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Portrait miniature - Unknown woman, formerly called Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset
  • Unknown woman, formerly called Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset
    Oliver, Isaac, born 1558 - died 1617
  • Enlarge image

Unknown woman, formerly called Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset

  • Object:

    Portrait miniature

  • Place of origin:

    England (painted)

  • Date:

    1596-1600 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Oliver, Isaac, born 1558 - died 1617 (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour on vellum stuck to plain card

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased with Art Fund support and the assistance of the Pilgrim Trust

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Portrait Miniatures, Room 90a, The International Music and Art Foundation Gallery, case 3

This miniature, one of Oliver's masterpieces, could not be more different from the brightly coloured, brightly lit, iconic formality of his master, Nicholas Hilliard. An example of the influence that Oliver's trip in 1596 to Italy had on him, it is a virtuoso performance of chiaroscuro, or 'light and shade', rendered in monochromatic colouring, with subtle gradations from grey into grey-black, and delicately touched with white, gold and silver. The figure emerges from the shadows enveloped in billowing veils and with an elusive and enigmatic half smile reminiscent of Leonardo's Mona Lisa. These veils would have been a form of ‘undress’, and with the lady's gesture of hand on heart, indicate that this is a private love token.

Unfortunately the red pigment used at that time for painting features fades easily, and here one can only imagine the striking effect the colour of her cheeks and lips would have had, seen within the cool monochrome of this elegant work.

Physical description

Portrait miniature of a woman, circular, half-length, in a carved frame with scrolling at the edges.

Place of Origin

England (painted)


1596-1600 (painted)


Oliver, Isaac, born 1558 - died 1617 (artist)

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour on vellum stuck to plain card

Marks and inscriptions

Signed at bottom left

'The Lady Frances Howard Countess of Essex and Somerset, by Isaac Oliver; from the collection of James West, president of the Royal Society, H. W. 1773.'

Inscribed on the reverse in the hand of Horace Walpole


Diameter: 130 mm, Height: 214 mm frame (max), Width: 200 mm frame (max), Depth: 30 mm frame (max)

Descriptive line

Portrait miniature of an unknown woman, formerly called Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, watercolour on vellum, painted by Isaac Oliver, 1596-1600.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Snodin, Michael, ed. Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2009. xv, 368 p. : col. ill. ISBN: 978-0-300-12574-0.
Strong, Roy. Artists of the Tudor Court: the Portrait Miniature Rediscovered 1520-1620. London: The Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983.

Labels and date

Isaac Oliver About 1560-1617
Unknown Woman
About 1596-1600

This sitter has traditionally been called 'Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset'.

Watercolour on vellum, stuck to pasteboard. The formerly tarnished silver has been retouched
Signed bottom left 'IO' in monogram
Purchased with funds from the National Art Collections Fund and the Pilgrim Trust
Museum no. P.12-1971 []
Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars label text:

Unknown woman, formerly thought to be Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset
About 1596–1600
Probably England
By Isaac Oliver
Watercolour on vellum stuck to plain card
Purchased with the assistance of the National Art-Collections Fund (now
the Art Fund) and the Pilgrim Trust
V&A: P.12-1971


Watercolour; Vellum; Cardboard



Subjects depicted

Woman; Jewellery; Veils


Portraits; Paintings


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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