Knole House in Sevenoaks is an Elizabethan stately home
set in acres of beautiful parkland with herds of roaming deer.
The house is owned bythe National Trust and is home to
the Sackville family.
Few visitors to the house, passing the art, furniture and
ornament of the Tudor rooms, will have noticed an inconspicuous
little portrait that hung for years above one of the doors. Its position
and size, ensured it was largely ignored. The picture was thought to
be of an anonymous unprepossessing old woman. In fact, the lady
in question is a great renaissance painter: the splendidly named
Sofonisba Anguissola was born around 1532 in Italy. She was the
daughter of a nobleman and she became an accomplished artist with
an international reputation. At one time she received encouragement
from Michaelangelo and went on to have a long, successful career,
travelling to Madrid to be court painter to the queen of Spain,
Elizabeth of Valois, Phillip II’s third wife.
In the 1620s a 24 year old Anthony van Dyck travelled to Sicily with
letters of introduction from Peter Paul Rubens. He stayed in Palermo
where he produced a series of paintings and managed to avoid the plague.
In a notebook from his time there he writes of a meeting with the elderly
female painter, Sofonisba Anguissola, now well into her nineties and
almost blind. Centred in the notebook, amongst the writing and not
much bigger than a postage stamp, he drew a tiny sketch.
Relatively recently a connection was made between van Dyck’s
notebook sketch and the little portrait hanging above a door at Knole.
The anonymous and largely ignored old lady turned out to be a portrait
by van Dyck and one of the most important paintings in the collection.