Identity questioned in painting of ‘Lady Jane’

If confirmed as a depiction of Lady Jane Grey, a two-inch portrait at the Yale Center for British Art may put a face on a long-lost legend, according to one art historian’s recent work.

The round painted miniature — which features a youthful woman with brown hair, blue eyes and a composed facial expression adorned with a black gown and jewels — was long thought to portray a young Queen Elizabeth I. But Tudor scholar David Starkey now claims it depicts Lady Jane Grey, another famous English monarch — one who is much harder to find in art. If Starkey’s hypothesis is confirmed, the painting will be recognized as one of only two portraits of the queen painted during her lifetime, art scholars said.

Paul Mellon purchased the painting and donated it to the Yale Center for British Art, which he founded in 1974. But it was not until last spring that Starkey suggested that the portrait may represent Lady Jane.

Starkey spotted the painting in a 1983 catalogue from the Victoria and Albert Museum and was almost certain that it was Lady Jane, according to an article in the New Yorker. But the art history world is not yet convinced.

No solid evidence has yet surfaced to suggest that the miniature really does depict the famous monarch, said Scott Wilcox, the center’s curator for prints and drawings. He said it is difficult to gather evidence that would support such a claim.

“You can’t necessarily verify it unless there is secure documentary evidence that links the image to the person,” Wilcox said. “It’s a matter of looking for clues … and I think the identity of whoever this woman is, is still a bit of a mystery.”

Center Director Amy Meyers said she, too, is not sure that the miniature depicts Lady Jane, but is intrigued by Starkey’s claims.

“Starkey is a distinguished historian,” Meyers said. “I think he undertook this investigation because he felt that there was enough substantial evidence.”

News of Starkey’s findings has reverberated beyond New Haven. The New Yorker published an article last month about the two objects Starkey claims are contemporary depictions of Lady Jane.

Everett Fahy, Chairman the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, said he is not convinced that the center’s miniature depicts Lady Jane.

“Next time I come to New Haven I will definitely have a look at the miniature,” he said.

Lady Jane, sometimes known as the “Nine Days’ Queen,” sat on the throne from July 10 to July 19, 1553. The throne was soon claimed by Lady Jane’s cousin Mary, who ordered Jane’s execution on Feb. 12, 1554. Jane was 16 years old at the time of her death.

In the absence of known existing portraits of Lady Jane, later artists turned to their own imaginations to depict her in art, Wilcox said.

French artist Paul Delaroche, for example, portrayed her execution in a famous 1833 painting now on view at the National Gallery in London.

“[The Delaroche] is arguably the most famous painting at the National Gallery,” Fahy said. “It’s what the public loves.”

Wilcox said these later paintings show a romanticized image the public eventually came to associate with the historical figure.

“Because there’s no historical record [of what Lady Jane looked like] to fall back on, the artist is able to create an ideal image,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox said being able to put a “real” face to a famous figure is one of the reasons there is such interest in the center’s miniature.

“There is a natural desire of people to have a sense of what historical figures looked like, particularly ones with this sort of romantic legend,” Wilcox said. “Certainly the fact that Starkey suggested that the miniature might be Jane Grey has garnered a fair amount of attention.”

The other purported lifetime portrait of Lady Jane is on view in London’s National Portrait Gallery. According to the National Portrait Gallery’s Web site, scholars suspect but are not certain that the portrait depicts Lady Jane.

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