A prodigy portrait for Montacute

Portrait of James I by John de Critz the Elder. ©Sotheby’s

In the Sotheby’s auction mentioned in the previous post the National Trust also bought this portrait of King James I.


This splendidly detailed picture is by the court painter John de Critz the Elder (1551/2-1642) and was reputedly presented by the King to Sir Edward Phelips (1560?-1614), the builder of Montacute House, Somerset.

Sir Edward Phelips with his Speaker's mace and bag of office, by an unknown artist, at Montacute. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

Sir Edward was a successful lawyer who entered Parliament and eventually became Speaker of the House of Commons. He was one of the prosecutors at the trial of Guy Fawkes after the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.


The presence of this portrait at Montacute expressed the King’s favour to a useful and reliable public servant.

The west front of Montacute. ©NTPL/Robert Morris

Montacute was presented to the National Trust by Ernest Cook (grandson of Thomas Cook, founder of the travel agency) in 1931, but at the time very few of its original Phelips family contents remained.

Detail of the Dining Room at Montacute, with an inlaid Nonsuch chest and a portrait of Elizabeth Knollys, Lady Layton, attributed to George Gower (Sir Percy Malcolm Stewart bequest). ©NTPL/Nadia Mackenzie

The house has been furnished over the years with collections of furniture, tapestries and works of art that were lent, given and bequeathed to the National Trust. Since 1975 Montacute has also shown changing displays of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century portraits from the National Portrait gallery.

The east front of Montacute. ©NTPL/Stuart Cox

The portrait of James I is a splendid addition to the few remaining Phelips-related objects in the house. It is reminiscent of the heyday of Montacute, when it was a newly-built Jacobean ‘prodigy house’ and an exuberant statement of Sir Edward Phelips’s position and wealth.


The portrait was purchased for £199,250 including buyer’s premium, with funds from a bequest from the late Miss Moira Carmichael (who for many years was a volunteer room guide at Montacute) and from other gifts and bequests to the National Trust.


The picture is currently undergoing conservation work and will return to Montacute in the near future.

7 Responses to “A prodigy portrait for Montacute”

  1. Blue Says:

    The detail of the King’s pantaloons, if that is the right word, is exquisite. The silver embroidery, the pearls and the sheen of the silk in the pleats is so finely painted as is the damask (or is it cut velvet – velours d’Utrecht?) behind the King.

    It is the details that, besides the majesty of these portraits, make them so interesting – the mesmeric depiction of fine stitches, intricacies of weaves, textures and sheen.

    In a word, FAB. (Dates me, I know.)

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I don’t think your appreciation dates you at all – the amazing details might well appeal to today’s fashion students and designers.

    I am not sure whether the background is fabric or gilded leather – I will try to find out from more knowledgeable colleagues.

  3. Aletta Says:

    The Pearl detailing is incredible. Emile do you get to actually do the bidding on these things?

  4. columnist Says:

    Another excellent purchase by the NT, of James VI, (of Scotland, as he was initially). Exquisite in its detail, not unlike the portrait in your previous post.

  5. Susan Walter Says:

    Hi Emile. I’ve just discovered this blog. It’s a great way of sharing the activities of the Trust, and you seem to be the perfect person to write it. I look forward to ‘seeing’ you every couple of days from now on.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Aletta, yes the pearls seem to be everywhere, don’t they? Did James I have a thing for pearls, or is is just Jacobean bling, I wonder?

    Occasionally I do bid at auction, but in this case we had an agent do it for us, in order to keep a low profile.

    Columnist, yes the portraits are very much of the same period. Vere’s grandfather, Thomas Egerton, was made Lord Chancellor by James VI and I, and Egerton would have known fellow lawyer and public servant Sir Edward Phelips.

    The day before this auction there were three major Jacobean portraits from Cowdray Park coming up for sale at Christie’s, which may have helped to draw the dealers’ fire and keep the prices of ‘our’ portraits from going too high.

    Susan, how nice to hear from you. I don’t know if I am the ideal person to write this blog, but I certainly enjoy doing so 🙂

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I have just heard from NPG curator Catherine MacLeod that she also thinks the background is stamped and gilded leather, which was a grand type of wall decoration of this period (and would also have helped to reflect the scant light sources at night).

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