Portrait of Sir William Brereton I  
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AN ACCOUNT OF THE PORTRAIT OF
SIR WILLIAM BRERETON I (1550-1631)

By Derek P. Brereton
30 December 1998


In the British room of the European collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts hangs a portrait of Sir William Brereton I, builder of Brereton Hall. The portrait is in oil on a cradled wood panel, shows the sitter at age 28, and was acquired by the museum from Mrs. P. Trelawney of London in 1950. The artist has not been determined with certainty. It may have been George Gower, as suggested by James Miller of Sotheby's, or the Dutch portrait painter, Lucas de Heere.

De Heere, a converted Dutch Calvinist who exiled himself to escape the Spanish authorities, was in England just prior to the painting's date, 1579, and earned his living producing portraits of the English aristocracy. Favoring the de Heere hypothesis are the attribution to de Heere when the painting was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1868, and de Heere's name on engravings done from the portrait. One such engraving is owned by my uncle, Randle Brereton, and contains written references to both Elizabeth I and Henry VIII not found on the portrait itself.

The Brereton portrait is in black, save the guilt trim on the doublet, white lace ruff, and multichromatic coat of arms. Beneath the date is a Latin inscription which translates, "Picture of William Brereton, soldier, who founded this house in his 28th year."

Two items stand out. The left hand thumb has been painted over incorrectly, and juts out at an anatomically difficult angle. The brush strokes of the overpainting are evident on the portrait itself, though not on the photograph. More important is the cameo which Sir William wears in his cap. It is a likeness of Queen Elizabeth I, who, as Yvonne Hackenbroch notes in "Renaissance Jewelry", gave them in recognition of meritorious service to the crown. I have not been able to discover the precise nature of Sir William's service, but his inclusion of the Queen's initials and arms in the ornamentation of Brereton Hall leave no doubt as to his loyalty. There is also a family legend that Elizabeth laid the cornerstone of the hall, but history disproves it for she was never as far north as Cheshire.

What of the achievement of arms: motto, shield, and crest? The motto means "With the aid of God." The shield, the simplicity of which tells its considerable antiquity, is described as "argent two bars sable". The crest includes the baronial helmet signifying Sir William's rank. He was knighted at Flushing (Dutch: Vlissingen) by the Earl of Leicester on 1st May, 1588. Flushing was a coastal town controlling the approach to Antwerp, and held by the English from 1585 to 1616. Brereton was created Baron Brereton of Leighlin, County Carlow (Ireland), 11 May 1624. The crown is, I believe, a ducal coronet, signifying royal descent. As A. S. Brereton has shown, the Breretons were - and are - descended from Edward I through Alice Savage who married the sixth Lord William Brereton (counting from the beginning, not from the baronage).

Concerning the muzzled bear, imaginative theories abound. An early Brereton murdered a servant, his trial was to engage in combat with a bear, the bear was muzzled and the accused thus earned his life and freedom. Or, another Brereton was too outspoken, and the king ordered him 'muzzled'. Again, Henry VIII ordered the bear muzzled after a Malpas Brereton was executed for adulterous treason with Queen Anne Boleyn. Though that execution did occur, the truth about the bear may be rather less romantic. Punning references were common, as a trumpet for Trumpington, or spear for Shakespeare. For persons with names sounding in any way like 'bear' it was a common device to include a bear in the crest. This was true of Barnard, Baring, Barnes, Beardsley and others, as noted in Arthur Charles Fox-Davies', "The Art of Heraldry". Fox-Davies also notes that such heraldic bears are normally muzzled. Thus it seems the Brereton bear follows form, and would require special pleading only were it shown without a muzzle, and not because it has one.

As regards the other coats marshaled on the shield, moving clockwise after Brereton are Belward, Malpas, Egerton, Orreby, Orreby, and Corbet. These are families with whom former Breretons had intermarried. The particular marshaling here is identical to those on the exterior of Brereton Hall, over the mantle in Sir William's dressing room, and in the stained glass window formerly at the hall but now removed to Stoneleigh Abbey. That glass includes an inscription reading 'Breuerton and Savage', for Lord Brereton's bride was Margaret Savage, with whom he had been raised. Such variations in spelling were common before modern standardization. I was able to photograph this interesting glass, as well as the grand representations of the nine Earls of Chester also formerly in Brereton Hall, and will make copies available at the reunion.

Finally, the provenance of the portrait seems to have been as follows. When no claim to the title was made after the fifth Lord Brereton died sans progeny in 1722, the estate went to the Holte family due to the marriage of Sir Robert Holte to Lady Jane Brereton, sister of the second Lord Brereton, grandson of the man whose portrait we are considering. Later, Mary Elizabeth Holte married Abraham Bracebridge, thus accounting for the Bracebridge possession of the portrait in 1922, when Arthur Moir wrote of it in "The Story of Brereton Hall", Cheshire. Robert Holte's son built Aston Hall, which now holds the long, ancient kitchen table from Brereton Hall, a tapestry by Mary Holte (1684-1759) depicting Brereton Hall, and portraits of Lady Jane Brereton and Sir William Brereton III, a founder of the Royal Society.

The Detroit Institute of Arts acquired the portrait from Miss P. Trelawney in 1950, who must therefore have gotten it from the Bracebridges. The Trelawneys also had a connection with Brereton through Edward Trelawney (1792-1874), the swashbuckler who accompanied George Gordon, Lord Byron and Percy Bisshe Shelley on their exploits in Greece and Italy. Margaret Armstrong has written a historical novel, "Trelawney", concerning these adventures. Edward Trelawney's father was Charles Brereton Trelawney, heir presumptive to the very large Brereton estate on the Wirral Peninsula, formerly owned by his cousin, Owen Salusbury Brereton, antiquarian and member of parliament. Thus the portrait probably went from Brereton Hall to the Holte family, then to Atherstone Hall due to the Bracebridge connection, and from there to the Trelawneys and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

It is of great interest that Marguerite Poland of South Africa, herself a Brereton, owns another portrait of a Sir William Brereton. This is an older man who could well be the same individual as the one in the Detroit portrait, though the identity of neither the sitter nor the artist is certain.

[ The actual photos will be included at a later time. ]

 

 
 

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