Storytelling at the Ashmolean

This is the painting I mentioned last week, that has found a happy new home at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.


It was acquired through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, whereby owners of significant works of art can surrender them to the UK government in exchange for their inheritance tax being written off. The work is then allocated to a public gallery or museum and beomes part of the national collection.  The Ashmolean put forward a bid to become the new hosts of the above portrait, with a very strong claim to be the best place for it. The triple portrait, made by William Dobson in the mid-1640s, was painted just a few streets away from where the Ashmolean stands today, in apartments Dobson was renting during the time King Charles and his entourage were resident in the city during the Civil War.

The sitter on the left is Prince Rupert, the King’s nephew and famed military commander. On the right is Colonel John Russell, an officer under Rupert. The man in the middle has been traditionally identified as a Colonel Murray, but the Ashmolean’s research has shown he is more likely to be Colonel William Legge, another Royalist officer and, from 1645, governor of Oxford.

The painting is significant because it relates to true events, after Rupert had fallen out of favour with the king for surrendering the city of Bristol to the Parliamentarians. The scene is full of symbolism, Dobson narrating in his own way Rupert’s enduring loyalty to the King despite their falling out.  You can read an in-depth study of it here.

The Ashmolean unveiled the portrait this week, and made it a centrepiece of their Live Friday event, celebrating the 400th birthday of founder Elias Ashmole. I was lucky enough to go, and thought it was a great success, with renactors parading through the streets, and actors at the museum playing figures such as King Charles, Prince Rupert and even William Dobson himself! What I found most important, though, from a 17th century art-lover’s perspective, was how many people crowded around the painting, watched the performances and seemed genuinely interested to know about the artist and the events in the 17th century. Hopefully Friday will have inspired people who may not ordinarily set foot in a museum or gallery to do so more often!

It also shows what a good idea the Acceptance in Lieu scheme is, bringing art out of the private realm where only a handful of people will see it, and into the public sphere where the whole world can enjoy it. Who can argue with that!



John Playford (maybe)

This week’s ebay find claims to depict a London gentleman named John Playford (1623-1686/7),  bookseller, publisher and composer.

Playford Jackson

It is attributed to Gilbert Jackson, whose life and works we looked at in a previous entry. I’m not a Jackson expert, but having compared this painting to Jackson’s known works, I’m sceptical. What do readers think?  The sitter and artist are identified by a label on the reverse, but something tells me it’s not original!

Playford Jackson reverse

As with most eBay art sales, no provenance or technical information is given, but at least this seller has posted images of the reverse, which is often a key source for the art detective.

Whoever painted it, I rather like Mr Playford, even if he does have disturbingly large hands…

Happy Birthday, Mr Ashmole!

If you’re lucky enough to be near Oxford this coming Friday, 19th May, join the party at the Ashmolean to celebrate the 400th birthday of its founder, Elias Ashmole.

The Ashmolean was the world’s first public museum, and this year hosts a programme of events to not only celebrate its founding, but to educate visitors about its place in Oxford history, and Ashmole’s royalist connections during the English Civil War. This Friday there will be a parade, led by King Charles I and his cavaliers and courtiers,  ending up at the Ashmolean, where a very special acquisition will be revealed.

In a rare purchase by a public institution (as such pictures hardly ever become available), the Ashmolean has acquired a canvas by none other than King Charles’s Royalist painter, William Dobson,  which will in due course hang in the permanent collection,  just streets away from where Dobson himself lived in the 1640s. I know which portrait it is, but I won’t spoil the surprise!

The event is free, but you’ll need to book a ticket. I’ve already got mine, so I’ll post an update next weekend and let you know how it went!

More details here:

Ashmolean Live Friday

Man’s Best Friend

I’ve had a reader request to look at the representation of our canine companions in art. When you actually look for them, there are a lot of dogs featuring in portraits, often gazing lovingly at the sitter and acting as symbols of faithfulness and loyalty.  In the 17th century, painted dogs could be found all over the place, especially in royal settings, so  I’ve posted some of the most endearing ones below.

Van Dyck 5 Eldest children of Charles I
The Five Eldest Children of Charles I (1637) by Sir Anthony Van Dyck
©Royal Collection

Eldest children of Charles I
The Eldest Children of Charles I, c.1640s, studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck

Phil and Elizabeth Cary Van Dyck
Philadelphia and Elizabeth Cary (c.1635), by Sir Anthony Van Dyck
At the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia

Weesop Esme Stewart
Esme Stewart, 5th Duke of Lennox & 2nd Duke of Richmond (c.1633)
by John Weesop

Arbella Stewart 1605v2
Lady Arbella Stewart (1605), by Sir Robert Peake

Dobson, William, 1611-1646; James Compton (1622-1681), 3rd Earl of Northampton
James Compton, 3rd Earl of Northampton, after William Dobson
©National Trust, Knole

Of course, one of the most famous dogs of the 17th century has to be Prince Rupert’s pet, Boy. Said to have been a Standard Poodle, Boy (or Boye) has nevertheless been depicted as may different breeds over the years. Parliamentarian newsbooks during the civil wars of the 1640s, made numerous references to Rupert’s best friend, making sensational claims he was a messenger of the devil, or a ‘familiar’, a witch’s companion.  His image in art or print as a black, rather than white, animal ,would have played into the supernatural suspicion of the time. The below picture is attributed to Rupert’s sister, Louise, and could therefore claim to be a more faithful likeness than some others.


Dobson, William, 1611-1646; Prince Rupert (1619-1682), Colonel William Murray, and Colonel The Honourable John Russell (1620-1681)
Prince Rupert, Colonel William Murray and Colonel John Russell, by William Dobson

The dog in Dobson’s painting apparently bears the Prince’s initials on his collar, so it is  assumed it is meant to be Boy, even though this is clearly not a poodle. Sadly, despite bravely following his master into battle on numerous occasions, Boy was killed at the battle of Marston Moor in 1644.

Those Killigrews again!

Browsing the National Trust’s paintings on its website today, I came across this very likeable portrait, filled with symbolism and character (not to mention a devoted dog).

Thomas Killigrew (1612 - 1683) by William Sheppard (England c.1602 - Italy c.1660)

I was surprised to find I already knew who the man was, having seen his face countless times during my arty travels, but I’d never seen this painting before.

His name was Thomas Killigrew, and he was a Royalist, a Roman Catholic, a renowned wit, a theatre manager and dramatist.  You may be more familiar with him from Van Dyck’s elegant portraits of him:

Thomas Killigrew 2
Thomas Killigrew and (possibly) Lord William Crofts, from the Royal Collection

Thomas Killigrew 3
At Weston Park, Shropshire (Another version is at the NPG)

The artist of the top portrait is William Sheppard, painted in around 1650, in Venice, where Killigrew was living as a Royalist exile.  The image of Charles I tells of his loyalty to the recently executed king, and if you can see closely enough, on the table is a copy of Eikon Basilike (“The Image of the King”), which was said to have been written by Charles himself.

At the Restoration of Charles II, Killigrew returned from the continent and saw his loyalty rewarded with a position at Court, his sharp wit earning him a place in Samuel Pepys’ diary,  where it was noted that he held “the title of the King’s Foole or jester; and may with privilege revile or jeere any body, the greatest person, without offence, by the privilege of his place.” He was also an important player in the revival of English drama,  penning numerous plays himself, receiving a warrant to open a theatre company in 1660, and becoming Master of the Revels in 1673.

I always enjoy portraits such as this one, where the sitter is seen in his preferred environment, showing us not just his face but his occupation and pleasures, rather than a formulaic (if beautiful) depiction that tells us nothing of the man behind it. And I just love the dog!


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.

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