but also in Denmark, Portugal, Spain and England.

He came to England, probably in 1533, to paint a likeness of Queen Mary I for Philip of Spain, whose father, Charles V, was in negotiations for the marriage of his son to the Queen for – as ever in royal circles at the time – diplomatic and dynastic reasons.


Antonis Mor’s famous portrait of Queen Mary I of England

 Mor painted at least three versions of Mary’s likeness, and the best known of these is now our most familiar image of the Queen. The portrait was well received in Spain and the wedding went ahead. Philip became King Philip II of Spain on Charles V’s abdication two years later. As the Spanish husband of an English Queen, Philip was hugely unwelcome in England, and he spent most of his marriage abroad (he returned to Spain in 1559, never to return to England – taking Mor with him) with his highly strung wife pining pathetically for his return. Throughout the 1560s the Anthonis Mor seems to have commuted around western Europe, undertaking portraits of ever-higher prestige.

Mor and his studio were very fond of depicting their sitters looking forward, but with their heads slightly off centre – particularly to the sitter’s left side, as the man in the Combermere pair does. At least this is true of male subjects; females – including the Abbey’s lady and Queen Mary – have their heads turned slightly to their right – though again the eyes look straight at the viewer.

Circle of Anton Mor - husband  face2Details, above and below, of the heads of the man and his wife

Circle of Anton Mor - wife face 1

The man is dressed very soberly in black, but has white ruffs at his collar and wrists, which are consistent with those on other Mor portraits, but not exactly the same as any others. Given his clothing, and the folded document in his left hand, he might have been a lawyer. The National Portrait Gallery commented, “This man is mid-Sixteenth century, quietly and expensively dressed, and could be from a range of backgrounds; the parquet floor makes me think he is probably continental”.

The heraldry on the woman’s portrait suggests that the woman was in fact either an heiress in her own right, or the man’s widow (her arms are shown in a diamond rather than on a shield, indicating that she bore the arms in her own right). She is clearly Continental, probably from the Low Countries, and dates from the Sixteenth century.

She is more extravagantly dressed than the man, with red velvet sleeves on her panelled dress. Her mob cap, with its semi-circular ‘ears’ is simple (and very similar to a slightly more elaborate one which appears in a largely contemporaneous portrait of a lady by Adriaen Thomas), but her winged collar is again more elaborate. She has the index finger and thumb of her left hand round a long gold chain, which is knotted at intervals, and goes round her (tiny) waist and reaches to the ground. In her right hand she holds a pair of very fine gloves.

At this point in time gloves were often shown in portraits, and they represented elegance and luxury. A hundred years later fine gloves were worn by the merchant classes, and the truly wealthy (and snobbish) therefore made a point of not being seen with them. The very best kid-leather gloves came from Spain. The lady also has two expensive-looking gold and jewelled rings on the fingers of her left hand; displayed so that the viewer can not miss them.

The proportion on both these full length portraits is slightly suspect. In particular the lady’s head seems too small for her body. The man looks to be in his mid-thirties, while his wife may well be considerably younger.
Both pictures are on panel. The woman’s costume had been completely over-painted, in a rather more decorative but similar style to the original, and the overpaint was fairly soluble so it was done comparatively recently. This over-painting had been done to cover extensive small losses, and has now been meticulously retouched. The losses were so numerous that the conservators wondered if it had been in a fire and had been blistered. Tests showed that the losses on the portrait of the husband were so extensive that we decided it was not realistic to remove the over-paint. Overall these two full length portraits had not been badly over-cleaned.

So far as the identity of the man and woman are concerned, there is a distinctive coat of arms on both portraits; one being a marital variation of the other. Both are quartered with blue and yellow wavy lines – similar to the arms of the Spanish family of Urich. We are currently consulting heraldry experts and hope to be able to update this question soon.

Circle of Anton Mor - husband arms2

The coat of arms on the man’s portrait, above, and on the woman’s, below.

Circle of Anton Mor - wife 1


Two Monarchs, A Cotton And A Mystery Man

The four painted panels in the huge fireplace surround in The Library at Combermere Abbey contain portraits from the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth century. Each measures approximately 23 inches high by 18 inches wide. They show King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, and the man who re-built the Abbey as a country house after the dissolved Cistercian abbey had been granted to his father, Richard Cotton. But who is the subject of the fourth picture? Is it Richard’s father, Sir George Cotton? He died in 1545, when his son was five or six years old, and more than three decades before the date on the image of Richard. Could it be Richard’s son and heir, named George after his grandfather, who was only seventeen that year, but might well have grown a moustache in an attempt to look older, and more manly? At the youngest this man looks as if he is in his mid-twenties, and there’s little familial likeness. His great lace collar is of the period, as is the slashed black tunic showing the white (satin?) beneath. The portrait of Richard is dated 1579, and all the paintings appear to be contemporaneous, and were probably the work of the same artist.

For a long time the mystery image was said to be a portrait of James I, but he did not come to the throne until 1601 – though this portrait could have been added after that date – but crucially he is always depicted as bearded. Also, his beard was distinctive; long, wispy (“thin”, as contemporaries described it), and quite red.

Combermere library and north wing may 12 010The unmistakable likeness of Henry VIII, who brought the Cottons to power and wealth (detail)
Combermere library and north wing may 12 009Henry VIII’s second daughter, Elizabeth, Queen of England from 1558 – sixteen years after Combermere had been granted to Sir George Cotton (detail)
Combermere library and north wing may 12 012Richard Cotton; born 1539 or 1540, died 1602 (one year after Elizabeth). The inscription in the top right of his portrait notes that he was 37 years of age at the time of the sitting (detail)
Combermere library and north wing may 12 008
All we can say for sure is that he is an unknown Elizabethan gentleman (detail)

Conservator Harriet Owen Hughes took all four paintings to her studio in Liverpool for restoration. Quite apart from the work on the paint itself, a number of the backing panels on which the canvas had been stretched and glued had split, and these had to be carefully repaired. Now all four portraits are beautifully restored and have been returned to their rightful place in the fire surround.

Portrait of Henry VIII

Most portraits of King Henry VIII show him four-square, facing the viewer – though a small number depict him with his face slightly turned away, but with his eyes very definitely turned back to the viewer. His stare is always fearsomely direct, self-assured and uncompromising. Interestingly though, in the Combermere Abbey portrait his eyes are looking down slightly – not directly at the viewer.

Henry reigned for thirty eight years, and his appearance changed dramatically across those years; from lithe and highly active young man – fresh-faced and even gauche – to a bitter-looking, pig-eyed brute – always in great pain and suspicious of everyone. He had been dead more than thirty years when this work was undertaken. There would have been many sources of reference for the artist. The King has been depicted in middle age, at the height of his powers, rather than at the end of his life.

Our national image of Henry comes mostly from the portraits by Hans Holbein The Younger, who painted the King at least half a dozen times – the earliest being in around 1536 (not long after Holbein first came to England, with a letter of recommendation from Erasmus, addressed to Thomas Cromwell), and lastly in 1543 (unfinished as he died of the plague before it was completed). The Combermere portrait most resembles Holbein’s portrait of 1536/7, though the King looks rather more benign and less imperious. This shows Henry at around forty five years of age.

intro_henry   ~Aportrait_of_henry_viii-400

The contemporary portraits of Henry VIII which most resemble the Combermere portrait. In these and the Combermere portrait the king wears a similar hat, at an angle – down slightly on the King’s right hand side

Holbein’s portraits of the King were much copied, both as paintings and as engravings, and almost everyone would have seen one or more, and the King was instantly recognisable.

The Combermere portrait of Henry is 577 x 445 mm (606 x 470mm in frame), and is set in a plain wood ‘tray’ style frame. The painting is on three vertical oak boards, which are quite rough, and not camfered. The central board had a split running from the bottom, with canvas on the back. The left plank (as seen from the front) was split from the others, with an older repair in the top corner

There was incipient flaking along this break, some of old restoration. There was vehicular crackling and rough texturing throughout the background, which indicates  overpaint, and the varnish was discoloured

In cleaning tests it became apparent that the background – which should be a brighter reddish colour – has been over-painted to cover pin-prick ‘crater’ losses probably caused by deteriorating lead salts in the dark areas. The inscription ‘(Henry) VIII’ shows through the over-paint above the head, and the original feathers in his hat are much bolder, though the black areas appear worn. The over-paint was readily soluble in acetone. There were some old woodworm holes in the wooden frame, so it was treated with Constrain to avoid future infestation.

Henry VIII being removed from wooden surround
Henry removed from his frame
Henry VIII during rejoining of split in panel
The portrait in the press after gluing to close up the crack in the backing panel
Henry VIII during rejoining of split in panel  As above, in a press
Henry VII during cleaning
Detail of Henry’s collar and beard before cleaning
Henry VII during cleaning
King Henry VIII’s all-seeing left eye (and what things it saw!)
Detail of trim on Henry’s hat, with first clean on the left
Henry VIII during cleaning
During cleaning
Henry VII during cleaning
During cleaning
Henry VIII during cleaning
First clean on Henry’s hat and forehead
Henry VIII removal of overpaint
First clean on the extreme left of the feather trim on his hat
Henry VIII Test clean left
As above; full frame with the first test clean on the left hand side of his hat
Henry VIII after cleaning and rejoining
Detail on Henry’s hat, just to the left of his ear, after the panels had been re-joined but before re-touching
Henry VIII after cleaning
Detail of the shoulder and edge of the collar, to the left, after cleaning
Henry VIII after cleaning and rejoining
Henry after cleaning and re-joining but before re-touching
Henry VII after cleaning
Henry’s furrowed brow after cleaning
Henry VIII after cleaning retouching and varnishing
The magnificent King Hal after cleaning, re-touching, and varnishing

Portrait of Elizabeth I

The portrait of Elizabeth I measures 585.5 x 440 mm (with wood ‘frame’ – 605 x 470), and was found to have been painted on canvas. It was – in restoration-speak – marouflaged (a technique for affixing a painted canvas to a wall or similar surface, using an adhesive that hardens as it dries such as plaster or cement. to oak boards), un-champhered, with a canvas strip over the join, sitting in a plain wood ‘tray’ style frame with nails.

In initial cleaning tests there appeared to be a completely different ruff under the dark background to the one Elizabeth is wearing, and her hair has been added to. This means that the painting has been over-painted – and in the relatively recent past as this over-paint was readily soluble. It was not unknown for portraits of Elizabeth to be ‘modernised’ in the reign of Quenn Anne, but these alterations appear to be more recent, which is fascinating – though it is frustrating not to be able to date the changes.

All of the four portraits of Elizabeth I in a recent exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery were found to have changed in some way since they were first created. Advanced scientific techniques, such as paint sampling and infra-red reflectography, have helped us to unlock clues to their original appearance. Paint sampling on the most well-known of the four, the ‘Darnley’ portrait, has revealed that the now brown pattern on the queen’s dress would once have been crimson, and her extremely pale complexion would originally have been much rosier.

The latter indicates that the common assumption that Elizabeth had very pale features is largely a myth, true only for the later part of her reign when we know that she did wear pale makeup. X-ray examination of another of the featured portraits has revealed how an early seventeenth-century panel painting of Elizabeth was completely painted over in the eighteenth century to ‘prettify’ the queen in keeping with contemporary standards of beauty and style. Several other portraits of Elizabeth I exist that were similarly altered in the eighteenth century, indicating a posthumous revival of interest in her at this much later date.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the discoveries highlighted relates to a portrait that has very rarely been exhibited in the Gallery. This portrait of Elizabeth, created in the 1580s, has been painted over an unfinished portrait of an entirely different sitter!

The areas of the Combermere portrait which had not been over-painted were quite worn from earlier over-cleaning. The rough texture of some of the overpaint suggests the original paint may have been flaking. The painting was X-rayed, but disappointingly the alterations did not show. Since it was not possible to assess the condition of the original paint Hannah decided not to remove the over-painting.

Elizabeth I  test clean - ruff under background Left edge
First test clean test on the ruff ; left edge
 Elizabeth I  test clean with overpaint removed
Elizabeth I test clean with over-paint removed
Elizabeth I.Test clean with surface dirt only removed
Test clean with surface dirt only removed
Elizabeth I Test clean
A test clean on part of Elizabeth’s ruff
Elizabeth I before
The full portrait of Elizabeth I before any work had been undertaken
Elizabeth I. Test cleans but not wear retouched
Test cleaned but not re-touched
Elizabeth I. Test cleans retouched
Test cleaned and re-touched
Elizabeth I after
A rather intimate and moving detail of Queen Elizabeth’s left eye after restoration
Elizabeth I after retouching
A detail of her (second) ruff after restoration
Elizabeth I detail showing worn paint
Detail; nose and lips of a Tudor monarch
Elizabeth I after retouching
A close-up of Elizabeth’s features after restoration
Elizabeth I after
The restored monarch in all her majesty
Elizabeth I
 The reverse of the portrait of Elizabeth I showing the split in the wooden panel

This portrait is not a terrific likeness of the Queen, as we know her from portraits for which he sat. It is hard to say where the artist got his reference from. It could be said that he should have had an easier time which the Queen than with Henry VIII, as she was still on the throne and, of course, very recognisable. Perhaps familiarity bred contempt.

Her ruff is very modest by her own extravagant standards, and in all other paintings of her great emphasis is given to her clothing – which is not the case here. At the time the Combermere portrait was painted she was forty six years old.

elizabethphoenix   eeompressed

eeliz  NPG 200; Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown artist

Three broadly contemporary portraits of Elizabeth I, and one (bottom right) which is later. All with ruffs which are similar but less elaborate.

Portrait of Richard Cotton

Richard Cotton was born in either 1539 or 1540, the eldest of six children born to Sir George Cotton and his wife, Mary Onsley. Richard was the fifth child and the only boy. He was probably named after his father’s brother, Sir Richard Cotton. The two brothers had emerged from obscurity in Wem in Shropshire, gone to London, and made their name at the court of King Henry VIII. George was knighted as an Esquire to The Body of King Henry, and soon after his son’s birth – in 1542 – he was granted the dissolved monastery of Combermere Abbey, together with its lands and income. This was mostly in recognition of Sit George’s service in running the household of the King’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset.

George died at the age of forty, in 1545, and it seems that little happened at Combermere for twenty years, apart from the demolition of almost all the Abbey buildings, and the collection of rents. In the early 1560s Richard set about building a country house for his family on part of the site of the Abbey – incorporating what had been The Abbot’s Lodgings as the house’s great hall. Richard’s portrait is dated 1579, so we can assume that the house was completed – or very close to completion – by that date.

Richard lived to be about sixty two, and was married three times. His first marriage, to Mary Mainwaring from Ightfield – close to Combermere – was when he was about twenty, and they had eight children in thirteen years. The first of these was George, who would inherit Combermere in 1602. George had two brothers, Arthur and Andrew. Mary died in 1578 and Richard married Jane Sulliard (or Seyliard). She died in 1596, having given Richard three more sons and a daughter. Finally he married Philippa Dormer, with whom he had two children – a son and a daughter.

The armorial shields seen on his portrait are very interesting. These are his stamp of identity; his statement of lineage and familial durability. To the left, dated 1579, is his crest of a falcon with its wings expanded. The two shields on the right of the portrait relate to the first two of Richard Cotton’s wives; Mary Mainwaring and Jane Sulliard. Both women obviously came from families prominent enough to have their own arms. At the time of the painting Mary had been dead for a year and Jane and Richard were newly married. Curiously, in the The Library at Combermere Abbey – what was The Abbot’s Lodgings – the arms of Mary and Philippa are displayed, but not those of Jane (though these date from the Nineteenth century).

The portrait measures 608 x 456 mm and is on oak, with a two breaks, one vertical and one slanting. The painting had split completely in two along the existing vertical break before it arrived in the studio. There was flaking along the breaks, some of old filling. There was also evidence of previous damage just to the right of the existing vertical break – a band of slightly discoloured retouching most noticeable in the face, and parallel damage from a corrosive liquid running down (which has also splashed on back). There was vehicular crackle throughout the background which may be over-paint. The varnish was moderately dis-coloured and readily soluble, except where there it has built up, which was mainly at the edges. The paint was in reasonable condition compared with the other paintings; did the artist take more care with the portrait of the man who was paying his account?

Philip Cotton before

Richard Cotton before cleaning, showing the vertical crack in the oak panel

Philip Cotton during cleaning

The sleeve of Richard’s tunic during cleaning

Philip Cotton before

The reverse of the portrait showing the splitting

P Cotton during cleaning

Detail of Richard’s tunic, during cleaning

Philup Cotton during cleaning

The shoulder of the tunic during cleaning

Phillip Cotton after cleaning and rejoining

Detail of the portrait, after cleaning and re-joining but before re-touching

Phillip Cotton after retouching

After re-touching

Phillip Cotton before retouching

Before re-touching

Phillip Cotton after rejoining before retouching

The top right of the picture (the ’37’ being Richard’s age at the time) after re-joining but before re-touching
before retouching
The full portrait after cleaning and joining but before re-touching
 Phillip Cotton after cleaning and rejoining
After cleaning and re-joining
Phillip Cotton after retouching
Detail after re-touching
Phillip Cotton after retouching
The full portrait after re-touching

Portrait of George Cotton?

As discussed earlier, we do not know the identity of this gentleman, in the fourth panel, but the most likely candidate is definitely George Cotton, the son of Richard Cotton. As his heir, George would have been extraordinarily important in the dynastic landscape of a great Tudor gentleman like Richard. Richard was very proud of how far back his family stretched, and George was his familial investment in the future. It was no coincidence that he was named after Richard’s father. There may be further evidence in the fact that the two great Tudor monarchs were placed centrally, flanked by the ever-loyal Cotton gentlemen.

Born in 1560, George lived to be eighty seven years old – a very good age. His wife, Mary Bromley of Shifnal in Shropshire, was born nine years later, and she died in the same year as her husband, aged seventy eight.

Richard made a good marriage in wedding Mary. She was the daughter of Sir George Bromley, who was a very great man in the county and a significant figure nationally. Born in 1526, he was a lawyer, landowner, politician and judge, as well as being – at different times – the MP for Liskeard in Cornwall, Much Wenlock, and Shropshire. He was an important member of The Council of the Marches. He died in 1589 and was buried beneath a splendid tomb erected by his son, in Saint Peter’s church in Worfield. By this time the Cottons of Combermere were very grand in their own right, but being Sir George Bromley’s son-in-law would have done George no harm at all.

George and Mary had eight children together, between 1588 and 1609. The first seven must have caused George some worry as they were all girls. He must have watched the procession with concern for the want of an heir, but the last pregnancy gave him just that; Thomas, who was thirty eight in the year that he inherited the Combermere estate, after Richard died in Stoke, near Coventry, in Warwickshire, in 1647.

The portrait measures 605 x 512 mm. The painting is on canvas, lined, on a fixed strainer which is bowed. The original tacking edges have not been cut.

There was a small hole in both cavasses near the bottom left, and there was an all-over raised crackle with some old paint losses at intersections and larger losses near the bottom edge.

The most recent varnish is thick and very shiney, emphasising the texture of the crackle;  an older, discoloured, varnish has been removed from the tops of the crackle but left in the hollows. The older varnish  appears fairly  resistant to solvents; the most recent is soluble. The condition of the paint where test areas were cleaned had widespread small damages.

James I before treatment, with cleaning test
Before restoration, with a cleaning test undertaken on the chin
James I during cleaning
A detail of the fine lace ruff during cleaning
James I detail before cleaning
The left hand side of the lips and jaw, during cleaning
James I during cleaning
 The ruff during cleaning
James I damage repaired and filled
A small area of damage; to be filled and re-touched
James I after cleaning, repaired but not retouched
After cleaning and repairing but before re-touching
James I after treatment
The face in close up, after treatment
James I after treatment
The full portrait, restored

Combermere library and north wing may 12 001

The four portraits back in place in the fire surround in The Library

We are hugely grateful to conservator Harriet Owen Hughes for her very important work on these historic portraits, and for her comprehensive recording of the undertaking. You can click here for Harriet’s details on the Institute of Conservation’s register, including her contact details.

Our thanks also go to heraldry expert Peter Marshall for his advice regarded the heraldic devices.

The restoration of the portraits was supported by The Heritage Conservation Trust (which is supported by the HHA). The Heritage Conservation Trust is an independent charity set up in 1990 on the initiative of historic house owners to provide support for historic properties.

The HCT supports the conservation of works of art at historic houses open to the public as well as education, access and research initiatives in and about these special places. Within the last year the HCT has expanded its activities to support access and educational initiatives in historic houses and gardens and to help research projects linked to the conservation of the historic or artistic contents of houses, alongside its continuing work to assist restoration of works of art.

Combermere Abbey is very grateful to the HCT for its invaluable assistance in the restoration of these fascinating and historically very valuable portraits. Click here for more details about the Trust.

The Heraldry of Combermere Abbey

In 2006, Peter A. Marshall from Lancaster researched and documented the heraldry of Combermere. His full article can now be downloaded as a PDF.

It largely focuses on the display of family heraldry in the Combermere Abbey Library,  which he believes is one of the most extensive to be found in a country house.  However it also explores the crests and shields to be found upon memorials in local churches.

Click link to download Combermere Abbey Heraldry

Combermere’s Aeolian Pipes

Combermere library and north wing may 12 144

What would you think if you found this contraption in your attic? That’s an electric motor on the left, and some sort of turbine on the right, while on the far right is looks as if there should be a pulley attached to that wheel. On the wall behind it is an early electrical control of some kind. but what on earth is it all for? And when does it date from?

This equipment – mostly made of cast iron and obviously very heavy, was exposed in a small room right at the top of the North Wing after the roof had been taken off – a first step prior to the restoration. The answers to what it is and how old it is are very simple, but believe me, it’s not something you would in find in many homes.

In 1919 Sir Kenneth Crossley commissioned the building of a pipe organ from the Aeolian Organ & Music Company of 841, Broadway, New York City.  The firm had been founded in 1878 by one William B Tremaine, and the company was said to manufacture the best instruments of their kind in the world. They specialised in making organs for domestic use; that is to say, in the main, for use in very large houses, and their clients were the very wealthy.

Aeolian did also made cheaper ‘organettes’ or ‘player pump’ organs, with the wind being forced through the instrument by the organist operating foot pedals – as on a harmonium. And that’s the clue to the use of this apparatus at Combermere. The circular motion generated by the motor, powered the belt, which went down – in effect – two floors, and forced air under pressure into the ‘lungs’ of the organ.  As the required stops were opened, the air rushed through the pipes and sounded the notes. Presumably the pump was at the very top of the house so that the noise of it in operation was not heard below in The Library – and certainly did not impinge on the music being played. As he was an engineer by profession, this must have appealed greatly to Sir Kenneth, and of course it was cutting edge technology.

Combermere library and north wing may 12 146The electrical master control box on the wall by the pump. This would be switched off when the organ was not in use, and would have protected the other electrical items in the house.

Aeolian – named after the Greek god of the winds – had a sales office in Aeolian House in Bond Street, in Mayfair, and Sir Kenneth may well have seen the organ being played there – and doubtless had a go himself. The sales contract was actually made out in the name of Lady Crossley, and the address for delivery was the family’s previous home, Mobberley Hall, but it was to be delivered to Combermere Abbey and installed against the wall at the north end of The LIbrary. That order – number 1431 – goes into great detail, and tells us that the electric bellows (in the loft room) was a ‘London Supplies Blower’, operated by a 100-watt electrical feed. They also got the address wrong; giving ‘Whitechapel, Salop’ instead of Whitchurch, but that was incidental as the organ was to be delivered to Wrenbury railway station, from where it was presumably collected by local workmen – or even estate workers. The documentation also tells us that the trans-Atlantic shipping route required was to be to ‘Liverpool, Cardiff or Bristol’ whichever was to both cheapest and fastest.

An dark oak case for the organ was requested (which would have fitted in well with the panelling in The Library), as well as a total of sixty six stops and pedals. The organ had no fewer than twenty five ranks of pipes. The date of the initial order was January 28 1919, but the organ did not leave the Aoelian factory in New Jersey until January 27 1921. The family moved to Combermere Abbey in 1919, so perhaps it was originally ordered for Mobberley Hall, but then a decision was made to buy a larger house – made simply because the Abbey came on the market perhaps – and delivery was postponed until the family was settled and there was a place for the instrument. The one thing which we don’t know from the documentation, sadly, was how much it cost.

morris_01aThe Combermere organ, with the large aperture to take the ‘automatic play’ cylinder open

The fascinating fact is that you didn’t need to be able to play a single note to get a good tune out of your Aeolian organ. It could be played conventionally, but it also came with a range of pre-formed cylinders which, once slotted into a central cupboard in the vertical face of the machine – one by one, one piece of music at a time – would play the organ automatically, like a pianola. A bit of a con really! It was described in a contemporary press advert as “An instrument upon which anyone entirely ignorant of music can play anything without the slightest practise”.  A con, or a blessing for those of us who learned nothing despite years of piano lessons?

morris_05aA close-up of a cylinder in position
morris_06aAnd the same aperture without a cylinder

We know that Aeolian made around a thousand of these larger organs between 1894 and 1932, and perhaps as many as a hundred were installed in homes in Britain. Very few survive; probably only three where they were originally positioned. The Combermere organ was sold back to the company at some point – we don’t know when – and was then refurbished and sold to Arthur Chilton-King, who had founded the Chiltonian biscuit company, and it was installed at his home in Croydon. It seems that in the 1908s it found its way to Exeter, after perhaps twenty years in storage, and it is now at the home of musician and composer Rowland Lee in Lincolnshire.




Aeolian Organ Company adverts from different periods, and for different sizes of instrument