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.

Leave a comment


  1. Delighted you got to see it! And astonished it is so tiny. I was expecting something more like the great NPG one. Sorry I haven’t commented for a while, been moving house (blech).

    I wonder if Dobson saw the Van Dyck itself, or the portrait of a man in three positions (by Lorenzo Lotto, iirc?) that Charles owned and which seems to have been the model for it? Imagine if he’d seen both!


    • It really does raise fascinating questions about William’s pre-Oxford career. The Tate says it was the Endymion Porter that used expensive paint, and with that not certainly dated, they ask if it suggests William was already working for the King and getting a well-paid before they went to Oxford? It’s possible, but I’m more inclined to think it was painted in Oxford. More research still needed. Perhaps another exhibition? 😉

      I hope the house-move went ok? It’s always so stressful but a relief when it’s done! I’ve recently started a new job, so I’ve been a bit all over the place too. All settling down now though, thank goodness!


      • Glad your new job is going well! So much upheaval in both those changes. The move went well, thanks! Still lots to do, getting new furniture (I have no bookcases!!) unpacking and making the place into a home. But at least this is winding-down stuff.

        I had always assumed the Porter was painted in Oxford, if only because of his age – he looks at least ten years older than in the double portrait Van Dyck painted (though that could be the strains of war, of course).

        Definitely another exhibition is needed – one where the two portraits can be compared!


  2. Susanne

     /  November 7, 2018

    I also expected more paintings to be on view. But you got to see it and that is what matters. Anything Dobson needs to be supported.

    There is one thing though, you list a portrait of Richard Lovelace whereas Tate lists one of Sir Richard Fanshawe, which one was on display? Our favourite poet or the man with the large nose and the fabulous dog?


    • Oops, well spotted, thanks! That was a typo. I meant Fanshawe of course! Will fix tonight! 😊

      Completely agree that anything Dobson needs to be supported. I sat in the room for a bit and it was lovely to see other people coming to have a look and even take photos and videos. Every little bit helps!



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