Sir John Perrot: two faces of a ruffian

December 15, 2018 0 Comments

One of the images included in Wales in 100 objects is a small oil painting by an unknown artist, now in Haverfordwest Town Museum, of the Elizabethan magnate Sir John Perrot.  I chose this particular portrait, painted long after Perrot’s death, because it shows its subject as a jaunty, stylish and dashing character, whereas in life he was a ruthless and cruel, though ineffective, despot.  The contrast says much about how a reputation can be manufactured and passed down.

Perrot was born in 1528, probably at Haroldston near Haverfordwest.  Like many an arrogant big cheese before and since, he inherited wealth and power –the Perrots had been accumulating both in west Wales for centuries – and gained more by brown-nosing his way around the English court.  He was already ‘Mr Pembrokeshire’ by the time he was sent to Ireland in 1571 as President of Munster to suppress a rebellion led by James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald.  His methods were characteristically violent – he hanged over 800 of the rebels –but he resigned after two years, having failed in his mission.  Back in west Wales he seems to have contented himself with local enrichment and self-glorification, exciting in the process numerous complaints about his rapacious behaviour.  He transformed Carew Castle and Laugharne Castle as mansions for himself, in grand style. He went back to Ireland as 1584 as Lord Deputy, with the task of crushing the Irish and colonising their land. Again unsuccessful, he returned, and was eventually accused by his many enemies of treason.  In 1592 he died in the Tower of London, possibly by poisoning, while awaiting his fate.

George Powle, Sir John Perrot (c1776)

The benevolent Haverfordwest picture is based on a much older portrait type. The original apparently no longer survives, but it presumably acted as the model for a miniature by George Powle, an artist who lived in the second half of the eighteenth century.  This shows Perrot as a confident, well-bearded man in middle age, hand on hip, soft dark hat worn at an angle and with a curling white feather, and a jewelled ornament across his chest. 

Powle’s picture is clearly the source of a mezzotint engraving of 1776 by Valentine Green, and two later prints of around 1800.  It’s curious that there was a marked renewal of interest in Perrot towards the end of the eighteenth century.

Valentine Green, mezzotint engraving of Sir John Perrot (1776)

This ‘heroic’ version of Perrot’s appearance is probably the one that the man himself approved.  He was nothing if not self-regarding, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he was anxious to fix and disseminate a positive visual image of himself.  In the same way he was eager to portray himself as a local benefactor.  He left land and property in trust and founded a charity, still extant, intended to improve the condition of the town of Haverfordwest. 

This image-doctoring has been successful: Perrot tends to be remembered favourably in his home county.  His most recent biographer, Roger Turvey, seems to regard him as a colourful adventurer and rogue rather than as a man of unusual violence and inhumanity.

Stone effigy of Sir John Perrot (Carmarthenshire Museum)

But there’s another, little known and very different Perrot portrait, which, unlike the others, dates from Perrot’s own lifetime.  It’s a stone ‘mask’ and was found in Laugharne Castle (which was confiscated, along with its contents, after Perrot’s downfall). It was given, with another stone portrait from the Castle, of Queen Elizabeth I, to the museum of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society by one of its members, Rev. J.P. Gordon Williams, in 1927 (it’s now to be seen in the Carmarthenshire Museum in Abergwili).  The moustache and beard and the slanting hat seem to point to Perrot as the subject, as George Eyre Evans, the Museum’s curator, who wrote a short note about the piece, claimed at the time.

Perrot, who presumably approved the image, was not well-served by his sculptor.  The carving is crude and stylised.  The staring eyes and eyebrows give the face a severe, intimidating look, and the rake of the hat’s brim suggests a swagger and arrogance that were a true part of Perrot’s character.  It’s lucky for his reputation since his death that this is not the archetypal Perrot image that prevailed. 

Instead he survives as the ‘Knight, Noble and Brave’ recorded on his monument in Eglwys Gymyn Church.

Monument to Sir John Perrot (Eglwys Gymyn Church)

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