The Great British Art tour: the royalist who spoke the king’s language of love

This portrait of nobleman and royalist Sir Richard Fanshawe is full of clues that tell us the story of his life, what sort of person he was – or the persona that he wanted to show.

The greyhound on his lap is a symbol of pride, nobility and loyalty to the king. A popular pet among the English elite, a law of 1016 forbade commoners to own a greyhound. A royalist, Richard used his wealth to help support the king’s cause during the civil war, and was among 10,000 men captured by Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarian New Model Army at the Battle of Worcester.

The mask at the bottom of the painting symbolises Fanshawe’s love of dramatic arts. A skilled linguist, he spoke Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French, and was a published poet and translator. His most notable work was the translation into English of the Italian tragicomic play Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd) by Giovanni Battista Guarini.

The paper Fanshawe holds in his hand is a symbol of his literary skill and political achievements. He was Charles II’s ambassador to Portugal in 1662-3, during which he aided the marriage arrangements between the king and the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. He was also ambassador to Spain from 1664 until his death, in Madrid, age 58 in 1666.

The column in the background is known as Solomon’s column and symbolises wisdom, reinforcing the meaning of the painting’s other hidden messages.

Sir Richard’s wife, Lady Ann, wrote about her life with her husband, producing a vivid account of their experiences during this tumultuous period of British history.

This portrait is one of 73 Fanshawe family portraits currently held by Valence House in east London, including Sir Richard with his son, his wife Lady Ann, and his daughters Margaret and Ann. The Fanshawes were a prominent local family who were key players in local, national and international history. They owned a number of manor houses in Barking and Dagenham, including Valence House, now a museum.

You can see more art from the Valence House museum on Art UK here, and find out more on its website.

This series is brought to you in collaboration with Art UK, which brings the nation’s art together on one digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The website shows works by 50,000 artists from more than 3,000 venues including museums, universities and hospitals as well as thousands of public sculptures. Discover the art you own here.