The case of the man in the cap

RESTORATION; The Tate Gallery recently put this little-known portrait by John Bettes under the microscope. What they discovered will change our view of the Tudor world forever. Iain Gale investigates

WHO WAS John Bettes? That he was a painter - a portraitist - is beyond doubt, as is the skill with which he executed his rare, signed portrait of An Unknown Man in a Black Cap, about to go on show in the Tate Gallery's exhibition of Tudor and Stuart painting. Aside from that, Bettes (pronounced Bets) is an enigma, a talented follower of Holbein whose overall importance as an artist has long remained unclear, meriting a mere footnote in the histories of the period. Now, however, as a direct consequence of the Tate's exhibition, documentary and technical investigation has shed new light on Bettes - and in turn on our wider perception of the imagery and appearance of the Tudor world.

The first clue to John Bettes' new-found significance was uncovered by Tate curator Karen Hearn in the British Museum. In William Musgrave's celebrated account of his visits to English country houses during the 1780s, Hearn found a description of a painting by Bettes at Brome Hall in Suffolk which perfectly matched the Tate's work. Musgrave refers to a "portrait of Dr Buttes, physician to Henry VIII", whose portrait by Holbein is well-known. Holbein's portrait, however, is of a much older man and we know that Dr Buttes died in 1545, the year the Tate portrait was painted. So who then is the rheumy-eyed gent who stares from the Tate's walls? Buttes' eldest son William is the subject of a painting attributed to Bettes, now in Boston, Mass, and it seems likely that the Tate picture is of none other than Edmund Buttes, the doctor's third son, who, on inheriting his legacy, commissioned this icon to commemorate his new position.

A painted portrait, particularly in the founding days of the Protestant landed Establishment, was the ultimate piece of self-promotion. For the son of the late Court Physician to have chosen Bettes confirms the artist's reputation as a pupil of Hans Holbein. In 1545, Holbein represented art's cutting edge. Celebrated for the gigantic mural of Henry VIII and his family at Whitehall Palace, completed in 1537 (and destroyed in 1698), Holbein had also produced the notable series of portraits of Henry's court seen at the NPG last year. Courtiers were queueing up to sit for the overworked painter and a portrait by his talented pupil must have seemed a good second-best.

Of course, Bettes' work could not be anything quite so brilliant as the portrait of King Henry - a sparkling mass of lapis lazuli, emerald, scarlet and gold. To have topped that would have been the ultimate faux pas. It would, however, have to be sufficiently impressive to convey to the viewer the social status of the sitter, capturing Buttes in the style of the moment and setting him against an appropriately rich background.

It might seem strange then that the Tate portrait should be a grey, somewhat lacklustre image in which only the face appears to have anything to offer. Here Bettes has gone to town, taking pains to model the strands of the beard and portraying the eyes with a delicacy that seems extraordinary for the period. Such virtuosity, though, seems strangely jarring against a dully painted background all too typical of those images of the English gentry of the time which hang in the long galleries of Tudor houses. For an explanation we must look to Bettes' technique.

Although, on account of its inscription, the Tate's portrait has long been attributed to Bettes, for Rica Jones, Paintings Conservator at the Tate, the new exhibition represented an opportunity for further investigation, to "reduce style to technical features" as she puts it. Jones's most significant piece of research involved a cross-section of the painting, which now, magnified 250 times, shows quite clearly the paint layers of white ground, red and grey underpainting. On top of these, though, lies a thick layer of translucent pigment. This is smalt, a quaintly named medium made from cobalt glass, the blue used in stained-glass windows. It was used extensively by painters including Brueghel and Holbein himself. Although it has a vibrant blue tone when first applied, with exposure to light and the passage of time, smalt fades to no more than a dirty neutral.

According to received wisdom, for this reason smalt was despised by Tudor painters. The best blue of the period, ultramarine, was mined in Afghanistan and shipped via Venice. In 1600, Nicholas Hilliard wrote that for "best Ultramarine of Venice" he had paid "eleven pounds ten shillings the ounce". Consider that the annual salary of a farm bailiff in the same period was pounds 2 and you have an idea of its worth. No wonder Henry VIII insisted on ultramarine for the background to his portrait by Holbein.

It is significant, though, that when Holbein presented Henry with a new year's gift of a portrait of his son Edward Prince of Wales in 1539, he used not ultramarine but smalt to create an intensely blue ground, which now appears to us a dull purplish grey. That Bettes inherited Holbein's liking for smalt is evident from further analysis of the backgrounds of Bettes' other attributed portraits: of William Cavendish (at Hardwick Hall) and William Buttes (in Boston). In cross-sections of both Jones also discovered a significant presence of smalt.

Taken with its use in the Tate portrait, it becomes clear that, although smalt was cheaper than ultramarine, it wasn't thought inferior and it seems unlikely that Holbein and his followers were aware of its fugitive nature.

Here then is a core of works which when first painted would have shone with the brilliance of miniatures. The paintings' original appearance was further confirmed by Angela Geary of the Tate, who, at the suggestion of the show's sponsors, Pearson, painstakingly recreated the original colour of freshly applied smalt on a seasoned oak panel. Transposed onto this colour, the Buttes portrait would leap from the frame with an extraordinary 3-D quality which proposes for Holbein and his followers an even greater innovatory importance than is generally acknowledged; and, it being not unreasonable to presume that the same might apply to other portraits of the period, redefines the appearance of Tudor court painting. With this one technical discovery, the Tate's conservators and curators have transformed not only our knowledge of a painter's art and the self-aggrandising intention of his sitter, but our entire picture of the Tudor age.

! 'Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630': Tate, SW1 (0171 887 8000) Thurs to 7 Jan.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...