Is this King James II?

A reader has kindly alerted me to a late 17th century miniature that is coming up for auction.

Painted by Peter Cross (1645-1724), it dates from around 1685, and apart from a few minor wear issues, appears to be in very good condition for its age.

Miniature said J2

He looks like a typical late Restoration gentleman, but on the reverse it is written that he is not just an ordinary man, but royalty, in the form of “James, Duke of York”, later King James II. Who wrote the label is unknown, but doubts exist about the claim thanks to, of all things, the size of his nose.

King James II was known to have a rather large and unflattering nose, while this man’s is quite ordinary and inoffensive.

Here’s James’s…

James II nose

I would have to agree that the miniature is unlikely to be James, and the label most likely added by some unknown scribe in hope more than certainty, but it is a lovely picture all the same! I hope it finds a good home when it sells in a few days.

Camden New Journal

Hampstead Auctions 

Now showing at NPG London

I had a happy morning in London today (not something I can often claim…), on a visit to the National Portrait Gallery to see a very special painting.

You might remember that William Dobson’s earliest self-portrait, which had been in private hands since it was painted, reappeared last year at auction and was sold for nearly £1m. I had been concerned that it would go abroad and into another private collection, never to be seen again, but thankfully that didn’t happen, and the owner has now generously lent it to the NPG so that everyone can go and see it.

WD at NPG2

It really is a remarkable portrait when seen in person, and easily grabs your attention thanks to the intricate gold frame and those expressive Dobson eyes that follow you around the room. What I find most fascinating, and I’ve never seen this before, is that if you look closely at the left side of his face (the viewer’s left, Dobson’s right), you can see the slight distortion that appears when you look at a face in a mirror. You know how the symmetry is always slightly ‘off’ when you view someone’s reflection? Dobson seems to have added this to his portrait, so that one side – particularly the nose – is ever so slightly tilted, giving an intriguing little hint into how he worked. I can just see him, sitting at his easel with paint brushes and a mirror…

Maybe I’m imagining things? If you have the chance to visit the gallery,  let me know if you see it too!

An Unhappy Lady?

This portrait caught my attention on an auction site, because of the sitter’s unusually sombre expression. Is she sad? Bored? Annoyed? Whoever the artist was – an unnamed painter of the English School, acording to the website – they’ve really captured a mood, whether it was genuine, or merely a case of artistic licence.

Often, sitters’ expressions can easily be discerned as proud, arrogant, or uncertain (think of the worried face of Charles I, captured by Dobson), but this lady’s face is quite enigmatic, so that it’s hard to know whether the painter wanted to convey a sense of melancholy over some unexplained sadness in her life, or if she was just in a grumpy mood on the day she sat for the portrait and the artist merely painted what he saw.

There is also something strange about the canvas. It is described as an oval, but it looks more like two pieces have been glued together, and the join inexpertly painted over, possibly by a different (later?) painter. Could the portrait have started life as a more regular square or rectangular canvas, and been cut down for some convenience of the owner? If so, perhaps there were originally more clues as to her identity, and to the cause of her sadness.



Adopt a Painting!

Ferens Art Gallery in Hull have been promoting a wonderful project that allows the public to  support and preserve the treasures in its collection.  The “Adopt a Painting” scheme means art-lovers can help fund the repairs, cleaning and conservation of their chosen work.

In honour of William Dobson’s birthday on 4th March, art critic and super-fan, Waldemar Januszczak, has adopted Ferens’ Dobson portrait of the musician, William Lawes.


The gallery’s press release says that the picture has already been sent away for restoration, and the newly conserved canvas will be returned to display in the summer.

Schemes such as this are a fantastic way to help preserve our artistic heritage, especially in times when funding and support for the arts are seriously under threat.  Well done to Ferens for championing it! If only more institutions would consider similiar ideas, how much more of our nation’s artworks could be given that much-needed lifeline.

What a great birthday present for Mr Dobson!

Press Release

Sir Thomas Monson

At the beginning of the 17th century, a family from South Carlton in Lincolnshire was rising to impressive heights in political and court life. Sir John Monson had been Sheriff of the county, his younger son was an admiral in the navy, and another son, Thomas, had rapidly moved up the ladder of power to become, under King James I, Keeper of the King’s Armour at Greenwich, Master of the Armoury at the Tower of London, and Master Falconer to the King.

The portrait below was painted in 1610 by an unknown English artist.


Although Monson’s achievements were impressive, it was his involvement in one of the scandals of the 17th century for which he is better known, and which ultimately destroyed both his career and his reputation. In 1613 courtier Sir Thomas Overbury found himself in dangerous waters when attempting to come between his old friend, fellow courtier Sir Robert Carr, and Carr’s lover, the married Frances Howard, Countess of Essex. Through various intrigues and manipulations, said to have been arranged by Howard herself to stop his interference, Overbury found himself locked up in the Tower, where he would die under suspicious circumstances later that year.

“The Overbury Affair”, as it became known,  had all the ingredients of a bestselling whodunnit: murder, misdirection, an illicit affair, and in true 17th century style, several imprisonments and executions, before it was over. In the subsequent investigation and infamous trial, Frances Howard was the chief suspect, and several others were implicated in the plot to have Overbury killed.  All six alleged conspirators, including Carr and Howard, were found guilty and sentenced to death, although the well-connected lovers were later pardoned.

And what of Thomas Monson? His part in the scandal may have been the most unfortunate and unintended. His position working at the Tower saw him pulled into the investigation and interrogated as a seventh plotter, and he spent many months imprisoned before he was released due to a lack of evidence. His finances and reputation were ruined, however, and he never recovered them before his death in 1641.

I find this portrait quite a melancholy one.  On the one hand, the inclusion of the hawk shows his role as falconer to the King was one he was rightly proud of, and it would have been commissioned to show off his position and status as a trusted member of the Court; but look at it again with hindsight, and it illustrates all that he lost thanks to that  scandalous affair, for which he very likely bore no guilt at all.

Wet paint?

Here’s something a bit different. In 2011, this picture was sold at Christie’s in London, achieving the unremarkable price of £938.


What is remarkable is the story of survival that apparently lies behind it. The sitters are unknown, but it was listed as a family portrait by someone of the English School in the 17th century. If you can’t read the inscription, it says:

‘This oil painting washed ashore at Rottingdean with other wreckage from the Australian Ship “Simla”, run down by the ship City of Lucknow, Feb 25th 1884.’

A quick internet search reveals that the Simla was on its way from London to Sydney when it collided with the City of Lucknow near The Needles on either December 25th 1883, or in January or February 1884. Reports differ as to the date. She sank off the Isle of Wight, with the loss of 20 crew, while  survivors were rescued  by the City of Lucknow and another steamer, named Guernsey.

We often wonder what stories an old painting can tell, hanging on a wall for centuries, silently watching history take place in front of it. What tales could this one tell? It not only saw history, it actively took part in it, travelling on a ship, perhaps being taken to a new home in Australia, when the vessel sank beneath it, and it drifted amongst other wreckage before being saved and brought ashore.

There are so many questions to answer. Who owned it at the time of the sinking, and why was it being taken so far across the sea?  Who are the family depicted? What date was it painted? What happened to the canvas after it was rescued, and where had it been prior to the sale in 2011?

The Christie’s auction page gives no further information than the above, apart from its size (12 7/8 x 22 1/8 in. / 32.7 x 56.2 cm) and that it is oil on panel.

It makes me wonder about other 17th century art that may not have been so lucky, attempting similar journeys to this one, but ending up at the bottom of the sea rather than on somebody’s wall. What is most moving, is that the painting may well be the only tangible reminder that this family even existed. Perhaps it held pride of place in their home, and was passed down through the generations as a precious heirloom. We may never know where it came from, or the names of the sitters,  but thanks to the watery rescue of a piece of canvas 200 years later, the memory of that one family was also kept alive.

Picture of the Day…


Today’s picture comes from the collection at the Ashmolean in Oxford. Our sitter is John Lowin, who was a celebrated actor and associate of William Shakespeare, and managed the King’s Players from 1623-1642.  It is inscribed 1640, but no artist is attributed.

There is a little more information here: John Lowin

Incidentally, if you’re ever in Oxford, I would really recommend a visit to the Ashmolean. It’s a wonderful mix of art and archaeology, and they put on many excellent exhibitions that easily challenge the insane crowds and stress at the London galleries. As an added bonus, their cafe also serves an excellent cheese and onion quiche!

Witness to an Execution

On 30th of January 1649, King Charles I of England stood on a temporary scaffold built outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall in London. He had been charged with treason by his enemies in Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, and now faced his own execution in front of a massed crowd in the street below.

The King’s death has been studied and discussed ever since, but it is not Charles that I wanted to look at on this sombre anniversary. Standing with him on the scaffold was the Bishop of London, William Juxon, who would become Archbishop of Canterbury at the Restoration in 1660. Juxon was respected and trusted by Charles I, who selected him to attend that day and administer the last rites.

There are a few known portraits of Juxon, although few that I’ve found are of high quality, or by known artists. Lambeth Palace has several, including the below from 1633, attributed only to the British (English) School:

Another, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, is said to be a copy of a 1640 original, both artists unknown:


Next is a copy after Van Dyck, from St John’s College, University of Oxford:


The final portrait, from the Captain Christie Crawfurd English Civil War Collection, has the curious attribution of ‘circle of Robert Walker’. I’m not convinced, but you can make up your own minds! Unlike all of the other portraits, which are oil on canvas, this one is oil on paper laid on panel, and as with most of the Christie Crawfurd Collection, no date is given.


Soon after the King’s death, Juxon was deprived of the bishopric by Cromwell, and went into retirement until recalled to public life by Charles II a decade later. He held the position of Archbishop of Canterbury until his death in 1663.

Happy Anniversary!

Our blog is 1 year old today! What started as both a place for me to ramble about my love of 17th century British portraiture, and an experiment to see if anyone else was even interested in the subject, has turned into a fascinating little corner of the web, with a growing collection of images from the period, and some geat discussions on everything from provenance mysteries to period fashion.

So a big thank you to everyone who has stopped by to read (and hopefully enjoy!) my posts, here and on Facebook, and especially to those who have left a comment or two and started an exchange of ideas. I’d love to see more comments and new posters joining in, even if it’s just to say hello!

If you have any thoughts on how we can do even better in our second year, please do get in touch. Suggestions for post topics, discoveries, information on artists/sitters, exhibitions,  sales, etc – always gratefully received.

One reader suggested a look at the painter John Souch, so he will feature soon, and I’m hoping to share plenty more 17th century discoveries from across the art world as they happen.

I’ll finish with this slightly blurry snap of Van Dyck and Dobson reunited in London’s National Portrait Gallery, at a recent exhibition on Sir Anthony and early self-portraiture in Britain. The two have a long history together, having been purchased at the turn of the 18th century by the historian Richard Graham. The paintings and their remarkable frames were in the same collection for 300 years, until Sir Anthony’s was successfully purchased by the gallery in 2014.  The Dobson is currently based at the National Trust’s Osterley Park.


A lesson in knowing your art!

I was trawling the internet today, looking for subjects to include in my next blog, and I came across this painting on a UK auctioneer’s website.


I immediately recognised him as Sir William Killigrew, uncle of the artist Anne, who featured in a recent blog entry. This is clearly a later copy of Van Dyck’s original, now held at the Tate Gallery:


It’s definitely the same man, isn’t it? Or perhaps not, according to the gallery which sold the first picture as “A French Cavalier”. A cavalier, maybe, but certainly not French! It’s listed as a portrait by the 19th century English school.

I know we should give smaller auctioneers some leeway when attributing paintings, especially when they may not be specialist in a particular era or genre, but the Van Dyck is hardly an obscure or unknown picture. Perhaps if they’d known they were selling an admittedly poor copy of a Van Dyck original of a member of a well known English family, rather than some random French bloke, they may have got more than £190 for it!

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