Van Dyck painting stolen in Oxford

In the kind of news that makes my blood boil, we’re being told that thieves have stolen Van Dyck’s c.1616 “Soldier on Horseback” from the Christ Church Picture Gallery at the  University of Oxford.


Also stolen were works by Salvator Rosa and Annibale Carracci. An investigation is under way, but who knows if we’ll ever seen them again,  given the sad history of art theft. You only have to look at the empty spaces left as memorials on the walls of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, after the 1990 break-in that deprived us of  great works by Vermeer and Caravaggio, to see that art theft is about so much more than just the stealing away of a canvas.

It’s too early to suggest why these particular works were taken, but I’ve read several books about the murky world of art theft, and there are countless reasons people commit this kind of crime. ‘Artnapping’ is one, where a piece is held until a ransom is paid. At other times, pieces are stolen to order, or perhaps because someone just wants it on their wall to hoard and keep for themselves. Much of the time, however, rare and valuable works are taken to use as collatoral against loans, or as part of underworld or gang-related crimes. They are rarely, if ever, seen again outside those circles.

The loss of any art is heartbreaking because it is the nature of art to be fleeting, the capturing of a moment in time that will never be repeated. Van Dyck’s soldier is a study, a preliminary sketching of thoughts for a bigger commission. His genius shows here, in his use of quick black lines and dapples of white to create the impression of a man on horseback without needing to detail every curve or muscle. With just two colours (I know, it can be argued that black and white aren’t actually colours, but that’s another argument), the eye fills in the rest. The stirrups are barely there, and the horse’s features fade even further as your eyes move downwards. Nevertheless, Van Dyck has told a story with his few lines, creating movement and drama.

Stealing such a work from a public institution is stealing from all of us. With every theft, our ability to learn, and to study and understand the painter and their world is lessened, as we can no longer stand in front of the canvas and fit the pieces together for ourselves, we can only view the brushstrokes through inferior copies, one step removed from the precious item the artist actually touched. That connection is so important in art, which makes taking it away from us all the more despicable, especially if simple greed is the motive.

We can only hope that whoever is chasing down the Oxford thieves will catch them soon, before the works disappear into the grubby underworld of stolen art, but unless there is a lead on who is behind it, and why, I’m not at all optimistic they will be retrieved. Boston is still waiting for its lost art to come home, 30 years after the theft. Will Christ Church have to wait that long? Let us hope not.

BBC News

1666 – A Year of Heroes and Storytellers

My latest book indulgence is “1666: Plague, War and Hellfire” by Rebecca Rideal, which tells of the events that took place during one extraordinary year in the reign of King Charles II.  I realised as I was reading that a lot of the main protagonists during this period left portraits, so here are some of the faces that shaped, or simply managed to survive, 1666.

The first of the three notorious events that year was the return of plague.  Ever present, it reared its head again in 1665 and continued into the early months of 1666, causing panic, desperation and evacuation from the capital before the epidemic finally died down, having killed a reported 68000 people in London alone.

When Cambridge University was temporarily closed because of the sickness, one student survivor who returned home to wait it out was the scientist and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton, whose famous apple story came from this period of exile. How different would scientific history look today, had he become just a plague statistic?

1666 Newton by Kneller
Sir Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller, 1689

The second big news of the year was the continuation of the Anglo-Dutch Wars, a series of naval battles between the English and the Dutch, with reports of its victories and (often embarrassing) losses keeping the printing presses of the capital occupied for several years.

Many big names were present at these encounters, including famed Civil War Royalist and cousin to the King, Prince Rupert….

1666 Rupert
Prince Rupert c.1665, by Peter Lely (NMM Greenwich)

…and George Monck, 1st Duke of Albermarle, who had been integral to the plot to restore Charles II to the throne, and now served the King in numerous roles. During the plague outbreak in London he had remained in the city to keep order, before heading  out to face the Dutch with Prince Rupert and the English fleet.

1666 George Monck
George Monck, 1st Duke of Albermarle, by Sir Peter Lely
after 1660 (National Galleries of Scotland)

It was the third major event of the year, however, that has left the greatest mark in England’s history. Most people will know the outline of events: a September fire in Thomas Farriner’s bakery blazed for 5 days and burned down a considerable part of the city. With citizens yet again fleeing the capital, and little effort employed to fight the fire, it fell to the King himself, and his brother, James Duke of York (future King James II), to quell the panic, take charge and save their city.

1666 KC2
King Charles II by unknown artist, c.1665 (NPG London)

1666 JDOY
James II when Duke of York, by Peter Lely, c, 1665 (Royal Coll.)

James was put at the head of the relief effort when the Lord Mayor panicked and fled his post, and the royal brothers spent the next few days amongst the people, working alongside them to create fire-breaks and keep order until the flames were finally under control.

The many dramas and everyday tales of 1666 are known to us today, thanks to the presence of two great diarists and social commentators, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, who survived both plague and fire, and whose diaries provide vivid accounts of life and death during the Restoration.

1666 Pepys
Samuel Pepys, c, 1690, attrib. John Riley (NPG London)

1666 John Evelyn
John Evelyn by Godfrey Kneller, 1687

In the great span of history, England has suffered fire and destruction, feast and famine, and war and peace in abundance, but few years (excepting perhaps those of the 20th century’s two World Wars)  can claim to have hosted so much upheaval and uncertainty all at once?

A Christmas Puzzle for our Readers

As readers will know by now, I love a good art mystery, and unravelling this one might simply depend on good eyesight and a talent for reading old handwriting.

soldier Dec197

Described by the seller only as ‘a military commander’ of the English Civil War, there are no identifying features within the image itself, by use of props, background or clothing. From the pared down simplicity of his dress, not to mention his rather forbidding expression, I’d hazard a guess that he may be intended as Parliamentarian, but that can only be speculation.

Although dated by the seller to the 17th century, I could be persuaded it is a later creation. Something in the execution suggests a later copy, or perhaps a work of the imagination, depicting a generic, fictional soldier of the period?

The answer may lie (or be hinted at) in the old label and its faded, incomplete inscription on the reverse, which the seller has kindly included and invited others to decipher.



I think I can read ‘his son Col.[?] Robert’ on the lower portion, and perhaps ‘1689’ in the top one, but that’s all. If anyone has ideas as to the rest, please do let me know in the comments section. I’d love to know what readers think!

Ebay auction page

Faith Unto Death

The way in which 17th century artists depicted death or dying is a strangely fascinating study.  It provides an insight into people’s innermost thoughts, feelings and beliefs about their own mortality in the 1600s.  Whether it be imagined deathbed scenes,  mourning clothes and jewellery, or the inclusion of dead relatives amongst sitters still living (at least at the time of painting), we can learn much about how this inevitable part of life was understood at the time.

Take this very unsual deathbed portrait of Sir Edward Widdrington, painted by an unknown artist of the English School, circa 1671.

Edward Widdrington

Offered for sale at auction in 2016, the catalogue describes this painting as:

A full-length study of the deceased Sir Edward Widdrington, Bt., wearing a friar’s habit, recumbent in bed, a table by his feet with crucifix and candles…..painted in the habit of a Friar of the Third Order, that is to say a patron rather than a religious or lay brother. Therein lies its uniqueness as a proud display of Catholic recusancy in a time of persecution.

It continues:

Sir Edward Widdrington of Cartington was a member of an ancient Northumbrian family who gave their name to (or took their name from) the village of Widdrington near Morpeth, Northumberland. A strongly Royalist family during the 17th century they were rewarded with Baronetcies in England and Nova Scotia.

The anonymous artist has given Sir Edward an expression of peaceful serenity, with no hint of pain or suffering in his face, and in his colouring and pose he seems more asleep than recently deceased. I particularly like the comfortable, over-sized pillow, which only adds to the feeling of respect and love for Sir Edward that those who commissioned the picture must have wanted to convey.

The painting’s provenance shows it descended within the family, and remained with them until its sale only a few years ago.  Where did it hang, once the paint was dry? Was it placed defiantly in an outer room of the family home, where any visitor might see and understand its Catholic meaning? Or was it kept privately,  safe from persecuting eyes, and created for his loved ones’ sight alone? A portrait was not an unusual item to have, but in such times of religious intolerance it would certainly have raised eyebrows for it to openly declare and celebrate the man’s faith, even after death.

Creases and Crinkles

I’m very fortunate that I live within driving distance of Oxford, and can visit the Ashmolean whenever I like.  Last week I was there on a birthday trip to see the latest Pompeii exhibition (highly recommended!), and  I never leave without saying hello to Prince Rupert  in the museum’s spectacular Dobson triple portrait, acquired a few years ago through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme (see earlier post here).

I always try to study a different part of the painting, and what stood out for me this time were the tablecoths at the centre of the canvas.

Dobson tablecloth2

The creases of the white cloth are so expertly painted, you could almost pick it up and fold it back into exactly the shape it was in before someone – perhaps one of the men? A housekeeper? – shook it out and laid it gently over the brown cloth beneath. I can even imagine the inevitable wine stains spoiling the pristine cloth, after the men have finished their toasts.

I love this period’s silks and draperies. For me, the 17th century was the real high point for the artistic skill of painting gowns, sleeves, sashes and, yes, tablecloths! In 1600s art we are spoiled for choice. Think of Lely’s famed ladies, clad in yards of rustling silks with their perfectly rendered creases and folds. You can almost hear the sitter standing up and shaking out her skirts, smoothing down the silk and swishing her way out of the room.

Catherine Braganza Lely
Catherine of Braganza, c.1663-1665, ©Royal Collection

Van Dyck, too, was superb at rendering cloths and rich materials on the canvas. Not only were the silks beautifully painted, so were the lace, ribbons and gauzy shawls of his wealthy sitters.

Frances Countess of Dorset 1637
Frances, Lady Buckhurst, later Countess of Dorset, c. 1637, ©Knole

And It wasn’t only the women who received this elegant treatment. Men, too, pose in glamorous slashed doublets, silk shirts, shiny cloaks and soft leather boots.

Stuart John Bernard
Lord John Stuart and his brother, Lord Bernard Stuart by Van Dyck, c. 1638, ©National Gallery, London

Courtauld poets
Portrait of an Old and Younger Man (John Taylor and John Denham), 1643, by William Dobson, ©The Courtauld Institute of Art

There are many examples of Van Dyck and Lely’s skill when it comes to painting clothes, but I’ve yet to find a tablecloth I like better than Dobson’s!

Is this Sir Walter Raleigh?

At an auction in Dorchester last month, a painting bought by an amateur art historian on eBay was sold for £7000. It had been auctioned before by Bonhams, in 2012, selling for a few thousands pounds as an unidentified cleric.

This time it went to the block (pun intended), as a lost portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, the ill-fated explorer and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, who was executed in 1618 for plotting against her successor, King James I.


Said to have been painted in 1613 while Raleigh was a prisoner in the Tower of London, there are several facts that support the identification of the sitter as Sir Walter.

The 17th century writer and antiquarian, John Aubrey, referred to “The Tower Portrait” in his famous book, Brief Lives, and subsequent analysis has shown that the portrait does date to that period. The black clothes might indicate he is in mourning for Prince Henry, the much loved heir to the throne, who had recently died, and the astronomical instrument by his right hand presumably refers to his occupation as a navigator and sailor.

At least one expert on Raleigh believes it to be him, although another argues that as Sir Walter was persona non grata by 1613, a condemned man locked away for treason against the monarch, it would be unlikely that he’d be granted permission to sit for a portrait.

While this may be true, I find it a rather weak argument, and stacked up against the other evidence supporting the identification, it looks like this may be a genuine rare discovery of a lost portrait, shedding a small but important light on the last days of a fallen hero.

“Lost Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh” (Telegraph)

Dorset Echo

The Flagmen of Lowestoft

I have previously made mention of this series of paintings by Sir Peter Lely, so after a reader request I thought we could take a closer look at the collection, and the men it portrays.

In late 1665, James, Duke of York, brother to King Charles II, commissioned Sir Peter Lely to paint portraits of the naval officers who had commanded the English fleet against the Dutch, during the battle of Lowestoft in June of that year. In total, Lely would paint 13 pictures of the Admirals and senior officers, or ‘Flaggmen’, as they were known.

Samuel Pepys visited Lely’s studio the next year and saw the paintings in various states of completion, noting the event in his diary:

“I to Mr. Lilly’s, the painter; and there saw the heads, some finished and all begun, of the Flaggmen in the late great fight with the Duke of Yorke against the Dutch. The Duke of Yorke hath them done to hang in his chamber, and very finely they are done indeed.”

A more recent critic wrote that:

“Strength, depth of character, and psychological interest characterize these portraits, in which Lely brings forth honest and direct likenesses, dramatic gestures, serious-mindedness, dignity and pride. Each portrait in the series is remarkably individual, with fresh and varied poses, costume, attributes and experiences”. (Brandon Henderson)

These portraits would become part of the Royal Collections, and in 1821, 11 were included in a group of paintings donated to become part of a naval gallery at the Greenwich Hospital, while two canvases, of Prince Rupert and Admiral Sir John Lawson, remained in the Royal Collection. Copies were made, however, and now reside at the National Maritime Museum, successor to the Greenwich Hospital’s collection, completing the set.

Here is the full series, including the two copies:

Flagmen Monck
George Moncke, 1st Duke of Albemarle


Flagmen Allin
Sir Thomas Allin, 1st Bt.


Flagmen Ayscue
Sir George Ayscue


Flagmen Berkeley
Sir William Berkeley


Flagmen Jordan
Sir Joseph Jordan


Admiral Sir John Harman
Admiral Sir John Harman


Flagmen Lawson
Sir John Lawson (copy)


Flagmen Myngs
Sir Christopher Myngs


Flagmen Penn
Sir William Penn


Flagmen Montagu
Edward Montague, 1st Earl of Sandwich


Flagmen Smith
Sir Jeremiah Smith


Flagmen Teddiman
Sir Thomas Teddeman


Flagmen Rupert
Prince Rupert of the Rhine (copy)

You can see all of the paintings in better detail over at the Royal Museums Greenwich website. Just enter ‘flagmen’ in the search box.

There is also a really great article HERE, discussing the  preservation and investigation works carried out on the canvases by the conservators at the museum.



Over To You!

Do you have a favourite 17th century portrait that you’ve been wanting to see featured here? I’d like to dedicate the next few posts to pictures that are special to our readers.

They can be by any artist and of any sitter, as long as they were painted in the 17th century in Britain or Ireland.  If you can provide an image (preferably jpeg) and are happy to send a copy by email, you can forward it to the blog’s address below and I’ll be in touch. Alternatively,  if you can point me towards a website that has a copy,  let me know in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

Eplain why it is your favourite picture. Is it the sitter, the artist, or a particular theme that caught your eye? I know we have readers who are experts in period fashion, the military, etc. Do you know anything about the history or provenance that can help tell its story? If you’re feeling particularly literary, you could even write your own entry around it and feature as a guest blogger.  Just get in touch!

You can send your suggestions to the site email below:

I hope to hear from you!

A Ceremonial Conundrum

As much as I enjoy finding portraits with fully-identified sitters, and learning all about their lives and histories, it can be just as fascinating when the person depicted is enigmatic and unnamed. In the case of the gentleman below, dated 1657 and labelled only as a portrait of a gentleman in ceremonial costume, the mystery is a particularly intriguing one.


Produced by an artist of the English School, our man is surrounded by clues to his identity, but not quite enough to pin him down. His ceremonial costume is impressive, but there’s no indication as to its purpose.

The main clue is the coat-of-arms in the upper right-hand corner. When this went to auction in 2017, the seller noted that the right side of the shield, which represents the female/wife, is apparently that of the Shrigley family in Cheshire. Frustratingly, the male side could refer to numerous English families, so unless the truth has been unravelled since the auction, we are left with a bit of a knotty problem!

What does his outfit represent? Is the staff significant? What appears to be a hat or headdress sits on a plinth or table by his left arm. It’s hard to make out its exact design, but do any other portraits have similar items to compare it with? The whole canvas seems a little grubby, and I wonder if anything relevant has been obscured by dirt or overpainting, particularly in the area behind his right shoulder. It does look like something is covered up at the top left – perhaps the edge of a door or screen.

Although we have an inscription for 1657 (which  in full reads ‘Etatis: 40/ Anno: 1657), to my mind the ruff seems a little dated. I’m no expert in the period’s fashions, but I feel it fits the earlier 1600s better than a time just a few years off the Restoration. Could one of our clothing-guru readers help here?

I’m sure this is a puzzle that could be solved, with a little creative research!

View on auction site

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.”

Neil Jeffares

Fairness, candour & curiosity – from finance to art history

NT Knole Conservation Team Blog

An insight into the weird and wonderful life of a National Trust Conservation Team at one of England's greatest houses.

Cryssa Bazos

17th Century Enthusiast

Warring Words

Writing about the English Civil War

Painted Eloquence

An art history blog

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