Sir Thomas Monson

At the beginning of the 17th century, a family from South Carlton in Lincolnshire was rising to impressive heights in political and court life. Sir John Monson had been Sheriff of the county, his younger son was an admiral in the navy, and another son, Thomas, had rapidly moved up the ladder of power to become, under King James I, Keeper of the King’s Armour at Greenwich, Master of the Armoury at the Tower of London, and Master Falconer to the King.

The portrait below was painted in 1610 by an unknown English artist.


Although Monson’s achievements were impressive, it was his involvement in one of the scandals of the 17th century for which he is better known, and which ultimately destroyed both his career and his reputation. In 1613 courtier Sir Thomas Overbury found himself in dangerous waters when attempting to come between his old friend, fellow courtier Sir Robert Carr, and Carr’s lover, the married Frances Howard, Countess of Essex. Through various intrigues and manipulations, said to have been arranged by Howard herself to stop his interference, Overbury found himself locked up in the Tower, where he would die under suspicious circumstances later that year.

“The Overbury Affair”, as it became known,  had all the ingredients of a bestselling whodunnit: murder, misdirection, an illicit affair, and in true 17th century style, several imprisonments and executions, before it was over. In the subsequent investigation and infamous trial, Frances Howard was the chief suspect, and several others were implicated in the plot to have Overbury killed.  All six alleged conspirators, including Carr and Howard, were found guilty and sentenced to death, although the well-connected lovers were later pardoned.

And what of Thomas Monson? His part in the scandal may have been the most unfortunate and unintended. His position working at the Tower saw him pulled into the investigation and interrogated as a seventh plotter, and he spent many months imprisoned before he was released due to a lack of evidence. His finances and reputation were ruined, however, and he never recovered them before his death in 1641.

I find this portrait quite a melancholy one.  On the one hand, the inclusion of the hawk shows his role as falconer to the King was one he was rightly proud of, and it would have been commissioned to show off his position and status as a trusted member of the Court; but look at it again with hindsight, and it illustrates all that he lost thanks to that  scandalous affair, for which he very likely bore no guilt at all.


Wet paint?

Here’s something a bit different. In 2011, this picture was sold at Christie’s in London, achieving the unremarkable price of £938.


What is remarkable is the story of survival that apparently lies behind it. The sitters are unknown, but it was listed as a family portrait by someone of the English School in the 17th century. If you can’t read the inscription, it says:

‘This oil painting washed ashore at Rottingdean with other wreckage from the Australian Ship “Simla”, run down by the ship City of Lucknow, Feb 25th 1884.’

A quick internet search reveals that the Simla was on its way from London to Sydney when it collided with the City of Lucknow near The Needles on either December 25th 1883, or in January or February 1884. Reports differ as to the date. She sank off the Isle of Wight, with the loss of 20 crew, while  survivors were rescued  by the City of Lucknow and another steamer, named Guernsey.

We often wonder what stories an old painting can tell, hanging on a wall for centuries, silently watching history take place in front of it. What tales could this one tell? It not only saw history, it actively took part in it, travelling on a ship, perhaps being taken to a new home in Australia, when the vessel sank beneath it, and it drifted amongst other wreckage before being saved and brought ashore.

There are so many questions to answer. Who owned it at the time of the sinking, and why was it being taken so far across the sea?  Who are the family depicted? What date was it painted? What happened to the canvas after it was rescued, and where had it been prior to the sale in 2011?

The Christie’s auction page gives no further information than the above, apart from its size (12 7/8 x 22 1/8 in. / 32.7 x 56.2 cm) and that it is oil on panel.

It makes me wonder about other 17th century art that may not have been so lucky, attempting similar journeys to this one, but ending up at the bottom of the sea rather than on somebody’s wall. What is most moving, is that the painting may well be the only tangible reminder that this family even existed. Perhaps it held pride of place in their home, and was passed down through the generations as a precious heirloom. We may never know where it came from, or the names of the sitters,  but thanks to the watery rescue of a piece of canvas 200 years later, the memory of that one family was also kept alive.

Picture of the Day…


Today’s picture comes from the collection at the Ashmolean in Oxford. Our sitter is John Lowin, who was a celebrated actor and associate of William Shakespeare, and managed the King’s Players from 1623-1642.  It is inscribed 1640, but no artist is attributed.

There is a little more information here: John Lowin

Incidentally, if you’re ever in Oxford, I would really recommend a visit to the Ashmolean. It’s a wonderful mix of art and archaeology, and they put on many excellent exhibitions that easily challenge the insane crowds and stress at the London galleries. As an added bonus, their cafe also serves an excellent cheese and onion quiche!

Neil Jeffares

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