Home | In Drake's Wake

The Drake Exploration Society

A Note on the Drake Portraiture

Dr John Sugden (slightly edited, annotations by Michael Turner, references and portraits omitted)

The Context

I wrote the note on Drake's portraits many years ago. I became curious back in 1964, did some research at that time, and wrote it up twenty years later. It was, however, very much an exploratory piece, trying to clear away the obvious debris, and to isolate the pictures I deemed worthy of further attention. However, this tentative investigation did put some commonly reproduced, but obviously apocryphal portraits out of the frame, as it were. I revisited the subject for my book, rejecting numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 8 and 10 and rehabilitating the full-length Buckland abbey portrait.


The iconography of Drake is complex and, for the most part, un-explored. In his own day the admiral's reputation fed a lively demand for portraits, and after his death spurious and imaginary likenesses continued to appear. Unidentified subjects in Elizabethan portraits have repeatedly been represented as Sir Francis Drake. Fortunately, contemporary evidence furnishes a clear picture of the sailor's appearance. John Stow described him as, low of stature, of strong limbs, broade Brested, round headed, brown hayre, full Bearded, his eyes round, Large and cleare, well favoured, fayre, and of a cheerefull countenance...many Princes of Italy, Germany, and others as well enemies as friends in his life time desired his Picture. In 1578, Nuño da Silva, a Portuguese pilot, found Drake short, thick-set and robust. He is of good appearance, with a red beard and a ruddy complexion. He has an arrow mark on his right cheek which is not apparent unless one looks very carefully,.. In 1587, Garcia Fernández de Torrequemada informed Philip II of Spain that Drake is a man of medium stature, blonde, rather heavy than slender, merry, careful. Such comments, which confirm Stow's observations, are echoed in other surviving descriptions, all of which were written by Spaniards.

The best portraits of Drake vindicate these documentary sources. However, the provenance of all the various pictures cannot now be accurately determined. Some are manifestly apocryphal; others such as the full-length purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 1957, are more difficult to place. In the absence of extended investigation which this subject merits, the discussion which follows can only be provisional. Those portraits which seem to possess the strongest claims to have been made from life are itemised as a basis for further conjecture.

  1. Miniature contained in an enamel locket attributed to Issac Oliver and preserved by the Drake family, presumably at Nutwell Court, Lymbscombe, Devon. Allegedly the earliest Drake likeness, it shows a young man in a black suit with a budding moustache but no beard. It may be Drake, but if the admiral was born in the early 1540's, as it seems likely, it is difficult to accept the claim. Drake was not prominent before the Hawkins voyage of 1567-69, when he would have been an older man than the painting suggests. The attribution to Oliver has also been too readily endorsed. The artist was then merely a boy, and his earliest portraits date from the 1580's. If Drake is depicted in the miniature, it was probably executed by Nicholas Hilliard, himself a Devon man. His style was similar to that of Oliver but he was born about 1547 and began painting portraits, generally miniatures in lockets or on playing cards, in the 1560's. The portrait has been published by E. F. Elliott-Drake.
  2. A circular miniature by Hilliard, painted on the reverse of an ace of Hearts playing card and inscribed "Aetatis Sua 42. Ano dni: 1581", now held by the National Portrait Gallery. An intricate work showing Drake basking in the glory of his circumnavigation, it exhibits the characteristic "round" head of the admiral, crowned with profuse curly hair shading into a blonde moustache and beard. Several reproductions have been published. Another version of the portrait, from the collection of the Archduke Ferdinand of Tirol (1529-95), is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and there is some doubt as to which is the original.
  3. Portrait by an unknown artist, variously engraved by H. Meyer, J. Cochran and S. Freeman, and published by Edmund Lodge. According to Lodge the original painting hung in the collection of the Marquis of Lothian at Newbattle Abbey. It may be an authentic likeness. Certainly it represents Drake, one of the few portraits to display the wart on the left side of the admiral's nose, and being distinct from other portraits it is not an obvious copy of another work.
  4. Portrait attributed to Frederic Zuccaro showing Drake wearing the green scarf and jewel awarded him by the Queen. It has been preserved by the Drake family, and Lady Elliott-Drake believed that it was painted about 1589, when Zuccaro may have been in London. The picture was engraved by W. H. Moll and published by William Laird Clowes, et al
  5. Painting by an unknown artist, purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 1911 (no. 1627). A small head and shoulders, measuring a foot square, this portrait was until recently available as a postcard from the N.P.G. and has frequently been published. It accurately depicts Drake, since it has no counterparts among the other likenesses it may have been made from life. Interestingly, the portrait employs the Dutch spelling of the sailor's name, Sr Francis Draeck.
  6. Oval engraving in the British Museum by Thomas de Leu purporting to be copied from a portrait painted from life by Jean Rabel, the French artist. About the perimeter is the inscription "Francisvs Draeck Nobilissimvs Eqves Angliae Ano. Sve. 43, and either the original or the engraving was dedicated to Edward Stafford, sometime English Ambassador to the French court. It has several times been reproduced, for example as the frontispiece to Zelia Nuttall's New Light on Drake. The portrait is undated, but another engraving of it by Paul de la Houuse appears in a book published in Leyden in 1588. Since De Leu, a Fleming, was domiciled in France from 1560 and was a pupil of Rabel, the claim advanced by the portrait is plausible. But Wagner speculates that Rabel may have simply copied a portrait sent from England. There is no record of Drake visiting France at this time, nor of Rabel in England, but on 26 September 1586 the Spanish ambassador to Elizabeth I wrote home that the "French Ambassador has sent an account of Drake's voyage in Latin...accompanied by a portrait of Drake sent to Secretary Villeroy, who values it very highly, and copies have been ordered to be made from it for presentation to Joyeuse, Epernon and other favourites of the King." If Rabel's painting was only a copy, the prototype has since disappeared. However, De Leu's engraving is an excellent likeness of Drake. It appears to have been the basis of an engraving made by Jodocus Hondius, a Flemish cartographer, to illustrate a map of the world, upon which were superimposed the routes of the voyages of Drake and Cavendish. The Hondius engraving was made in London between September 1588, when Cavendish returned from his circumnavigation, and November 1593 when the engraver left for the Continent.
  7. Engraving in the British Museum, often alleged to be Dutch and attributed, for no good reason, Jodocus Hondius. It bears an identical inscription to that given by Thomas de Leu, referred to above, and may have been copied from the Rabel portrait or from a picture used by Rabel. The head is a fair depiction of Drake, and not unlike De Leu's version, but the body is ill proportioned and suggests in extenso the likeness was not made from life. It may have been copied from a head and shoulders portrait and elaborated, but it was not taken directly from the De Leu engraving for, despite the similarities between the two, it alone shows the mark on Drake's nose, alluded to above. This engraving was retouched by George Vertue in the eighteenth century, in which form it has repeatedly been published, but a reproduction from the original plate is given by Wagner.
  8. Portrait once in possession of Drake in-laws, the Sydenham family, engraved for John Harris. Harris reports that the original painting was Communicated by the Honble. Sr. Phillip Sydenham Bart Knt of ye shire for Somerset. Set in an oval, this head and shoulders looks nothing like Drake, and relies for its credibility purely upon the connection with the Sydenhams. Conceivably, the family in the eighteenth century, possessing an Elizabethan portrait, merely assumed that it showed the famous admiral.
  9. Three-quarter length oil portrait dated 1591 acquired by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, in 1932 from a Miss Grundy. It has been credited to a Flemish artist, Marc Gheerardts the elder, who may have been in England at this time. Another portrait, preserved for long in Drake's country house, Buckland Abbey, Devon, and reproduced as the frontispiece to Julian Corbett's Drake and the Tudor Navy appears to have been a copy of the Greenwich portrait, possibly made by Abraham Janssen.
  10. Half-length portrait in oils, reputedly by Gheerardts, showing Drake in later life, and now exhibited at Buckland Abbey in Devon.

- Back to top ^^