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

Sir Neville and Lady Catlin

This serious-looking couple are currently on sale together. Attributed to John Hayls and dated to around 1658, these pictures may have been marriage portraits for Neville Catlin, a landowner and politician from Norfolk, and his first wife Dorothea, a descendant of the famous Killgrew family.


Sadly the marriage didn’t last long, as Dorothea is said to have died early. Sir Neville, son and brother of Civil War Royalists, would marry twice more,  serving in the Norfolk militia at the Restoration, and later as Deputy Lieutenant for Norfolk and Suffolk. An opponent of the Catholic King James II, and of the repeal of penal laws against Catholics, Sir Neville was stripped of some of his offices, refusing to sit next to Catholics in Parliament when his posts were restored in 1688. He retired from politics in 1690, and died in 1702 at his home of Wingfield Castle in Suffolk.

A more extensive biography is available on the auction site HERE.



The Playwrights

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, some of the greatest dramatists in the English language were at work in the London theatres. William Shakespeare wasn’t the only writer to see his plays come to life on the stage, yet today his fame vastly overshadows his contemporaries, and names such as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher are (unfairly, to many minds) less familiar to the modern ear.

We may have heard of some of their works, such as The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Beaumont), or Doctor Faustus (Marlowe), but what did they themselves look like? An endless debate rages on over the true face of Shakespeare, with only a handful of portraits generally accepted as probably of the Bard. The most famous of these is known as the Chandos portrait, after a previous owner.

Produced around 1600-1610, it is claimed to have been painted from life, and may be by an artist named John Taylor, an important member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company. An interesting fact for your next pub quiz: this was the first picture purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in London, after it was founded in 1856. The portrait bears the record number NPG1.

The next most recognised and studied of the early playwrights must be Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, whose mysterious life and death often threaten to steal the dramatic thunder from the stories he produced on stage. Although he doesn’t quite fit the remit of a 17th century blog, having died a few years earlier in 1593, I think he warrants a mention as he was a close contemporary and professional influence on the early Jacobean theatrical circle.

Kit Marlowe
This anonymous portrait is said to be of Marlowe, although as with Shakespeare’s images, there is fierce disagreement as to the true identity of the sitter. The picture is owned by Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where Marlowe was a student. It dates from c.1585, and is the only known painting with any arguable claim on his likeness.

John Fletcher (1579-1625) was one of the most important and prolific playwrights in Jacobean London, having written numerous plays in his own name, and in famed collaboration with Francis Beaumont. He is known to have also worked with Shakespeare and others. John Fletcher
This anonymous portrait of Fletcher was painted around 1620, and is the only known portrait taken from life. It is painted in oil on oak panel. It is on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

The supposed face of Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) is known mainly from this line engraving by George Vertue, the earliest surviving version dating from 1712 (©National Portrait Gallery). It was presumably copied from a lost – or hopefully just misplaced! – earlier portrait in oils.

Francis Beaumont

Finally, but by no means least in importance, we have Ben Jonson (1572-1637), the writer, poet, actor and literary critic, whose influence on  poetry and theatre since the 17th century means he is generally regarded as the most important English dramatist after Shakespeare.  The below portrait, painted c.1617 can be found at (yes, you guessed it!) the NPG in London. The artist is Abraham Blyenberch.

Ben Jonson

Other names that deserve a mention include Thomas Dekker, John Webster and Thomas Middleton, but I was unable to find good pictures or engravings of them. Suggestions welcome!

Picture of the Day

Portrait of a girl

This unidentified “Portrait of a Girl” is part of the Royal Collection, and dates from c.1615-1618. The collection attributes the picture to the British School, in the style of Paul van Somer (1576-1621). Although the frame states the sitter is James I’s daughter Elizabeth [Stuart], Queen of Bohemia, we can’t know when the inscription was added, and the Royal Collection gives no name, saying only that the picture was ‘formerly’ known as Elizabeth. No alternative identity has been suggested.

For comparison, here’s a portrait of Elizabeth at 7 years old in 1603 (© Royal Museums Greenwich), by Robert Peake the Elder. What do you think?


The Royal Collection

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