Black, White and Blue

Whatever century you study, some themes are threaded throughout human history, their prominence rising or falling according to the political or social conditions of the day. Women and religious groups, for example, have suffered both persecution and subjugation, but also moments of enlightenment and hope. In our time we are, thankfully, facing issues of equality and human rights head on, and making encouraging progress, despite many setbacks.

It is the subject of racial equality, however, that I wanted to look at today. In particular, the treatment of black and white individuals in 17th century British art. I saw an article this week about a contemporary artist who had copied a painting of two white men and a black slave child (I’m not sure of the date). The artist then crumpled it up, obscuring the men and highlighting the child instead, labelling the picture “Enough About You“.  It reminded me of the works I’d seen in English portraiture, portraying white nobles in privileged focus, being attended by black servants who are invariably kneeling at the side and gazing attentively at the sitter, who in turn is looking the viewer straight in the eye, in the full knowledge that the moment is all about them.

girl in blue silk dress

This picture, for example, dating from c.1650,  is by an artist of the British School and labelled “Portrait of a young girl in a blue silk dress with white trim, with her servant”. Although her expression is a little dull and characterless, the silks of her dress are beautifully painted. The clothing of the servant is less vibrant and delicate in its execution, the muted brown tones almost blending with the wall behind the unidentified girl. Her skin-tone is almost unnaturally white, contrasting starkly with the dark skin of her companion, all of which serve to keep our attention focussed on her, while he blends into the background.

One could argue this scene is repeated in many portraits in which the servant is white, and that the format is the same regardless of the colour of the attendant, but it is the boy’s identity that matters here. Was he a real person at all? Or was he imagined, added merely as a fictional prop to show off the girl? If the figure was based on someone real, who was he? Where did he come from? What was his status? How did he come to be in service? Sadly we can tell nothing for certain about his story from this one picture, we can only guess. How do our readers interpret the scene?

Many such portraits have survived, such as John Byron by William Dobson, and Elizabeth Murray by Sir Peter Lely, but are there any of non-white sitters from the period, who are themselves the subject of their own painting, rather than a support act for someone else? Or is it too early in British history for such artistic autonomy? Let me know of any and I’ll add them here. I’d love to see one, staring us in the eye and demanding our attention, as if to say, “Enough about you. Look at me instead.”


Sir Edward Villiers

Happy New Year! Thank you to all our readers who have visited or commented over the last 12 months. It’s really encouraging to know that people are interested in this little corner of art history, and I hope to bring you more 17th century faces and their stories over the next year. As always, if anyone has an idea for a theme, sitter or artist, can offer further information on any of the featured paintings, or perhaps let us know about upcoming exhibitions that may be of interest, please do get in touch via the comments section below.


Our first sitter of 2019 is Sir Edward Villiers (c.1585 -7 September 1626).

edward villiers

This portrait was painted c.1625 by an artist we haven’t featured before. George Geldorp (alternatively Georg or Jorge) was a Flemish painter working in England during the mid-17th century, known mainly for his portraits and history works. Having trained and worked in Cologne, he moved to London in 1623, where among his notable sitters was William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury. When not painting his own pictures, he became something of a fixer for Dutch or Flemish artists like Rubens, Van Dyck and Lely, assisting them in securing commissions of work in England. After the Restoration and the settling of Charles II on the throne, Geldorp played an important part in the restitution of the royal art collection and family possessions that had been dispersed after the English Civil Wars.

Sir Edward, meanwhile, although part of the infamous and powerful Villiers family, is perhaps less well known than his half-brother, Sir George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, who had been a controversional and troublesome favourite of both King James I and King Charles before being assassinated in 1628. A diplomat and politician, Sir Edward was also Master of the Mint and Lord President of Munster, before his death in 1626. Through his eldest son, Sir William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison, Sir Edward was grandfather to Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, the famed mistress of Charles II.

More information on both Geldorp and Villiers can be found HERE.

A clean for the Queen?

I found this neglected and shabby lady lurking in an online auction site, on a sale page from 2017.

Unknown lady

It is labelled simply as “Portrait of a Woman, half-length, in blue dress”, and painted by the English School of the late 17th century. Despite her untidy state and the scratched and faded paintwork, the name that immediately jumped out at me was Henrietta Maria. Was this another forgotten portrait of Charles I’s controversial Catholic queen? Something about the pinched mouth (anecdotally to hide her unfortunate teeth),  pearl jewels and dark eyes seemed very familiar.

A quick internet search here produced the below painting, attributed to the circle of Van Dyck, and said to be styled on a lost original by Sir Anthony, of which there are several known variants:


It is frustrating when an auction site gives only the barest information on its sale items, and in this case the only additional detail is that the provenance was Rathescar House, co. Louth. As noted in previous posts,  sellers aren’t always in a position to thoroughly research their works, either through lack of time or just limited expertise in the subject, so it’s understandable that what may be a well-known figure to some may pass through a sale unnamed. I wonder where our faded lady ended up? Wherever she is, I hope the buyer who paid just 600 Euros for her was in a position to give her a good clean.  I’m certain that beneath the centuries of dirt, scratches and faded colouring there lies something a lot more appealing and accomplished than appears at first glance.

Dobson at the Tate: Review

As planned, I visited Tate Britain yesterday, specifically to view the ‘Spotlight’ display of William Dobson paintings. There are eight in total*, which, for any other artist would be a pitifully small showing, and I’m sure they could have gathered a few more – there are at least 80 still known to exist, after all – but given how rarely more than two or three Dobsons are ever gathered in one place, eight is a minor miracle!

The pictures featured are:

*Self portrait (the one that was auctioned a few years ago and is now in a private collection)
* Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Judith (Tate Britain collection)
* Portrait of an Officer (Tate Britain collection)
* Endymion Porter (Tate Britain collection)
* Mary Done (Grosvenor Museum, Chester)
*Richard Neville (National Portrait Gallery)
*Richard Fanshawe (Valence House Museum)
* Portrait of an Old and a Younger Man, Probably John Taylor and John Denham (Courtauld)

The display focuses on the materials and techniques Dobson used during his short career, from his application of ‘dead colouring’ (an undercoat of monochrome or reduced colour) to the  apparent use of expensive paint in at least one of the pictures. The Tate has conducted scientific tests on the three in its own collection, and wall-cards take a microscopic look within the brushstrokes, as well as revealing where x-rays have shown alterations to the sitters’ poses, props or clothing.

For me, the most exciting part of the exhibition is the reunion of Dobson’s self-portrait with that of his wife, Judith, which, for nearly 300 years, hung side by side in the same house in Yorkshire until the property’s sale during the mid-20th century separated them.



Another painting that is well-worth seeing,  not least because it is the only one on display that isn’t normally seen in London, is that of Mary Done, below.

Mary Done

It probably dates from the mid 1630s, and displays the ‘dead colouring’ technique mentioned above, although it’s not clear if the end result was intended to be so, or if it is unfinished and more colour was to have been applied on top later. Readers familiar with Van Dyck will recognise the pose, which is reminiscent of his “Charles I in Three Positions” and supports the suggestion that Dobson had access to the King’s collection, taking away ideas for his own paintings, as above.

Although small, the display is a must-see, being the first in a long time that devotes an entire room (well, mid-sized alcove!) to the artist on his own, instead of grouping him with his contemporaries. There is also an informative, if brief, summary of the painter’s career and family life in Oxford during the Civil War. I did feel there was a missed opportunity here, however. The display relies too much on the most familiar of Dobson’s paintings, such as Endymion Porter and Richard Neville, when there are lesser-known gems that could have added even greater depth and understanding of the hardships Dobson faced as a war-time painter. For example, there are smaller works with thinly-applied paint that illustrate his dwindling supplies, and the difficulties sourcing canvases and paints within the Royalist-held city.

That said, what the Tate offers is a very welcome and well-curated display that will hopefully encourage newer viewers to take an interest in this artist, and to walk away wanting to see more!

* The Tate Britain website says that the Ashmolean’s copy of “Prince Rupert, Colonel Legge, and John Russell” is a part of this display, but at the time of my visit was not included.

Dobson exhibition on the way!

Exciting news! Tate Britain in London will be holding an exhibition on William Dobson from 29th October 2018 to 28th April 2019.

Endymion Porter c.1642-5 by William Dobson 1611-1646

The show, called “William Dobson: Artist of the Civil War” will apparently focus on the impact of the conflict on his work, looking at how conditions in the King’s Oxford headquarters showed in the paintings Dobson produced during the four years he lived there among the Royalist court. The Tate promises to display pictures from its own collection – presumably to include those of Endymion Porter (above) and Dobson’s wife Judith – as well as works from private collections.

There have been a handful of small displays of Dobson’s works over the years, usually with no more than two or three canvases together at any one time, but nothing of this size has been held since the major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 1983. The Tate haven’t said exactly which pictures are included, but as a large number of known works are in private hands and haven’t been seen in public since the NPG event, this is a rare and unmissable chance to see some of the pictures we’ve only ever seen in black and white in a catalogue (unless you were lucky enough to visit in 1983!).

Naturally, as one of Dobson’s biggest fans, I’m intending to visit as soon as possible – hopefully more than once! –  and will post a review as soon as I can. If any readers are able to pay a visit,  please get in touch and tell us what you think. We’d love to hear reviews!

In the meantime,  I’d like to add a shameless plug for my Dobson biography,  “The King’s Painter” (pub. 2016), which is available from the publisher Tyger’s Head Books,  HERE.  The current print run has almost sold out, but more copies are on the way.  Before ordering, please drop THB an email or DM via Twitter, to ensure availability. 🙂

Shakespeare Again?

In a previous post, we looked at the portraits of 17th century dramatists and playwrights, including the various surviving images of Shakespeare.

To add to this list, we now have the below portrait that is claimed to be a 17th century portrayal of the Bard, although the sellers offer no further information, such as provenance or an estimated date of completion, only that it is oil on board.


When compared to one of  two portraits believed most likely to have been painted from life, known as the ‘Chandos’ portrait, this one isn’t far off the mark, and may well have been copied from it.


That said, I’m not entirely convinced the new picture is 17th century at all. Allowing for the artistic licence that makes the sitter more brooding Hollywood vampire than the more ordinary looking fellow beneath, something about the style and finish of it doesn’t strike me as 1600s.  What do readers think?

You can view the sale page here.

The Pineapple King

In every era, there is an item or product that becomes a symbol of wealth or status. In the modern world this might be sports cars, expensive jewellery or the latest tech,  but in the 17th century and well into the late 18th, it was pineapple mania that had the aristocracy fighting each other to show off the exotic fruit at any opportunity. Pineapple prices went through the roof, so much so that they were often rented out for dinner parties, rather than purchased outright.

This social phenomenon explains the picture below, dating from around 1677, entitled “King Charles II being presented with a pineapple by the Royal Gardener, John Rose, in the formal gardens of an estate”.


Attributed to an artist of the British/English School, the symbolism is clear, with the gardener offering the coveted and valuable fruit to the monarch, although in close-up, Rose looks rather weary and pained. Perhaps he’s worn himself out trying to grow the foreign fruit in the unhelpful British climate?

The location is unclear. A label on the reverse claims it is “Dawney Court”, which, allowing for spelling, has been suggested as either Dorney Court in Windsor, or Dorney House in Surrey. Sir Oliver Millar, the art historian, believed the latter more likely, as there had been pine-pits constructed there. The label also gives the artist as one “Danckers”, but nothing more is known about him.

The two dogs,  although not rendered in great detail, are quite charming, and the artist, whoever he was, has captured Charles’s likeness well. It is Rose’s expression that grabs my attention the most, however. The more I look at it, the more I wonder if it’s actually his knees making him so uncomfortable before his king? With his right leg angled behind him, the pineapple in one hand, and his hat in the other, he may have quite a job standing up!

You can zoom in for a closer look at

Mr Brune

This mysterious portrait has just arrived online. It’s attributed to Gilbert Jackson, and the sitter is identified only by a hand-written name on the back of the canvas. Sadly nothing is known of Mr Brune, but from the richness of his clothing, and the fact that he could afford to commission a portrait, he must have been a man of some wealth and importance.


The seller has very helpfully provided larger images, including a close-up of the beautifully painted lace, something I know our clothing-expert readers will appreciate.  I’d also be fascinated to know whether his nose was always that crooked or if someone else broke it….!




It’s currently selling for £6,500 on Ebay, but I’m afraid if you’re seriously interested in bidding and live in Russia, you’ll have to collect it yourself….

Mr Brune on Ebay


I’ve done some quick research and found the below portrait of Charles Brune of Athelhampton, by Sir Peter Lely (©National Trust). Could he be the same man? The nose certainly fits! The first portrait, if a confirmed Jackson, would probably date to around the 1630s/1640s, whereas the Lely was painted c.1660-1665. What do readers think?

Charles Brune

The Lost Prince

Although our blog usually focusses on portraits painted with oils on canvas, today I wanted to share a beautiful likeness drawn on paper, using pencil and white chalk.

Prince Henry

Prince Henry Fredrick Stuart was the eldest son of King James I and Queen Anne of Denmark. Brother to the ill-fated Charles I, Henry was seen as the great hope for the future of the Stuart dynasty. Confident and assured, Henry was immensely popular and loved by the people, while his personal household was one of  learning, culture and art.

Tragically, Henry’s great promise was lost when he died of typhoid fever at the age of just 18, leaving a heartbroken nation in mourning. Surely no heir to the throne, except perhaps Prince Arthur, elder brother of King Henry VIII, has caused such a devastating change in the country’s fortunes and future, simply by dying young. Where Prince Arthur’s early death led, thanks to his brother’s subsequent succession, to the English Reformation and the split from the Pope in Rome, Henry’s death brought about the reign of younger brother Charles, whose lost grip on his nobility and Parliament led to the horrors of the English Civil Wars. How would the 17th century have unfolded had Prince Henry not fallen ill? We can only imagine how England’s landscape would look today had he lived.

This sketch, attributed to Constantino de’ Servi, was created around 1611. Until 2016 it was held in a private collection in France, and is now at the Weiss Gallery in London.

In need of some TLC

I sometimes wonder what goes through the mind of a sitter, as he poses in front of his chosen artist, watching them make the preliminary sketches on paper, or the first brushstrokes on canvas. In the case of those painted in the 16th or 17th centuries especially, did they ponder where their likeness would find itself, hundreds of years later? Did he or she hope it would survive the centuries unscathed, or were they unbothered, distracted by the more pressing concerns of the day?

A painting is always made more  interesting when its own history, and not just that of the sitter portrayed, offers up a question mark about its past, and sometimes it’s the overlooked and forgotten ones that offer the best stories.

Joseph Williamson

This dirty and neglected gentleman is Sir Joseph Williamson (1633-1701), an English MP whose other appointments included, among others, Fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford, a Secretary of State, President of the Royal Society, and Keeper of the King’s Library at Whitehall. He also made an appearance in Samuel Pepys’ diary.

The seller claims the picture came from a private Bedfordshire estate, and was for many years left in storage, gathering dust and taking damage to its original antique frame. For a man with such varied and important roles in the running of both his locality and the country itself, he may not have been amused to see how his self-assured and self-important portrait ended up.

I’d be curious to know how the unnamed Bedfordshire estate came to own the picture, and if it had any personal connection to Williamson. If it did, surely that would be a sadder neglect than if it had been simply purchased at auction. He isn’t alone, though. There will be countless similar images sitting in vaults, attics or warehouse storage today, their sitters’ original hopes or intentions for their posterity now long-forgotten.

Yet Williamson is luckier than most. This painted impression of him may have spent its recent years in obscurity, but unlike other such sitters whose identities are lost forever, his memory has survived into the modern age and lives on in the Mathematical School in Rochester bearing his name. He was also married to a cousin of the king, and later buried at Westminster Abbey,  so perhaps in this case some dust and cobwebs wouldn’t upset him too much.  History hasn’t forgotten him after all!

Sir Joseph’s portrait is for sale HERE  at the current asking price of just £366, with Sir Godfrey Kneller suggested as the artist. I’m not familiar enough with his work to judge, although it does seem a little understated and modest in comparison to the one below that is by Kneller, copyright of the Royal Society.  Perhaps if the first had a serious clean, though, we may be surprised!

Joseph Williamson by Kneller

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