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.

WalterRalegh

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:

thekingspainter@gmail.com

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.

Uniddmanincercos

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.”

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:

Lot-122-Portrait-of-Queen-Henrietta-Maria

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.

WandJ

 

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.

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