Sir Robert Shirley (1581-1628)
Sir Anthony Van Dyck (Antwerp 1599 - London 1641)
This fascinating portrait, one of a pair depicting the Englishman Sir Robert Shirley (1581–1628) and his wife Lady Teresia Sampsonia (c.1589–1668) dressed in Persian clothes, was painted in Rome in 1622. Robert Shirley was an adventurer, who from 1608 served as ambassador to the Persian shah Abbas the Great (1571–1629) and adopted Persian customs. Teresia Shirley was Circassian (people from the north-east shore of the Black Sea in Russia) and is shown seated demurely against a view of Rome. The painter, Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), may have been attracted to painting these sitters partly as a result of the stunning visual effect of their lavish clothes. Van Dyck was perhaps the most highly acclaimed and influential artist in the 17th century. He excelled at portraiture and narrative scenes, and the style he created went on to be admired and emulated for centuries. It is not known whether these portraits were a commission from the sitters, or when they came into the collections at Petworth, but they were hanging at the house by 1775 and can still be seen there.
Oil painting on canvas, Sir Robert Shirley (Sherley) (1581–1628) by Sir Anthony van Dyck (Antwerp 1599 – London 1641), 1622. A full-length portrait of Sir Robert Shirley, standing and wearing Persian dress. He wears a turban, a silk coat (qaba) with gold and silver embroidery and rose bows down the centre, an ochre sash supporting a scimitar, and a golden overmantel (balapush) embroidered with flowers and figures and worn half off the shoulder, in the Persian style. There is a bow in his left hand, with the quiver on the ground at right. A red curtain is in the right background. Inscribed in yellow, bottom left: Sr. Robert Shirley. Paired with NT 486170, a portrait by van Dyck of Teresia Sampsonia, Lady Shirley (1589–1668).
Robert Shirley was the third son of Sir Thomas Sherley or Shirley (1542–1612), Treasurer-at-War in the Low Countries, and builder of the mansion at Wiston, West Sussex. Sir Thomas encountered financial disaster in the 1590s, forcing all three of his sons to seek their fortunes abroad. In 1598–9, Robert accompanied the second son, Sir Anthony (1565–1635), on a mission on behalf of the Earl of Essex to Ferrara, and then to Persia (Iran), where he remained behind and married Sampsonia Khan (1589-1668) – a Circassian noblewoman of the Safavid Empire (Sherley 1825). Sampsonia was baptised by Carmelites and given the new name Teresa (Teresia). In 1607–8 he left Persia with Teresa to negotiate alliances with European princes against Turkey on behalf of Abbas the Great. He was well received by Sigismund III of Poland and Pope Paul V, and was first knighted, then created a count palatine, by the Emperor Rudolph II. Shirley was in England from 1611 to 1612–3, but found his mission opposed by merchants in the Levant. He began a second series of missions at the end of 1615, and spent from 1617 to the summer of 1622 in Spain; on 22 July he arrived in Rome, where he was received as Persian Ambassador by Pope Gregory XV (Vaes 1924). While in Rome he encountered Van Dyck, whose ‘Italian’ sketchbook contains a whole set of quick pen sketches of Shirley, his wife and suite (British Museum, London, inv. nos. 1957,1214.207.62 and 1957,1214.207.60). The British Museum sketch of Shirley shows him full figure but in profile and is inscribed ‘Ambasciatore di Persia in Roma’ (Persian Ambassador to Rome) with the colour notes ‘drapo doro’ (gold cloak) and ‘le figure et gli foliage di colori differenti de veluto’ (figures and foliage in multi-coloured velvet). It tends to suggest that Van Dyck was originally struck by the clothing donned by Shirley, and that the actual portrait was not commissioned until later. The sketch of Shirley's wife, Teresa, is inscribed ‘habito et maniera di Persia’ (Persian dress and style). By contrast, her sketch seems consciously a study for her portrait, as its landscape setting is also included. In Van Dyck's portrait, Shirley is shown wearing a qaba embroidered with gold and silver thread, and a balapush, richly embroidered with figures and flowers. These would have been made in Persia, probably by royal tailors. The bow and arrow may be a token of gentry status. Van Dyck’s training with Rubens had sharpened his eye for the enriching effect offered by sumptuous garments. Van Dyck had also recently begun to absorb the lessons of Titian and the other great Venetian colourists. As a representative of the Shah, Shirley regularly wore formal Persian attire. The historian and churchman Thomas Fuller later observed: ‘He much affected to appear in foreign vests, and as if his clothes were his limbs, accounted himself never ready till he had something of the Persian habit about him’ (Fuller 1662, p. 572). But who commissioned these portraits, when, and what became of them? It seems most likely that Shirley himself had them painted before his departure from Rome on 20 August 1622, but it is not clear whether the pictures accompanied him to his next post as Persian Ambassador to the Court of James I in London. While in England, he was painted, again in Persian dress, for another whole-length portrait (Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire), which might suggest that the Van Dyck was not available for copying. On the other hand, it may have been its presence in England that stimulated the East India Company in 1626 to commission Richard Greenbury to paint the rival Persian envoy, Naqd 'Ali Beg, in a similar cloak (British Library, acc. no. 423). Shirley quarrelled with Naqd 'Ali Beg to such an extent that the king sent both of them packing in 1626. He died in Persia, two years later, under the mistaken belief that he had lost the Shah’s favour. The portraits seem to have remained with Teresa, Shirley’s widow, who retired to the convent attached to S. Maria della Scala in Rome, where she died in 1668. They were unlikely to have remained in England as there was no Shirley seat there (Wiston having been sold to Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex, in 1622), and Robert’s only son, Henry, having pre-deceased him. If portraits had stayed in England, they would most likely to have been copied or engraved. They may have been seen in Rome by G.P. Bellori around this time. The description in his life of the artist (1672) – ‘nell’ habito persiano, accrescendo con la vaghezza de gli habiti peregrine la bellezza de’ ritratti’ ('the Persian dress enhanced the beauty of the portraits with the charm of their exotic garments') – could suggest that he knew them from personal inspection (Bellori 1672, p. 255). They were very possibly imported to England from Italy in the 18th century, and bought by the 2nd Earl of Egremont (1710–63), as one of his numerous acquisitions of pictures on the art market. Text adapted from Alastair Laing, In Trust for the Nation, exh. cat., 1995.
Neither this painting, nor its companion of Lady Shirley (NT/PET/P/97) appear in the inventories of 1671 and 1672 of the 10th Earl of Northumberland (1602-1668). It was in the collection of the 2nd Earl of Egremont (1710-1763) by the time of his death in 1763. First recorded in the Green Drawing Room at Petworth in 1764, and there in successive inventories and catalogues (and visible in Turner's gouache of what was by then called the Red Room: Turner Bequest CCXLIV–21) until 1856 and probably after, but found in a bedroom by Blunt (1980, p.125) in 1952. From then by descent, until the death in 1952 of the 3rd Lord Leconfield, who had given Petworth to the National Trust in 1947, and whose nephew and heir, John Wyndham, 6th Lord Leconfield and 1st Lord Egremont (1920-72) arranged for the acceptance of the major portion of the collections at Petworth in lieu of death duties (the first ever such arrangement) in 1956 by HM Treasury.
Petworth House, The Egremont Collection (acquired in lieu of tax by HM Treasury in 1956 and subsequently transferred to the National Trust)
Marks and inscriptions
Bottom left, in yellow: SIR ROBERT SHIRLEY
Makers and roles
Sir Anthony Van Dyck (Antwerp 1599 - London 1641), artist
In Trust for the Nation, National Gallery, London, 1995 - 1996, no.2
Fuller 1662: Thomas Fuller, The Worthies of England, (ed.) J. Freeman, London 1952, p. 572. Bellori 1672: G.P.Bellori, Le Vite de’Pittori, Scultori, et Architetti Moderni, Rome, 1672, p. 255. Sherley 1825: The three brothers; or, The travels and adventures of Sir Anthony, Sir Robert & Sir Thomas Sherley, in Persia, Russia, Turkey, Spain, etc., London 1825 Cust 1900: L. Cust. Anthony van Dyck, 1900, pp.3 6 and 243, nos.117 and 119. Vaes 1924: Maurice Vaes, ‘Le séjour de Van Dyck en Italie (Mi-novembre 1621 - automne 1627)', Bulletin de l’institut historique belge de Rome, 1924, p. 202. Millar 1982: Oliver Millar, Van Dyck in England, exh.cat. National Portrait Gallery, London 1982-3, pp. 52-5, nos. 9 and 10. Sir Anthony Van Dyck, National Gallery of Art Washington, 1990-91, nos. 28 and 29. Laing 2000: Alastair Laing, In Trust for the Nation: Paintings from National Trust Houses (exh. cat.), The National Gallery, London, 22 November 1995 - 10 March 1996 Barnes, Millar, de Poorter, Vey 2004: Susan J. Barnes, Oliver Millar, Nora de Poorter, Horst Vey, Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, New Haven and London, 2004, pp. 203-5, nos. II.62 and II.63. Van Dyck & Britain, Tate Britain, London 18th February - 17th May 2009