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Ralph Simons (Symons) by an unknown artist, c. 1595 © National Portrait Gallery, London. 

LONDON.- The National Portrait Gallery has acquired the first known portrait of a British architect. The painting of Ralph Simons, a mason-architect active in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, was discovered in an Italian auction. It was identified thanks to the survival of an early copy of the painting, which records an inscription of the original frame of this work that identified the sitter. The portrait goes on display at the Gallery for the first time today, Monday 11 July 2016. 

Ralph Simons was responsible for the construction and redesign of a number of Cambridge University colleges. His Second Court at St. John’s College still survives, along with his drawings relating to the commission. His career spanned a crucial moment in the development of the architectural profession in Britain. The term ‘architect’ first appeared in English in John Shute’s The First and Chief Groundes of Architecture, 1563, but was not widely known until the seventeenth century. The inscription on the original frame described Simons as ‘the most skilful architect of his time’. 

In the oil-on-panel portrait, Simons holds a pair of dividers in his right hand that would have taken the form of a dagger when closed. They serve as a reference to his profession and a play on the conventions of elite portraiture, as the wearing of daggers and swords was regulated by sumptuary laws. 

Simons’s clothes are simple in comparison to the lavish silks worn by courtiers, but the detailing on the leather jerkin and the delicacy of the ruff signify his relatively elevated status. The style of the ruff suggests that the portrait dates to the mid-1590s and this is supported by the fact that the inscription on the copy of the portrait does not refer to his work at St John’s College, which began in 1598. 

The artist of the portrait has not been identified though the handling appears English. A small group of portraits of other sitters associated with Cambridge share a similar format and stylistic elements, which suggests that the artist had an ongoing relationship with the Cambridge colleges. 

It is thought the portrait was in the collection of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge until the mid-18th century before it passed through a series of private collections and was purchased by Philip Mould & Co in 2015, who discovered the work in an Italian auction and gave the Gallery first refusal on acquiring the portrait. 

Dr Tarnya Cooper, Curatorial Director, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘This exciting acquisition will help us to answer the regularly asked question ‘when did more ordinary people begin to get their portrait painted?’ as it represents, not a courtier or a statesman, but a talented artisan. The portrait is a rare survival of a citizen portrait, a portrait type that probably existed in larger numbers than is evident today. We are delighted that it will be on display in the Tudor Galleries at the National Portrait Gallery.’ 

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘We are delighted that National Portrait Gallery visitors will now be able to see in the Tudor Galleries this striking first-known portrait of a British architect.’ 

Ralph Simons (Symons) went on display in the Gallery from Monday 11 July 2016.