The painting is the work of Francis de Cleyn, painter to James 1 and designer of the Mortlake Tapestries, and a noted painter of ceilings and panelling. Holland House contains some of his fine work. De Cleyn was a German and studied in Rome, following Parmigiano.
In 1660, Brian Duppa, Bishop of Winchester and Prelate of the Order of the Garter, presented the picture to St. George’s Chapel. In the Great Rebellion, it was rolled up and buried in the plumery along with St. George’s Altar plate. In 1698, according to the order of 29th April, it was ‘refreshed and a new handsome frame made for it.’ In 1702 or 1707, it was shown to Verrio and to Sir James Thornhill and others, all of whom highly approved of it and it was hung over the Altar at St George’s replacing the famous hanging tapestry, ‘Our Lord and His disciples at Emmaus’ after Titian.
It was cleaned in 1739 and 1756 and then in 1788, when extensive alterations were carried out at St George’s, the painting was given to the Parish Church by George III. A picture of the Old Parish Church shows it in use as the altar piece over the Communion Table (1788 onwards). When the present Parish Church was built it again occupied the place of honour over the Altar. About 1870, when the present rounded apse was added, the painting had to be removed to the West End, over the Gallery.
In 1913 it was taken to the Evans’ Studios, Fitzroy Square, London, where it was cleaned, restored and re-lined at a cost of £73. In 1959 it was again cleaned by Mr Harry Hubbard and illuminated under the supervision of Mr Cameron Ward, the cost being defrayed by a parishioner.
Sometime before 1698 the painting was ‘maliciously cut’ while in Urswick Chapel at St. George’s, but fortunately, the slash was in the top background and did not reach any face or figure.
The picture has the vivid colouring, the intensity of feeling and the strong characterisation of an Old Master. The perspective is strong; one has the impression of actually looking into the Upper Room. The seventeen portraits have escaped damage, apart from a slight discolouration on the side of Judas’ face. Peter bears a strong resemblance to Da Vinci’s portrait. All the faces are strongly characterised, full of reality and one feels the deep emotion storming through them. By contrast the Saviour is calm, full of power and radiant, dominating the scene. He is centralised in the Alcove (again like Da Vinci).
A feature of the picture is its accurate representation of the traditional Passover fare as described in Exodus, chapter 12. ‘The young lamb, complete with head, legs and the purtenance thereof, roast with fire’ is central on the board and on other dishes are ‘the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs’. Another feature is what appears to be the towel with which the Lord had washed the disciples’ feet cast over the shoulder of His blue robe. The Saviour’s hand is lifted in blessing. It is the moment that has held the devotion of the centuries. We are witnessing the institution of the Last Supper.
Following a campaign, spearheaded by Mary Lynn Landgraf, a visitor from America and now friend of the church, and Michael Harding, churchwarden, the painting was restored by South East Conservation Centre and new lighting installed in 2003.