Tudor Mystery review – who could have painted such medieval strangeness?

Four weird kids in black clothes turn their big eyes in unison as they sing what you imagine is a melancholy song about death. The great, great (and a few more greats) grandmother of Wednesday Addams is on keyboards, playing the virginals, the leader of the group. Her clothes are grave but more decorated than her brothers’ dark jerkins. She looks at you in a charged, even angry, way.

This psychologically acute study of Renaissance adolescence was painted in about 1565. Elizabeth I had been Queen of England for less than a decade. William Shakespeare had just been born. Yet in front of this painting by an artist known as the Master of the Countess of Warwick all that time collapses and you seem to be confronted by real young people, a bunch of severe teens whose turbulent emotions are squeezed into their stiff silken costumes and released in music. Their songbooks reveal they are performing the introspective Sixth Psalm of King David, set to music by Josquin des Prez: “I am weary with my groaning: all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.”

Whoever painted this hypnotic study was much more than a jobbing portrait artist. This is a playful, dramatic work of art. Clearly, there was a stupendous artist at work in 1560s England – but they never signed anything and weren’t even recognised as existing until the sharp eye of Roy Strong in the 1960s spotted a similarity of style in a string of anonymous pictures. He dubbed this painter the Master of the Countess of Warwick. Now, at last, this anonymous star has got his (or her?) first ever solo show.

It’s not completely random to throw in the notion of a Mistress of the Countess of Warwick. Most professional artists in the Low Countries in the 16th century, where this enigmatic artist probably originated, were men but there were some women too, including the portrait painter Catharina van Hemessen. So, maybe “Master” is an unnecessary prejudgment.

Whoever they were, this artist shows a wonderful sympathy for women and men, children, teens – even marmosets. The exhibition is a jewel case of Tudor strangeness, all queenly women and men in tight bodices. Right at the start of the show you meet Thomas Knyvett of Ashwellthorpe, posing in a luxurious white garment that constrains his upper body in ways that must have been hard to carry off in real life: his neck is disciplined by a tall tubular collar and a ruff that swallows his chin while his waist is forced to taper to nothing over his flouncy dark pantaloons.

No two ruffs here are alike. The Countess of Warwick herself, in the painting that Strong based his stylistic intuition around, has a silk ruff supported by a high black collar and sprouting a pearl headband. Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Countess of Lincoln, wears a pink and white confection that seems to caress her throat like an opened shellfish. It fits her Celtic complexion and hair.

Fitzgerald, known as the Fair Geraldine after a love sonnet to her, was an Irish noblewoman who had influence at Elizabeth I’s court. These paintings are all of the high nobility, a social world in which Elizabeth was a charismatic presence and women might have intimate access to her. William Brooke, 10th Lord Cobham, portrayed with his family in 1567, was Warden of the Cinque Ports but Lady Cobham too had power as one of Elizabeth’s Ladies of the Bedchamber: it’s her eyes that engage you while he seems too dignified to look at the artist.

This is another masterpiece that transcends jobbing portraiture. The artist creates a dazzling, complex moment around a dining table where the couple’s six young children enjoy treats and play with their pets. There’s a stereotype that children before modern times were expected to be little adults and were rarely spared the rod. That’s confounded here. A baby holds his apple like a treasure while his brother ignores a pleading dog. An older boy gracefully lets his pet bird rest on his sleeve but the best pet of all is the marmoset belonging to one of the girls, who gently restrains it from attacking a parakeet on the table. Her sisters eat politely, yet this painting bursts with individuality, not cold conformity. While identical clothes for the girls and younger boys stress their shared Cobham identity, each face is unique. You get an irresistible sense of character and personality.

That’s true of every painting by this student of human uniqueness. It’s not just the ruffs that stay with you but the way Thomas Knyvett eyes you with nervous awareness, the sadness of the Countess of Warwick, the formidable gazes of the young singers.

Sadly, some of the mystery is dissipated by this show’s down to earth conclusion. Contemporary documents, presented here, at last suggest a name for the Master of the Countess of Warwick. He was a pupil of the Flemish painter Hans Eworth. And his name was Arnold Derickson. So now there’s a new name to add to the cultural brilliance of Elizabethan England. Shakespeare, Sidney, Marlowe, Hilliard … make space for Derickson.