Object of the week: Portrait of Lady Anne Clifford

Published 9 June 2014

With father's day approaching, we look at William Larkin's piercing portrait of a sitter whose widely publicised lawsuit against her father made her nationally renowned.

It's fair to say that, even if father's day had existed in the early 17th century, it's unlikely that George Clifford would have received a card from his daughter. At the age of 15, when most girls her age were doing nothing more adventurous than practising musical instruments or learning a craft, Anne Clifford was embarking on a lengthy legal campaign to ensure she inherited her father's estate.

The 3rd Earl of Cumberland had inherited substantial estates and amassed a £15,000 personal wealth by the time of his death in 1605. He left his money to his only living daughter, Anne, but his estates were left to his brother, Francis Clifford. Aggrieved that the greater part of her father's wealth had been left to her uncle, Anne took to the courts to demand what she felt was rightfully her property.

Even without the legal campaign that propelled her to national renown, Anne Clifford had a remarkable life. Elizabeth I identified the young Anne Clifford as one of her favourites, and as an adult Anne's arts patronage made her one of the most significant figures in early 17th-century literature. John Donne praised Anne's powers of conversation in his writing, noting that she could talk about 'all things from Predestination to Slea-silk', and as a child she performed in plays by Samuel Daniel and Ben Jonson. The diaries and letters she wrote detailing her associations with the great writers of the age have made her a literary figure in her own right.

In 1618 Anne commissioned William Larkin, court painter to James I of England, to paint a commanding portrait of her. She used portraiture to shape her public image, and Larkin's portrait shows Anne fixing the viewer with dark unflinching eyes; a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth does little to soften the impression of a single-mindedly determined sitter. Later in life, Anne would commission Jan van Belcamp to create the Great Picture, a triptych charting her growth from conception to maturity. The portrait went so far as to specify the date of her conception – a sign of the level of detail with which Anne controlled how her life was portrayed.

Anne's campaign to secure her father's estates would eventually prove successful, although not before Francis Clifford and his son Henry had died without leaving a male heir. Larkin's portrait disappeared from public records for years until Mark Weiss, director of the Weiss Gallery, happened upon it in a private collection in Europe. Today, the portrait is on display at Room 5 in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The Great Picture is currently on display at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal. Both paintings were acquired with support from the Art Fund.

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