Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger was born in Bruges in 1561 but when he was seven he emigrated to England with his father to escape religious persecution in the Spanish controlled Low Countries. The young Gheeraerts, and his father who was also an artist, became part of a large community of immigrant Protestant artists which had established itself in London bringing with it new ideas and approaches to art.

It is not clear who taught Gheeraerts, but by the late 1580s he was a well-regarded portrait painter who received commissions from the English court and monarchy. Today he is regarded as one of the most significant portrait painters in late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century England, with portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex, Sir Francis Drake and Queen Anne, the wife of King James I, amongst his many commissions. Following the death of Queen Anne in 1619, for whom Gheeraerts had served as official painter, most of his commissions originated with the English gentry, such as was the case with this portrait of Magdalen Poultney.

Magdalen Poultney was a daughter of Sir John Poultney and Margery Fortescue. In this portrait Magdalen stands alone in a richly furnished room of red velvet and gold trimmed curtains and chair. Beneath her feet lies a Turkish carpet, a luxurious import from the Ottoman Empire which symbolised wealth and social status. The richness of her surroundings is easily matched by her magnificent outfit of silver-with-red brocade dress with lace cuffs and collar, an ostrich feathered bonnet and satin shoes. Magdalen’s dress, with its low neckline and high waist, was a popular style in royal court and would have presented her as a cultured and fashionable woman. Her youth is emphasised by her somewhat timid stance, though like most aspects of portraiture of this period, her reserved stance may have been to present an idealised image which may have been different to reality.

During the Tudor and the Stuart period the content of a portrait was generally determined by the commissioner of the artwork rather than the artist, even if that artist was highly regarded. Magdalen Poultney’s portrait was probably commissioned by her grandmother, Dame Anne Fortescue, when she was about twenty years old and unmarried. At a time when travel was not easy, and in person meetings difficult to arrange, the sending of a portrait was a means to make an introduction or to deepen a relationship. This portrait of Magdalen was likely commissioned to assist in marriage negotiations, which eventually resulted in her marrying Thomas Aston in 1627.