This portrait dates from about 1539, when Holbein was in the heydey of his success in England, painting all the people of importance at the court of Henry VIII, whose successive queens and candidates for queens were posing for him. In 1538 he went to Brussels to paint the portrait of Christine of Denmark, the widow of the Duke of Milan. The painting (now in the National Gallery) was finished in three hours, said a witness, and “the portrait is perfect.” In 1539 the picture of Anne of Cleves, of the Louvre, decided Henry VIII to make that lady his wife. It was while executing commissions of this prominence that the Lady Lee was painted.
The fashion of her dress enables us to date it pretty exactly.
She was the sister of Sir Thomas Wyatt, courtier and writer of poems, a drawing of whom, by Holbein, is in the Royal Collection at Windsor. She had a sister, Mary Wyatt, who attended Queen Anne Boleyn on the scaffold, the Dictionary of National Biography tells us, but it makes no mention of the lady of our picture. The reasons for believing her to be Lady Lee are rather slight; a copy of our picture in the possession of Viscount Dillon at Ditchley, Oxfordshire, is the likeness, it seems., of that lady, according to family traditions. Yet these reasons were sufficient for the compiler of the catalogue of the Exhibition of Early English Portraits at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1909 to label the picture with her name followed by a question mark; and Arthur B. Chamberlain in his book on Holbein speaks of it as being “now identified with some degree of certainty as a portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt the elder’s sister.”
Our portrait, painted in her thirty-fourth year, shows her a sharp-faced, rather calculating lady of uncertain temper. She wears a dress of dark brown damask dotted with little golden ornaments like tags. A black velvet bonnet or hood decorated with a band of gold filigree and pearls, almost hides her reddish hair. At the breast her dress is clasped by a red enameled brooch in the shape of a rose, and a gold medallion with a figure of Lucrece hangs from a ribbon at her waist.
The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1907 and at the Exhibition of Early English Portraits at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1909. It was in the collection of Major Charles Palmer at Dorney Court, Windsor, where, according to the family archives, it remained from the time of King Charles I until late years, and from which it was taken previous to its purchase by Mr. Alt-man in 1912.