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.

ShakespeareChandos
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!

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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?

Eliz_bohemia_2

The Royal Collection

Two New Auction Finds

Henry Watkinson

Henry Watkinson (1628-1712) was Chancellor of York in 1664.  I was certain I’d not heard of him before, but in an odd little twist, when I started researching him the search engine led me straight back to this blog! It seems I posted a picture of his wife, Elizabeth Jennings, two years ago, when she too turned up at auction (see blog entry Hidden Gems, 16th Apr 2016). Henry’s portrait is attributed only to a painter of the English School in the latter half of the 17th century.

 

royalist

This unidentified man is listed only as a Royalist officer of the Civil War, by a 17th century artist of the English School, and a follower of William Dobson.

The Rope Dancer

During the 1660s, Londoners seeking daredevil entertainment could enjoy the acrobatic skills of a number of performance troupes, one of which included a ‘rope dancer’ named Jacob Hall, who had distinguished himself as a performer on the tight-rope.

Dobson, William, 1611-1646; Jacob Hall, Rope Dancer (active 1668-1683)
Jacob Hall, Rope Dancer (active 1668-1683), by a follower of William Dobson,
©Trinity College, University of Oxford

The shows promised dancing and vaulting on the ropes, with a variety of feats and activity and agility, including “doing of somersets [somersaults] and flipflaps, flying over thirty rapiers, and over several men’s heads, and also flying through several hoops.”

Mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diary as boasting he had often fallen but never broken a limb, Hall was also a favourite of the Restoration court, with Charles II’s mistress, Lady Castlemain, the future Duchess of Cleveland, apparently falling in love with him after being neglected by the King.* He would be a regular visitor at her house, and received a salary for his favours.

He was at the peak of his fame in 1668, and would be memorialised in a number of late 17th century publications for ‘delighting London with his jumping’.

Source: Wikipedia

*Another narrator suggests the affair actually began at the encouragement of Charles himself, who considered the rope dancer a less embarrassing paramour for Lady Castlemain than Sir Henry Jermyn, whom he described as ‘the most ridiculous conqueror that ever was.’ I’d love to know more about that dispute!

 

Royal children?

This lovely pair are currently listed on an auction site together, with an attribution to Sir Godfrey Kneller. It is suggested they may be children of Charles II, namely the ill-fated James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, and his half-sister, Charlotte Jemima Henrietta Maria.

The date is around 1660.

CII

I don’t know whether or not the boy is indeed Monmouth, but I do love his dog!

Monmouth dog

There are close-up images on the auction site, including a couple of the odd shaped frames from the back.

View sale page

 

Picture of the Day

RichardBoyle
Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Burlington and 2nd Earl of Cork, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Born in 1612 in County Cork, Ireland, Richard Boyle was an Anglo-Irish nobleman who served as Lord High Treasurer of Ireland. A committed Royalist during the English Civil Wars, he fought for the King until Charles’s defeat. He was fined by the Commonwealth for his allegiance, before continuing his support of the monarchy into the reign of Charles II.

The NPG says this picture is possibly after Van Dyck, and based on a work of c. 1640. It caught my eye because, as with the portrait of Sir William Temple (see blog entry Sept 13th 2017), it displays a simple elegance while using only limited colours or shades. Painted in mostly muted browns, it has a straightforward composition with no extraneous props or embellishments to distract from the sitter’s direct gaze.

Another portrait of Boyle, also after Van Dyck but this time by the artist Jonathan Richardson the elder, is at Knole, in Kent (National Trust, on loan from the trustees of the Sackville estate). It is dated after 1685.

Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Burlington (1612 ¿ 1697/98) (after Van Dyck) by Jonathan Richardson the elder (London 1665 ¿ London 1745)

A hidden portrait at Fawley Court

Some time in the mid-1860s, it is claimed, a civil engineer and a colleague began structural alterations to the roof and rooms of the ancient manor at Fawley Court, in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.  Hidden in the oak timbering of the roof,  they found various items they believed had been concealed  by the family who lived there, stashed out of sight during the fighting and occupation of Fawley during the Civil War.  Behind some old oak panelling in the study, they found this painting.

William Whitelock

It is initialled “A.G. 1670 Sir William Whitelock Fawley Court”.

On the accompanying piece of paper, written in 1901, the unnamed engineer tells us that Fawley and another nearby manor,  Phyllis Court, were owned by the Whitelock family, its most famous member being the 17th century Parliamentarian and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal,  Bulstrode Whitelock.  Our finder says he compared the portrait with that of Sir William Whitelock, Bulstrode’s brother, and decided they were indeed the same man.  Sir William was in fact Bulstrode’s second son, not his brother, but given that the report was made in 1901, I think we can allow the writer – not a historian by trade – a little leeway!

Both the painting and its written history are on auction for £500 on ebay.

View sale

 

 

La Belle Stuart

If you’ve ever held a modern UK 50p piece, you’ll be familiar with the image of Britannia, seated with her spear and shield, appearing as the personification of Britain itself.

50p

What many do not know is the story behind it, and the real woman whose image would still be gracing our money over 350 years later.

When Charles II wanted to cast a medal in commemoration of his victory over the Dutch in 1664, the model he chose was a woman who had famously refused to become his mistress, and bucked the usual Restoration trend by saying no to the King’s advances.

Her name was Frances Stuart, and her father was a physician at Henrietta Maria’s court in exile. After the Restoration she returned to England, serving first as maid of honour to Henrietta Maria, and then lady-in-waiting to Charles’s new wife, Catherine of Braganza. Nicknamed “La Belle Stuart”, various 17th century commentators declared her the most beautiful woman they ever saw, including (unsurprisingly) Samuel Pepys, and besides the rebuffed monarch her suitors included the Duke of Buckingham and George Digby, son of the Earl of Bristol.

There are several portraits of Frances surviving today, including probably the most famous one (featured here previously), painted by Peter Lely and now in the Royal Collection.

Frances Stewart Richhmond

 

Frances Stewart 2
By Willem Wissing, 1687 ©historicalportraits.com

Frances Stewart vdv
By Jan van der Vaart ©National Portrait Gallery, London

I found the below painting on an auction site, named as Frances Stuart and attributed to Sir Peter Lely, although I think that’s unlikely, given the one above. Peter Lely was famous for his portrayal of glamorous, beautiful women. If Frances Stuart was as ravishing as it is claimed, I think Sir Peter could have done better than this uncharacteristically demure attempt!

Ebay Frances Stewart

Although Frances was a famed beauty, she wasn’t known for being all that bright. One man said of her that “it would be difficult to image less brain combined with more beauty”. Ouch. She married the Duke of Richmond and Lennox in 1667 and contracted disfiguring smallpox in 1669, but she continued to be a feature of court life and remained in the affections of the King.

So the next time you have a 50p in your pocket, turn it over and take a look at La Belle Stuart. She may have been, in words I once heard used for a mistress of Louis XV, ‘as beautiful as an angel, but as stupid as a basket’, but since she managed to avoid falling into bed with the notoriously skirt-chasing Charles II, she must have had some good sense!

Looking Good at the SNPG

SNPexhibition

A reader has kindly brought my attention to a new exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, which, among other themes, looks at ‘the elaborate hairstyles and fashions of the courtiers and cavaliers of the 16th and 17th centuries’.

With the newly saved-for-the-nation Van Dyck self-portrait as a centrepiece, the exhibition comprises 28 works of art from different eras, exploring male appearance and fashion to the present day.

Alongside the great Sir Anthony himself, and the doomed Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur of Aubigny (below, from National Portrait Gallery, London), contemporary Daniel Mytens also makes an appearance with his 1629 portrait of the 1st Duke of Hamilton. John Michael Wright’s Sir William Bruce is on display as well.

NPG 5964; Lord George Stuart by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

 

Mytens Hamilton
James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606-1649, Daniel Mytens, ©SNPG

Bruce by Wright
Sir William Bruce, c.1630-1710, Architect. By John Michael Wright. ©SNPG

I’ve heard mixed reviews about this exhibition, but if I were in the area I’d probably make the effort, if just for another look at Sir Anthony’s impressive self-portrait on its only stopover in Scotland at the end of a three year tour. If any readers have the opportunity to visit, let us know what you think!

The SNPG website has further details here and there is a review of the show here.

The exhibition runs until 1st October 2017.

John Souch

Leaving the mid-17th century and the Civil War artists for a bit, I’d like to look at an earlier English painter who was active in the north-west of England during the earlier years of the 1600s.

John Souch was Born in Ormskirk, Lancashire, in around 1593/4,  and in 1607 was apprenticed to a Herald painter in Chester. Although Herald painters mainly worked on pieces such as coats of arms and other heraldic devices, they also branched out into portraiture to satisfy the needs of local gentry who wanted a visual record of betrothals, births, etc.  Souch appears to have mastered the skills of both crafts, and joined the Chester Painters and Stainers Company in 1616, embarking on a successful and active career where he travelled to clients’ houses for heraldic and portraiture commissions.

Perhaps his most recognised work is that of “Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his Wife”, painted in 1635 and now held by Manchester Art Gallery:

SirThomasAstonAtWife'sDeathbed

It is very clearly a mourning painting, the living sitters wearing funerary black, adorned with black ribbons and mourning jewellery. The skull beneath Aston’s hand is a common symbol of death and mortality, while the inscriptions also refer to loss, one saying “The seas can be defined, the earth can be measured, grief is immeasurable”.

What I like about Souch is that he had the ability to move between the straightforward and uncluttered – some sitters standing alone in front of a plain background, without ornamentation or objects save perhaps a ring or a flower – to complicated scenes such as Aston’s, which were filled with symbolism and meaning.

Here are some more examples:

Souch, John, c.1593-1645; Portrait of an Unknown Couple
Portrait of an Unknown Couple, painted 1640. ©Grosvenor Museum Chester
Souch, John, c.1593-1645; Portrait of a Woman
Portrait of a woman, traditionally said to be Lucy Hutchinson, wife and biographer of Colonel Hutchinson, Governor of Nottingham Castle. c. 1643, ©National Army Museum

Souch, John, c.1593-1645; Portrait of a Man
Portrait of a man, traditionally said to be Colonel Hutchinson, Parliamentarian and Governor of Nottingham Castle. c.1643, ©National Army Museum

George Puleston (?) c.1625-30 by John Souch 1594-1644 or 5
George Puleston(?), date not given, ©Tate

Finally, my personal favourite (and ancestor!), Sir Pelham Corbet, painted c.1634. Sir Pelham was a Royalist of Leigh and Albright-Hussie in Shropshire. He was captured at Shrewsbury but appears to have survived the war and died around 1660.

Pelham Corbet

Souch himself was recorded by the Chester Guild as dead by 1645, and it has been suggested he may have been a Royalist, and died in Chester following the siege by the Parliamentarian army.

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