Sunday 3 July 2016

William Larkin

The paintings of William Larkin provide a wonderful insight into the beauty and opulence of embroidery and costume in the early 1600's.

William Larkin was born in the 1580's and was an English painter active from 1609 until his death in 1619.


He was known for his iconic portraits of members of the court of James I of England which capture in brilliant detail the opulent layering of textiles, embroidery, lace, and jewellery characteristic of fashion in the Jacobean era.


Little is known of William Larkin's life. It is almost certain that he was the son of an innkeeper also named William Larkin and lived in the parish of St Sepulchre.


His father was a close neighbour of Robert Peake, the portrait painter to Henry, Prince of Wales, and it may have been Peake who introduced Larkin to painting.


Until 1952 Larkin was a mostly unknown artist. The paintings were attributed to the 'Curtain Master' but in the 1950s architectural historian James Lees Milne found the missing clues and could attribute some paintings to Larkin. Around 40 of his portraits are now known.

A fairly limited range of props and poses were used.

Larkin, William; Lady Isabel Rich, nee Cope; English Heritage, Kenwood;

This portrait is believed to be of Lady Thornhagh and was sold by Christies in 2008 for £505,250.S


The richly decorated costumes, covered with embroidery, ruffs and cuffs, needlelace and Italian cutwork are typical of renaissance style.


The dress of Diana is identical to the one her twin sister is wearing in a companion portrait. It was quite common in those days for siblings close in age to wear the same clothes. Her matching bodice and petticoat show a fairly formal court dress in an extreme and short-lived style of fashion with slashes across the front panel of her skirt. The portrait was probably painted around 1618 when Diana was about twelve, perhaps a little older. She was unmarried. She stands on the same carpet as her twin sister in the accompanying portrait and also in the portrait of their mother a carpet of the same pattern, but with different colours is depicted.


The painting of the gold thread embroidery is one of Larkin's trademarks. His meticulous depiction of the highlights dotted all over the painting could not be copied by his assistants and experts can still tell whose hand applied the dots.

by William Larkin, oil on panel, circa 1618
© National Portrait Gallery, London

He did not use gilt or metallic leaf but created the effect of metallic shine in mere paint. He had a method of a triple layered application of brown, orange and yellow for gold, and dark grey, light grey and white for silver. Raised dots of paint added to the realistic effect. The embroidered fabrics in his paintings are built up in 7 or 8 layers of paint.


His faces are much more life like and subtle than his costumes and a world away from the mask like portraits of the 16th century.

(c) The National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Larkin took the Elizabethan tradition of full dress portraiture to its utmost glory.

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