The “Lost” Portrait of Sir Richard Lane

The satisfying thing about Richard Lane as a subject of historical research is that although his early life was one of obscurity, the political drama he was swept into brought about a fair number of useful historical artifacts related to him.  Perhaps in the end, those bits and pieces will yield a rich and tangible sense of who he was.  But, this isn’t Hollywood – history is about building knowledge based on facts, very much like building a legal case. And sometimes, the facts you need simply may not exist. What can really be known about a man who lived 400 years ago?  Who was he really? What was important to him?  And if you could have met him, what would he have looked like?

It’s simply a reality that unless a portrait of Richard Lane had been painted in his time, that last question would be impossible to answer.  More than a century before the advent of the industrial revolution there were no cameras, and portraiture was a highly specialized skill.  Even the materials needed were crafted by the artisans themselves. And so, portraiture was mostly performed for wealthy patrons or royalty.  Even if someone’s likeness had been painted (and the subject’s name was captured in the work), what are the odds that painting would survive to modernity? I wonder how many portraits of obscure individuals were purchased in 1700s “garage sales” for their frames? Or, what if the painting survived to become a family heirloom gathering dust in a drawing room somewhere in England?  How would the world ever know of its existence? How would I ever find it?

I spent hours searching the online world for an image of Richard Lane.  Since he held an important title and his online biographical records mention a portrait, I assumed I would be able to find an image relatively easily.  But I was wrong.  I eventually became exhausted combing through a sea of “Richard Lane” images.  I tried other searches (eg “Lord Keeper Lane”, etc), spending hours trying to come at it from other angles. But was never able to find an image of him – even when perusing image archives replete with multiple portraits of many of his contemporaries. I have come to doubt a publically available online image of him exists at all.

Luckily for my quest, there appears to have been a great deal of interest in the individuals of national history in middle 1800s England. In 1845, Lord John Campbell published his first edition of the “Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England  From the Earliest Times Until the Reign of King George IV” as described in an earlier article.  And in 1866, the “First Special Exhibition of National Portraits” was held in South Kensington, London.

That remarkable exhibition took place in a wonderfully conceived venue (now all but forgotten) that originally occupied the site that now includes the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.  I was elated to find a copy of the original event catalogue (the equivalent of a modern event “program”) of this exhibition.  The event was the brainchild of Edward Smith-Stanley, a retired 3-time prime minister of England. As you can read in the image of his letter which initiated the exhibition, it was specifically intended to draw out and showcase privately held portraits of national historical interest. It worked.  That 1866 exhibit included a portrait of Lord Keeper Richard Lane!

A key principle of the exhibition was that the portraits should be arranged in chronological order, which would have made a fascinating stroll through time!  According to the catalogue of the exhibition, number 724 in the series was the portrait of Richard Lane. In that portrait, 61 year old Richard Lane was dressed in the official robes of Lord Keeper, and was holding the Great Seal of England. The painter was Daniel Mytens – a famous 1600s Dutch portrait painter engaged in the service of King Charles I.

This is the exhibition catalog entry for the portrait of Sir Richard Lane, Knight and Lord Keeper.

I have since tried to locate the living descendants of the stated portrait’s owner (Mr. G. N. W. Heneage), but have so far been unsuccessful.  Thankfully, the exhibition record provides excellent detail of the portrait.  Its interesting to note that the biographical sketch in the portrait summary indicates Richard Lane died in France in 1650 (not in Jersey).  This error appears in several of the 1800’s historical records regarding Richard Lane.

The ownership of the portrait at the time of the 1866 exhibition is interesting, as I have found records listing it as part of the collection at Corpus Christi College. This record appears in an 1820 book accounting the important works in held in Cambridge County (below).

Its curious that the portrait was listed as being in the collection at Corpus Christi in 1820, and then seems to be presented to be in private ownership 46 years later in the National Portrait Exhibition.  Even stranger is that I was able to find one last (and modern) record regarding the painting (with the help of the assistant curator of the National Portrait Gallery in London). She wrote:

“Our index of portraits in other collections contains a record of a portrait of Sir Richard Lane, possibly by Mytens, at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; an annotation to the record from 1978 recorded that the picture was no longer there however, though I’m afraid we have no information as to what happened to it.”

And that is as far as I have been able to trace the portrait (so far).  The Corpus Christi annotation from 1978 doesn’t mean the portrait left there in 1978, as it could mean that was when they realized it was no longer in their possession…

It makes some sense that Richard Lane’s portrait found a home at Corpus Christi College, which is part of Cambridge University.  Richard Lane attended Trinity College, which is also part of Cambridge.  He is alumni there.

Perhaps some follow-up at Corpus Christi would yield more information about how the portrait came to be in their collection, when it was removed and where it went.  I have begun to wonder if the portrait had only been on loan to the Corpus Christi collection for safekeeping, and that its true ownership at the time was with the family of the man identified as G.N.W. Heneage.  I have an inquiry out to see if I can get a full copy of their records regarding this piece.

Although only a hypothesis for now, the private ownership identified at the National Portrait Gallery of 1866 would be explained had its owner recalled the painting from Corpus Christi so he could exhibit it in that national exhibition. Contributing to such a prestigious event would have been a great source of pride for a private collector.  I have confirmed that the portrait of Richard Lane was the only item contributed by Mr. Heneage.  I wonder if there is any evidence the portrait was ever returned to Corpus Christi?

My contacts at the National Portrait Gallery also let me know of the existence of an early 1800s watercolor of Sir Richard Lane in the Ashmolean Museum’s Sutherlund Collection at Oxford.  This watercolor was painted by Thomas Athow, an early 1800s painter who often did paintings of earlier portraits.  The Althow watercolor isn’t wholly consistent with the description of the 1645 Mytens portrait, but it will be interesting to compare them when the 1645 portrait is located!


Your comments and corrections are gladly welcomed.  I admire great writing, but have to approach this task as one of grinding a workable author’s edge onto a rough blade – with my thanks for your generosity of spirit and firm critique in the meantime! 

-Greg Sherwood

5 thoughts on “The “Lost” Portrait of Sir Richard Lane”

  1. dont paint yourself into a corner looking at the water color painting. you are on the right track if you can find who displayed it at the “National Portraits of 1866. Where did it go from there? If it was not collected up by the owner, what would they have done with the painting?


  2. per my last post…check with Scotland Yard about any thefts from the showing in question, see if it was stolen. also look to the town of the showing to see if there was any reporting from there as well and if so, was it ever recovered?


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