The Somerset House Conference, 19 August 1604

(Updated, August 2023) This very large group portrait is a commemoration of the treaty of peace between England and Spain in 1604. When James I ascended the throne in 1603 he was determined to end the 20-year war with Spain. This coincided with Philip III of Spain's realization that there was little chance of achieving his father, Philip II's, aim of the destruction of Protestantism in England, and so he too was anxious to end hostilities. The peace negotiations between England and Spain took place at Somerset House on the Strand, London, from May to August 1604. Eighteen sessions were held there by the commissioners, between 20 May and 16 July, that a 'peace of fine amity and friendship' might be agreed upon. Ten sittings dealt with the English and Dutch, and the remainder with trading matters and the Inquisition. By 16 July the treaty terms were acceptable to both sides, laying the way open for formal ratification, although no concessions were wrung from the Spanish on trade. This painting is thought to be a contemporary copy of the painting at the National Portrait Gallery, commemorating the signing of the treaty on 28 August.

In the middle foreground is an oblong table, with the six commissioners for Spain and the Empire depicted on the left and the five English on the right. Beyond is a leaded window and there are tapestries on the left and right walls. The Spanish and English delegates are shown seated in strict order of precedence, with the most important placed next to the window. Each of the sitters is numbered or lettered and the keys are in the bottom right and left hand corners. Each of the delegates is seated in a sumptuously decorated chair of estate denoting exalted status. Despite the grandeur of the furniture, rushes are depicted strewn on the floor. The window has indoor shrubbery and flowers before it and one of the windows is open, revealing the view through it to a sun-lit courtyard.

Nearest the window on the right is Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, who led the English delegation. He holds a white rose, an image usually associated with the latin phrase sub rosa, meaning ‘to deal in secret’. Contextually this inclusion makes sense as the English commissioners were receiving under-the-table payments from Juan de Velasco in return for their cooperation in the negotiations. Next to him, facing the viewer is the Lord High Admiral Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, wearing a white silver-laced doublet and skull cap. He had commanded the English fleet against the Armada. In front of him is Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire, wearing green, gold-braided clothes, with the George emblem of the Garter hanging from a blue ribbon round his neck. His hands clasped, he is positioned in profile gazing at his opposite number across the table. Next is Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, dressed in black with a white ruff. He holds a paper in his right hand and gazes out towards the viewer. In the front is Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranborne, later 1st Earl of Salisbury, wearing black clothes and a white ruff with his left hand resting on the arm of the chair.

On the left of the picture is the Spanish and Flemish delegation consisting of three commissioners for the King of Spain and three Flemish commissioners for the Archduke Albert of Austria. Nearest the window is Juan de Velasco (c.1550-1613), Duke of Frias, Constable of Castile, the leader of the Austro/Flemish and Spanish delegation, looking towards the viewer. Although included in the picture he had pleaded ill-health and did not attend the conference. Under his left hand he holds a set of rosary beads, representative of his Catholicism. Religion had been the main point of antagonism throughout the preceding century, with the accession of a Protestant queen (Elizabeth I) being the catalyst for Anglo-Spanish war. Next to him is Juan de Tassis (d.1607), Count of Villamediana who also looks out towards the viewer. Alessandro Robido, Senator of Milan, is seated in front of him and looks directly across the table towards Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire. Next is Charles de Ligne (1550-1616), Count of Aremberg, looking out towards the viewer and then Jean Richardot (1540-1609), Chief President of the Privy Council of the Habsburg Netherlands, who looks forwards and rests his right hand on the table clasping a paper. In the front is Louis Verrekyn (1552-1621), Audiencer of Brussels and Principal Secretary of the Brussels Council of State, who looks towards the viewer, with his right hand resting on the arm of his chair. A pewter ink-pot, quill and a piece of paper lie on the table before Sir Robert Cecil.

Considerable care was taken to prepare the house for the conference and this painting shows the richness of the furnishings. Fine tapestries have been hung on the walls; the long table is covered with a splendid small-pattern 'Holbein' carpet from Anatolia, possibly one of Henry VIII's collection of over four hundred.

The symbolism of the tapestries is contested, but a number of interpretations exist which indicate the political allegorisation of the piece. The bush shown growing behind the English delegation may be an olive bush, a traditional symbol associated with peace. This is suggestive of the role of the English, and in particular their king, James I, as peacemakers. Similarly, the tapestry in front of which the Spanish sit represents a scene commonly associated with duplicity: David’s message to Ulriah the Hittite. Although it is uncertain as to whether these tapestries were imaginatively included later by the artist, it is not impossible that they really were present during the meetings. It was not uncommon for tapestries to be used for the political potency of their imagery. Henry VIII is also known to have collected such biblical tapestries.

New research by Gerald MacLean suggests that the carpet, is demonstrative of British power and new found extroversion on the world stage, as well as being a rather subversive insult toward the Spanish. The use of a ‘Turkey carpet’ as the focal point of the piece is designed to show the transition of Britain from an insular island nation to an imperial state. The British found themselves having to play catch up to the already powerful colonial states of France and Spain. They needed cultural capital: objects to show the other world powers that they were a nation steeped in history and foreign dealings. The carpet, therefore, is part of this capital, as well as an example of the ‘fetishizing’ of Ottoman objects among the British aristocracy and a visual allusion to Anglo-Ottoman relations. The carpet equally acts as a demonstration of the ongoing trade that was occurring in anything from carpets to stallions between the Ottomans and the British. The carpet also relates to the relationship between the Spanish and the Ottomans. Coupled with the date on the cartouches of the wall- mounted tapestries (1560), the Ottoman imagery alludes to the crushing defeat of a Spanish fleet by the Ottomans. The painting subversively suggests British superiority whilst affirming Spanish inferiority. The large carpet symbolically separates the two delegations, and the way that the table upon which it sits is positioned pins the Spanish against the wall, whilst the English have more than sufficient room for manoeuvre. The English are in control, free to back away from the deal at any time.

Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, whose signature is present in the bottom left hand corner, was a Spanish portrait painter from Madrid, who almost certainly accompanied the Spanish delegates to the conference in London. Although the painting is signed by Pantoja de la Cruz (but not dated) this is a later addition since the painting is believed to be the work of another artist. He may have been Flemish as the piece shows strong similarity in compositional devices to Flemish religious paintings, especially the way in which the delegates flank the table, almost as angels would flank the throne of the Madonna in a typical 'maesta' or 'sacre conversazione'. It equally bears strong resemblance to the work of Flemish painters such as Frans Pourbus. The NPG version, however, as well as bearing a similar Pantoja de la Cruz inscription, and an unaccountably false date of 1594, has also been suggested as perhaps the work of John de Critz (1551/2-1642) and his studio, which would probably also apply to the NMM version. Since de Critz was a Flemish artist who worked in England as a court painter to both James I and Charles I (until eclipsed by Van Dyck), this is also a credible option.

One of the two painting was almost certainly intended for an important English building, and the other perhaps as a commemorative gift from James I to the Spanish royal court. This would explain why they are laden with images that pertain to the rising global station of Britain and the inferiority of Spain.

Object Details

ID: BHC2787
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: Cruz, Pantoja de la; Cruz, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, Juan Pantoja de la
Places: Somerset House
Events: Somerset House Conference, 1604
Date made: circa 1604
People: Aremberg, Charles de Ligne, Count of; Blount, Charles Howard, Charles Cecil, Robert 1st Earl of Northampton and Effingham, Henry Howard Richardot, Jean Rovidius, Alexander Sackville, Thomas Tassis, Juan Baptista de: Villamediana, Count of Velasco, Juan de Verreycken, Louis
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Painting: 2055 mm x 2770 mm; Frame: 2445 mm x 3075 mm x 120 mm

Your Request

If an item is shown as “offsite”, please allow eight days for your order to be processed. For further information, please contact Archive staff:

Tel: (during Library opening hours)

Click “Continue” below to continue processing your order with the Library team.