Mid 16th Century
Portrait of Captain John Hyfield

Oil on oak panel
Image size: 16 1/2  x 11 inches (42 x 28 cm)
Period frame

Collection of Robert Kellett Longe, Dunston Hall, c.1860
‘Portraits in Norfolk Houses vol. 1’, 1928, No. 16.
Sotheby’s Sale, 2nd February 2001, lot 151.


Please see below for more information and a framed image.

This fine and rare three-quarter-length portrait depicts Captain John Hyfield (or Highfield). Born in 1516 John Highfield became the Master of the Ordnance for the garrison at Calais in the reign of Queen Mary and the author of a first-hand account of the French capture of the port in January 1558. Highfield was briefly thought to have been involved in a plot to betray the port to the French besiegers and was arrested on this suspicion by the Duke of Savoy. He evidently seems to have been able to establish his innocence of the charge. He was married by 1558. He had at least one son, John II, and a daughter named Maud whom married into a Norfolk branch of the Copledike family and lived with her husband in Kirby.

The top left hand side of the portrait contains a shield of arms in Renaissance escutcheon, suspended by a crimson ribbon from a ring in a lion’s mouth. It consists of a chevron between three acorns, also confirms that the sitter is from the Norfolk and Suffolk branch of the Hyfield family. The top right hand side of the portrait contains a Latin inscription which gives us the sitter’s [personal] motto ‘SPE DUCOR’ (which can be translated as ‘I am lead by hope’) as well as his age, ‘AETATIS SUAE 52’ and the date, ‘A.D. 1568’. Inscriptions such as this are common in early English portraiture and serve to highlight the commemorative function of the portrait to capture a sitter’s likeness at a certain point in their life.

The Captain’s body is turned slightly towards the right with his face and eyes pointed in the same direction. There is a frown on his countenance with short grey hair, close cut brown beard and whiskers and a brown moustache. He is dressed in full armour with gold damascened, gauntlets, sword with a big basket handle suspended on the left side by a bright leather waist-belt. The dagger handle is visible on the right side of the waist and what is probably a spear rests on the right side of his body. There is a narrow crimson sash over his right shoulder, that is tied on the left side, a high narrow ruffle sits around the throat with two little tassels. His left hand is on a closed helmet and his right hand holds a baton at his hip.

The Captain’s attire was chosen to display his heroism and martial prowess but also his wealth and power. The use of firearms in war became more widespread during the latter part of the 16th century and by the 1560’s full plate armour, particularly ornate sets such as this, was produced mainly for use in tournaments rather than the battlefield. Chivalry was a prominent feature of the Elizabethan court and tournaments, organized by one of the queen’s favourites, Sir Henry Lee, were major events of court life during her reign. These events gave her male courtiers the opportunity to indulge their sense of display and masculine exuberance. We can see that Hyfield, in this portrait, is dressed for a tournament as he wears a lance rest midway up the right hand side of his breastplate.

The armour is richly decorated with strips of gilded patterns and would have been an extremely expensive status symbol. It appears to be in the Italian style and was possibly made at the armoury at Greenwich, which was founded by Henry VIII and produced armour of the finest quality for the Tudor nobility, (a comparable example of Greenwich armour, probably made for Roger Baron North, is held at the Royal Armoury). The bulging lobster-like articulated tassets echo the 16th century fashion for padded hose and are especially typical of armour of this style and date (c.1550-1560), as are the pointed besagews, which cover the wearer’s armpits and protect the joint between the cuirass, (or breastplate), and the plates that cover the arms.

The painting displays the charming naive qualities characteristic of much Elizabethan portraiture and the fact that the various elements of the body are not in proper anatomical proportion only adds to the work’s character. As was often the practice in portraits up until the 18th century, the work was painted by two artists, one, who painted the sitter’s face and another, who was employed to paint the costume. The depiction of Hyfield’s face is extremely delicate and well rendered and is similar to the work of miniaturists of this period, capturing the sitter’s features in minute detail. The costumist has taken much trouble in faithfully replicating the complex forms of the individual elements of armour and creating a convincing sense of perspective with his depiction of the rapier hilt, a challenging element for any draughtsman.