This fine and rare three-quarter-length portrait is reputed to depict Captain John Hyfield (or Highfield). The top left hand side of the portrait contains the sitter’s coat of arms, which is made up of a red chevron between three acorns. The top right hand side of the portrait contains a Latin inscription which gives us the sitter’s family motto ‘SPE DUCOR’ (which can be translated as ‘I am lead by hope’) as well as his age, ‘AETATIS SUAE 42’ 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 painting displays the charming naïve 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 the gentleman’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.
The sitter’s attire was chosen to display his heroism and martial prowess but also his wealth and power. He cuts an authoritative figure, holding a staff of office aloft in his right hand, his left hand confidently planted on the helmet at his side. 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 the sitter 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.