The second son of Baron Capel of Hadham, Henry Capel was the younger brother of Arthur (1632–1693), first Earl of Essex, and of Mary and Elizabeth, depicted in another portrait by Lely in the Museum (39.65.3
). He married Dorothy Bennett, daughter and co-heir of Richard Bennett of Kew, Surrey, in 1659. Their marriage was childless. Capel served for more than twenty years as member of Parliament for Tewkesbury and in 1692 was created Baron Capel of Tewkesbury. He was briefly first lord of the admiralty, a lord of the treasury, and both a lord justice and the lord deputy of Ireland.
This picture was installed in the library of Cassiobury Park along with other family portraits, eight by Lely, remaining in place until 1922, when the house and its contents were sold. In addition to the portrait of Henry's sisters, the Museum owns a third work from the Cassiobury Park library: George Capel, Viscount Malden, and Lady Elizabeth Capel
by Reynolds (48.181
Sometime between 1922 and 1939, the bust on which the sitter's hand rests was painted over (see Additional Images, fig. 1). The bust reappeared when the painting was cleaned at the Museum in 1947. N. J. Barker (1965) suggested that the sitter’s gesture indicates the plighting of troth, and that the picture may have been painted on the occasion of Capel's marriage in 1659.
Comparison with a miniature of 1655 by John Hoskins (National Portrait Gallery, London), apparently several years earlier in date, suggests that Lely exaggerated the sitter’s more attractive qualities. Another Lely portrait (without a description) representing Henry Capel was in the artist’s own estate sale of April 18, 1682 (Burlington Magazine 1943). A painting that must have been similar to the present work showed Sir Henry “in brown dress with slashed sleeves, resting his right hand upon a pedestal, upon which is a marble bust” (sale, Christie's, London, November 25, 1911, no. 55, 48 x 39 1/2 in.). The Duke of Northumberland owns a smaller oval depicting the same sitter in a head-and-shoulders view, three-quarters to the left, inscribed with his name (letter of 1967 in departmental files).
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]