Dr John Sugden (slightly edited, annotations by Michael Turner, references and portraits omitted)
I wrote the note on Drake's portraits many years ago. I became curious back in 1964, did some research at that time, and wrote it up twenty years later. It was, however, very much an exploratory piece, trying to clear away the obvious debris, and to isolate the pictures I deemed worthy of further attention. However, this tentative investigation did put some commonly reproduced, but obviously apocryphal portraits out of the frame, as it were. I revisited the subject for my book, rejecting numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 8 and 10 and rehabilitating the full-length Buckland abbey portrait.
The iconography of Drake is complex and, for the most part, un-explored. In his own day the admiral's reputation fed a lively demand for portraits, and after his death spurious and imaginary likenesses continued to appear. Unidentified subjects in Elizabethan portraits have repeatedly been represented as Sir Francis Drake. Fortunately, contemporary evidence furnishes a clear picture of the sailor's appearance. John Stow described him as, low of stature, of strong limbs, broade Brested, round headed, brown hayre, full Bearded, his eyes round, Large and cleare, well favoured, fayre, and of a cheerefull countenance...many Princes of Italy, Germany, and others as well enemies as friends in his life time desired his Picture. In 1578, Nuño da Silva, a Portuguese pilot, found Drake short, thick-set and robust. He is of good appearance, with a red beard and a ruddy complexion. He has an arrow mark on his right cheek which is not apparent unless one looks very carefully,.. In 1587, Garcia Fernández de Torrequemada informed Philip II of Spain that Drake is a man of medium stature, blonde, rather heavy than slender, merry, careful. Such comments, which confirm Stow's observations, are echoed in other surviving descriptions, all of which were written by Spaniards.
The best portraits of Drake vindicate these documentary sources. However, the provenance of all the various pictures cannot now be accurately determined. Some are manifestly apocryphal; others such as the full-length purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 1957, are more difficult to place. In the absence of extended investigation which this subject merits, the discussion which follows can only be provisional. Those portraits which seem to possess the strongest claims to have been made from life are itemised as a basis for further conjecture.