Sir William Butts of Thornage is dressed in a subdued palette that quietly showcases the intricate details and treatments applied to his garments which were trending in his time during the Tudor reign.

About the Portrait

The artist of this portrait still remains a mystery and is labelled unknown, but the piece was produced in Britain and the style was a part of the broader Northern Renaissance movement that popular at this time. This movement developed mainly in Germany and the Netherlands (c. 1430-1580) and appropriated the ideas of the Italian Renaissance which employed mathematical discoveries in proportion and perspective (Oxford Art Online). The Northern Renaissance was celebrated for its hyper-realistic renderings of the artwork’s subjects with advancements in oil painting along with its portraiture painted on wood and altarpieces (visualartscork) . The featured portrait of Sir William Butts of Thornage uses both tempera and oil paints as its medium and is painted on a wooden panel.

Sir Willam Butts of Thornage (b. 1513-1583) commissioned this portrait of himself during the second quarter of the 16th century anywhere between the 1540s-1583; he appears to be in his thirties or forties judging by his looks. Born in Britain, Butts was accustomed to court life as he was a gentleman’s pensioner in 1544 and fought under the Duke of Norfolk  during the Scottish Campaign in the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and was subsequently knighted (Fuidge). He also took part in the literary world as a patron of the arts and was immortalized after his death in 1583 with a collection of poems, A Book of Epitaphes (1583) (Wikipedia).

Although the artist is unknown it is good to note that the sitter’s father, Sir William Butts the Elder (Fig. 1), who was the royal physician to King Henry VIII, had several portraits done by one of the great Northern Renaissance painters of his time, Hans Holbein the Younger (Fig. 2) (MFA). Holbein was a German painter born from a family of artists that rose to fame in southern Germany and spent time working in England. As the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum notes, “Holbein’s sober yet quietly sensitive images found great favor during the artist’s sojourns in London from 1526 to 1528 and from 1532 until the end of his life.” He was most famed as the portraitist to the Tudor court of King Henry VIII (Visualartscork).

Sir William Butts

Fig. 1 - Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497-1543). Sir William Butts, 1541-1543. Oil on panel; 46.8 x 37 cm (18 7/16 x 14 9/16 in.). Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, P21e1. Source: Gardner Museum


Fig. 2 - Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497-1543). Self-portrait, 1542-43. Color chalk, pen and gold; 32 x 26 cm (12.6 x 10.2 in). Florence: Uffizi Gallery, 1890, n. 1630. Source: Wikimedia

Unknown Artist (British). Sir William Butts, second quarter of 16th century. Tempera and oil on panel; 74.6 x 60.3 cm (29 3/8 x 23 3/4 in). Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 35.1751. Charles Edward French Fund. Source: MFA

About the Fashion

Sir William Butts poses confidently with broad shoulders and arms, his erect stance inspiring a sense of reverence to those who shall pass his portrait. Our sitter’s main garment consists of a black possibly leather or velvet jerkin with detachable sleeves (Fig. 3) that are empty and hang on either side of him.  The jerkin here was typically worn over and cut the same length as the doublet; it is an outerwear garment and features a number of diagonal slashes. The trend for slashing garments was said to originate from battles of Swiss mercenaries (Fig. 4), known as Landsknecht, as Tortora and Eubank explain in A Survey of Historic Costume (1989):

“A ragged but victorious Swiss army was said to have stuffed the colorful silk fabrics they had looted from the enemy camp under their badly torn clothes for warmth. This impromptu fashion was supposedly picked up and imitated by the general population. Whether the style actually had its origin in this way or not, it is true that the Swiss and German soldiers’ uniforms were made with multicolored fabrics decorated with a variety of cuts and slashes, panings, and layers.” (130)

Smaller and more intricate slashing detail is referred to as pinking if the cuts were up to or around 6mm and was typically done on silk that had been brushed with animal size because of its protective quality against fraying or on leather (Fig. 5)  (Reynolds 170). Beneath his jerkin he wears a beige, possibly silk, doublet with an interlacing knot motif. This type of patterning was often seen on the doublets and surcoats in portraits of the nobility during the second half of Henry VIII’s reign (Norris 228). His doublet and jerkin feature a raised, fitted neckline where his linen shirt peeks through in a short ruff at the neck and frills on the wrists. This portrait of Butts doesn’t show his lower half but he would have most likely worn hose or stockings paired with breeches or trunk hose which were popular styles for noblemen of the time (Tortora 131).

Portrait of a man from the suite of Cardinal Granville

Fig. 3 - Anthonis Mor van Dashorst (Netherlandish, 1517-1577). Portrait of a man from the suite of Cardinal Granville, 1565. Oil on canvas; 100 x 80 cm. Paris: Musée du Louvre, Inv1582. Source: RMN

The Standard Bearer

Fig. 4 - Hans Schäufelein (German, 1480-1540). The Standard Bearer, ca. 1515. Woodcut; 20.6 × 13.3 cm (8 1/8 × 5 1/4 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27.54.115. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1927. Source: The Met


Fig. 5 - Maker unknown (British). Doublet, 16th century. Leather; dimensions unknown. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 29.158.481a, b. Bashford Dean Memorial Collection, Funds from Various Donors, 1929. Source: The Met

Portrait of a Man

Fig. 6 - Anthonis Mor van Dashorst (Netherlandish, 1517-1577). Portrait of a Man, 1561. Oil on canvas; 69.2 x 55.8 cm (27.24 x 21.97 in). Den Haag: Mauritshuis, 559. Source: Mauritshuis

Accessorized demurely in comparison to other nobility of his time, Butts wears “massy chains” author Herbert Norris describes in Tudor Costume and Fashion (1997):

“These chains, although rich, were not so elaborate as the collars, and were definitely composed of links, rectangular, circular, or oval in shape.They were often wound around the neck and shoulders two or three times. These rich chains were bestowed by the sovereign and nobles upon their adherents and dependents as marks of favor, the extent of which was indicated by the weight of the chain.” (130)

A portrait of a noble (Fig. 6) is seen wearing the same layered chains that were on trend but his are more in abundance to display his high status and wealth.

Crowned by a black velvet bonnet with a single white, possibly ostrich, feather, his headwear was very fashionable for his time. Many nobles followed suit with this trend of a “flat cap” that would generally be worn tilted to one side, suggesting a halo when viewed in profile (Norris 314). Also worth noting was Butts’ grooming, he kept his hair cropped shortly to his scalp but his beard was quite robust taking on a “swallow tail” appearance where it forked at the ends. Beards were quite varied at this time and were common among men of any class (Norris 723).

His thumbs are tucked in what seems to be a brown, leather sword-carriage which is seen at the bottom of the portrait. From the viewer’s perspective his right hand, left in the portrait, is seen resting on a sword or dagger which would typically be hung on the left hip (Norris 630).

Diagram of referenced dress features.
Source: Author

Its Legacy

Junya Watanabe may not have sourced directly from the outlandish, rugged grandeur of the Landsknecht garb but their slashing and pinking techniques continue to indirectly influence many of designers and remain a forever trending fad as seen in Watanabe’s Fall 2015 ready to wear collection showcased in Paris (Fig. 8). The model’s cape features a number of hexagonal honeycomb cutouts that flex and bounce energetically, offering the wearer a wide range of motion as they walk down the Parisian runway.


Fig. 8 - Junya Watanabe. Paris, Fall 2015. Vogue. Photo: Yannis Vlamos. Source: Vogue