A rare portrait of Ralph Simons, an 16th century British architect, discovered at an Italian auction has been bought by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG).
The painting is the first known portrait of a British architect and dates back to the late 16th century.
Ralph Simons, who is depicted, was a mason architect, responsible for the construction and redesign of a number of Cambridge University colleges, some of which still stand today. Among the most notable of his designs is the Second Court at St John’s College.
A description on the original frame of a early copy of the painting reveals the sitter to be Simons and describes him as “the most skillful architect of his time.” This is especially poignant given that during this time, the profession of architecture was developing and architects themselves were in receipt of a newfound respect for their skill and artistry.
Despite its common use today the term architect only made its first appearance in English in John Shute’s The First and Chief Groundes of Architecture, 1563 and even then term remained largely unused until the 17th century.
In the painting, Simons is holding a pair of dividers in his right hand, a nod to his profession, which when together would form a dagger.
His style of clothing reveals more about the date it was painted, the style of the ruff points to the mid-1590s and this is supported by the fact that the inscription on the copy of the portrait makes no mention of his work at St John’s College, which began in 1598.
It was not customary at the time for portraits to be commissioned by those without great wealth or notoriety, and Simons’ clothing reveal his rather humble place in society, however their are hints to his elevated status through the detailing of the leather jerkin and delicate ruff.
Unfortunately the artist remains unknown, however the style of the painting has a lot in common with other such portraits of sites associated with the Cambridge colleges. This points to a artist with an ongoing relationship with Cambridge University.
It is thought that the painting was initially kept at Sydney College Cambridge, before disappearing from public view and being circulated amongst private collectors until last year when it was purchased by Philip Mould & Co. After discovering the portrait they offered the gallery first refusal at acquiring it after becoming aware of its significance.
“This exciting acquisition will help us to answer the regularly asked question ‘when did more ordinary people begin to get their portrait painted?’ as it represents, not a courtier or a statesman, but a talented artisan. The portrait is a rare survival of a citizen portrait, a portrait type that probably existed in larger numbers than is evident today. We are delighted that it will be on display in the Tudor Galleries at the National Portrait Gallery.” says Dr Tarnya Cooper, Curatorial Director, National Portrait Gallery, London.
The portrait will be on display from 11th July 2016