Cornelis Ketel (1548-1616)
View Full-Size Image

Cornelis Ketel (1548-1616)

Price: Email Inquiry

Ask a question about this item

Three-quarter length portrait in armour of Sir George Gill of Wyddial, Hertfordshire, dressed in Italian armour

Oil painting on tripartite oak panel 50 x 35 inches / 125 x 89 cm.

Inscribed with the motto In despecto de Fortuna, charged with the sitter’s armorial achievements and dated Ao 1578

Note: There is a monogram in an apparently early hand on the reverse of the panel which reads LH in ligature. This had (presumably) been the reason for the painting’s former attribution to the Mannerist painter Lucas de Heere, who was in England 1566-1577. The dating of the present painting, 1578, renders this attribution very improbable, and no other portraits from de Heere’s stay in England are now known. The monogram may be that of a panel-maker or earlier owner, or possibly a bogus addition to support an attribution to de Heere.

Cornelis Ketel was born in Gouda on 18th March 1548. He was trained in Gouda by his uncle, the painter Cornelisz Jacobsz. Ketel (died 1568) and subsequently by Anthonie Blocklandt in Delft. In the about 1565 he travelled to Paris and Fontainbleau, where he was exposed to the Mannerist style of Frans Floris and Niccolo del’Abbate which profoundly influenced his development as a painter. He stay was cut short because of the difficult political climate, and he returned to the Netherlands from 1567-1573.

In 1573, Ketel moved to London, where he remained for eight years until 1581, working mainly as a portrait painter. A small number of signed or documented portraits survive from his stay in England, the most notable being the portrait iof the Elizabethan adventurer and navigator Martin Frobisher (Bodleian Library, Oxford):


Cornelis Ketel: Martin Frobisher. Documents show that Ketel was charging the substantial fee of £5 for a full-length portrait in 1577; the following year he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen (now lost).

After his departure from London, Ketel returned to his native Holland where he developed into one of the most important Mannerist portrait painters of his age. He lived from 1581 until his death in Amsterdam, where he was active in both painterly and literary circles. During this period he painted numerous portraits, most notably the large Miliia Company of Captain Dirck Jacobsz Rosecrans an Lieutenant Pauw (1588; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), which was to serve as an important model for the development of the group portrait in the Netherlands. It was the first such portrait to depict the subjects at full-length with their weapons in an interior; they all adopt slightly exaggerated, mannered, poses.

Van Mander (Het schilderboek) gives a thorough account of Ketel’s career, and mentions that by 1595 he had taken up sculpture. Increasing stiffness in his limbs (perhaps arthritis) saw him abandoning painting with brushes and using first his fingers, and ultimately hus toes, to paint.. By 1610, or a little after, he became completely paralysed; he died in August 1616 in Amsterdam.


The coat of arms on the painting has been identified by Thomas Woodcock FSA, Garter King of Arms at the College of Arms in London, and should be blazened as follows:

(1) Lozengy Argent and Sable a Lion rampant guardant Argent [for Gill]
(2) Argent two chevronels Sable each charged with three Mullets Argent on a Canton Gules a Lion passant gardant Or [for Gill]
(3) Argent on a Fess Sable between three Crosses formy Gules three Martlets Or [for Canon]
(4) Argent three Bars and in chief three Mulletts Gules [Unknown, but see below]

He has identified these as of the Gill family (unusually, both first and second quarterings are used by that family). The third quartering is of the family of Canon, indicating that the sitter is the descendant of the marriage of John Gill and Margaret, daughter and heir of George Canon of Wyddial in 1508. This couple had four sons, the eldest of whom was George Gill who died in 1568; this George Gill’s eldest son was John Gill of Wyddial who was High Sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1575. His eldest son, the sitter in the present picture, was George Gill of Wyddial (before 1565 – 1619) who was an officer in the army and was on the expedition to Cadiz in 1597. Each of these latter four were in turn the head of the family and would be entitled to use this coat of arms without a “badge of cadency”, that is, without a differentiating symbol to indicate a younger son.

Interestingly, the fourth quartering on the portrait seems to be a slight mis-interpretation of the arms of Washington, ancestors of the American President, which are Gules three bars and in chief three Mullets Argent – i.e., some of the tinctures have been reversed. There is no surviving evidence either to show that Gill’s mother was or was not an heraldic heiress of the Washington family, but there is only one other coat (that of Kempston in Warwickshire) which is remotely similar
Wyddial (or Widiall) is a parish in Edwinstree hundred, Royston county court district, rural deanery of Buntingford and archdeaconry and diocese of St Albans, and in the north-east corner of Hertfordshire. The village, which is small and inconsiderable, is 1½ miles north-east of Buntingford, which town is partly within the parish and 7½ south from Royston, Royston lies on the pre-Roman Icknield Way, the “oldest road in Britain”, and probably first used in the late stone age. There are man bronze-age tumuli in the district. The church of St Giles is an ancient structure, consisting of chancel, nave and north aisle, south porch and a western embattled tower, with spire. There are several stained windows, including two in the aisle apparently by a Dutch or Flemish artist of the 17th century, and some monuments and brasses to the Gulston, Gyll and Ellis familie. In the north wall of the chancel is a brass with effigy and inscription to Dame Margaret, daughter and heir of Sir Thomas Nevyll kt. brother to Lord Abergavenny and wife of Sir Robert Southwell kt. Master of the Rolls, who died 1575; there are also brasses of the Gyll family 1535-1600. Wyddial Park, formerly the seat of the Gill family, is a considerable domain close to the village. The area is 1,187 acres.
The painting technique of the present painting is unusually free and sophisticated for an English portrait of the mid-Elizabethan era, and must certainly have been that of an immigrant Netherlander rather than a native British painter. English-trained artists of this period are altogether more laboured in the execution of their paintings, with minute attention to detail and surface decoration, the features of the sitters in flat lighting and largely without shadows. The present painting has much in common with the Unknown Youth Aged 16 at Parham Park which is signed and dated 1576, which like the present painting has a fluid appearance to the paint surface which betokens a rapid and confident execution – as indeed does the William Gresham of 1579 in Leveson-Gower collection.
The Sir William Pelham in the Yarborough Collection (illus. R. Strong The English Icon of c.1580 is perhaps closest to the present painting in both composition and technique:



C. Ketel Sir William Pelham (panel 126.7 x 77.5 cm; coll. Lord Yarborough). The composition is closely analogous with the present painting.


Rica Jones, senior conservator at the Tate Gallery, has pointed out that Ketel’s painting technique his highly idiosyncratic for England in the period of the present paint. (QV her article The methods and materials of three Tudor artists in Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630 (1995: page 238 – 239). In the paintings which she analyses, of Joan and Robert Smythe dating 1579-80, the artist uses, as in the present painting, a grey underlayer to create his half-tones, and quick wet-in-wet brushwork on the faces. This “….indicates a very swift worker who, once he had achieved an acceptable likeness, could well have completed the face in one sitting – a comment which is equally apposite to the portrait of Sir George Gill.