Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

What to Look for in Tudor Paintings

 In Tudor times, only the very rich could afford to have their portraits painted. Paintings of poorer people from this time are rare. In the past, people used portraits as a way of showing their wealth, status and power. They displayed the portraits in the same way that people post photographs of themselves on social media today.


Tudor portrait of Arabella Stuart.  She wears a highly embroidered top and skirt, with more richly decorated material draped over her.  Her face is very pale and her hairline is high.
Tudor Portrait of Arabella Stuart

When sitting for a portrait people would dress very carefully, using clothing and accessories to present a carefully constructed image. Jewellery, expensive fabrics, embroidered cloth or objects beside them were used to suggest to the viewer that the person in the portrait was important or rich. 


Detail of a 'Toy Dog' from a Portrait of Lady Bennet.  The dog is mostly whtie with brown ears and sides of the facew
'Toy Dog' from a Portrait of Lady Bennet

Some people had their pet 'toy' dogs in their portraits. At the time most people kept dogs as working animals and to keep a pet purely for pleasure, as a 'toy', was another sign that you were among the wealthiest in society. 


Clothing in Portraits

People often dressed in fabrics in rich, dark colours for portraits, as these were the most expensive dyes. You can also see that people are wearing many layers of material and garments, such as:

  • Ruffs made of lace were worn by better off Tudor people. Lace was then an expensive material, because it had to be imported from Brussels or Italy. Ruffs had no practical purpose, people just wore them to be fashionable and thought that the bigger their ruff, the wealthier it would make them look. 

Detail of a Ruff from a Portrait of Lady Bennet.  The ruff is very wide and many layered.
Portrait of Lady Bennet (detail)


  • Look out for gloves (worn by both ladies and men)  in the portraits. They were very popular among the rich, as they showed that the wearers did not do any manual work. Queen Elizabeth was given many pairs of gloves as presents. Wealthy people used scent on their gloves to conceal bad smells.

    Detail of gloves taken from a portrait of Henry Lord Darnley
    Portrait of Henry Lord Darnley (detail)
  • Tudor ladies often carried a sweet purse, in which they carried rose petals or dried lavender and spices. This was to cover up any nasty odours, as the clothes they wore were not washed regularly and people bathed rarely.

Detail of the Sweet Purse taken from a portrait of Lady Bennet
Portrait of Lady Bennet (detail)


  • Pale, whitened skin was fashionable among Tudor ladies. A pale complexion was a clear sign that you did not work outside, because you had servants to work for you. Many Tudor ladies, including Queen Elizabeth I, used make-up to make themselves look paler and to cover marks or scars. However, this contained dangerous substances like white lead, which we now know is poisonous. Women often suffered from side-effects, such as irritated skin or hair loss.



Complexion - colour and texture of skin, usually on the face
Conceal - to hide something
Constructed - to build or make something using a plan
Display - to put something on show so that others can see it
Embroidered - to decorate fabric by sewing designs on to it
Garments - pieces of clothing
Manual - physical work done by hand
Odours - smells
Ruff - a fancy collar made of lace
Status - someone's importance or position in society
Substances - material something is made of