John Michael Wright

A contemporary of Sir Peter Lely in England during the second half of the seventeenth century, Wright was a British born painter who was apprenticed in Edinburgh (although whether he was English or Scottish has been disputed), and later lived and worked in Rome. Unlike Dobson before him, he had the opportunity to travel and learn from some of the best Italian painters of the day, and was enrolled at the Academy of St Luke in Rome. Returning to England in 1655 or 1656, he worked as court painter both before and after the Restoration.*

Although Wright is not among my favourite painters of the period, I like the variety in his choice of sitters and themes, as shown below.

Charles II JMW
King Charles II, c.1661-1662, ©The Royal Collection


Catherine Dormer JMW
Lady Catherine Dormer (d.1659)


Willoughby Aston JMW
Sir Willoughby Aston, 2nd Baronet (1640-1702)


Mrs Salesbury
Mrs Salesbury with her grandchildren Edward and Elizabeth Bagot, c.1676
©Tate Collection


Neil ONeil JMW
Sir Neil O’Neil, 1680, ©The Tate Collection


7th Earl Pembroke JMW
Portrait of a boy, possibly Philip, 7th Earl of Pembroke, in the robes of the Order of the Bath


NPG 6854; John Dryden by John Michael Wright
John Dryden, poet and dramatist, c.1668

Mary Knatchbull
Mary Knatchbull (1610-1696)


Sir John Corbett JMW
Sir John Corbet of Adderley, c.1676, ©Yale Center for British Art


Thomas Hobbes JMW
Thomas Hobbes, c.1669-1670, ©National Portrait Gallery, London



*Further information on Wright can be found in “Painting in Britain, 1530-1790”, by Ellis Waterhouse (1994), p106-p110


This latest blog has been my most difficult to date. I wanted to do a study of children in England during the 17th century, and while there are numerous examples I could use, they are, for the most part, restricted to a single demographic, which is children of the nobility or royalty. For obvious reasons, this section of society was the most able to afford to commission portraits of their children, so it has been very hard to find representatives of those in the lower classes or poorer families from this period. If readers can point me in the direction of any, please feel free to leave a comment at the end of the post.

So with apologies for the somewhat one-sided view, I’ll start with with one of the most famous children of all at the start of the 1600s…

Charles I as Duke of York
Charles I when still Duke of York, by Robert Peake the Elder, 1605
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery


Lady Mary Feilding
Lady Mary Feilding, as Countess of Aran, later Marchioness and Duchess of Hamilton (1613-1638), by Daniel Mytens, 1620

I like this one very much. I’ve never seen it before, and it’s quite unusual with the striking orange dress and feathered hair around the side of her face. Can any costume experts suggest what the white hair decoration would be made of? It looks to me like a lace headband, perhaps a comb, but as I know nothing about clothing in this period, I am happy to be corrected. Incidentally, for anyone interested in family connections, Lady Mary was a niece of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, the favourite courtier of both King James and Charles I.


Browne family
A Family Group, called Sir Thomas Browne and his Family, perhaps in part by William Dobson, c.1640s(?), The Chatsworth House Trust


Princess Mary
Princess Mary, Daughter of Charles I, c.1637, by Van Dyck
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


3rd Viscount Cary

This is my favourite. I have seen this portrait by Cornelius Johnson described as Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland (the subject of an earlier blog post), but this has to be wrong as Johnson was mainly working from the 1640s onwards, much too late to have painted King Charles’s wartime Secretary of State as a child. Another source says that this is Falkland’s son, Lucius Cary, the 3rd Viscount (1632-1649), which must be correct. Whoever the boy is, it’s a very endearing picture, complete with Johnson’s signature wide lace collar. I like that there is nothing behind or around him, and other than his hat, there are no distracting props to take your attention from the face or the pink colouring of his outfit.


Esme Stewart
Esme Stewart, 5th Duke of Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond, by John Weesop, 1653


Esme Stuart and sister Mary
Esme Stewart, 2nd Duke of Richmond, and his sister Mary, by John Michael Wright, c.1660
(section of larger portrait including their mother, Mary Villiers, Duchess of Lennox
and Richmond)


Basil Dixwell
Sir Basil Dixwell, bt.(1665-1750), by Mary Beale, 1681

Kings and Queens

Royal portraiture was a tricky thing. In a world where an official painting (or an engraving of it) was, for many people, the only opportunity they had to lay eyes on their monarch, the portrayal of royalty had to show strength, power and confidence, not just to the people they ruled, but to relatives, friends and, most importantly, adversaries and enemies. Think of Henry VIII’s supremely arrogant, hands-on-hips ‘don’t mess with me’ poses. Even today that image gives us a sense of the character and reputation of the man, and adds colour and shape to what we know of him on paper.

The Stuarts, too, commissioned numerous portraits, although some were more reluctant than others. James I was said to be uncomfortable with the process, and this comes across in awkward and stiff poses. While he was merely unenthused by the whole idea, there is little suggestion that he was uncertain of his role as king, only that he wouldn’t have been the kind of ruler who liked pasting selfies all over Instagram. Compare this with the images we have of Charles I, trying his best to appear strong and capable, when he frequently appears uncertain and troubled, particularly during the conflict in the 1640s when chaos reigned rather than him. In such times we would expect his portraits to show a man absolutely confident and in control, a king who needed his people to get behind him, yet Dobson’s portraits give us a man who is far from confident or assured of victory, despite the haughty expression and rich clothes of state.

So here’s a look at how the Stuart kings and consorts showed us their game-faces, some with more success than others!

James I van Somer I
King James I of England, before 1621, by Paul van Somer
©Museo del Prado, Madrid

Anne of Denmark2
Queen Anne of Denmark, 1614, attrib. Marcus Gheerearts the Younger
©The Royal Collection

Charles I Hamptn Ct Dobson
King Charles I, c.1640-1646, by William Dobson
©The Royal Collection

Van Dyck Henrietta Maria em MN575 l
Queen Henrietta Maria, c. late 1630s, by Anthony Van Dyck
©Philip Mould Ltd

Charles II NPG
King Charles II, c. 1660-1665, by John Michael Wright
©National Portrait Gallery, London

Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II, 1665, by Sir Peter Lely
©Philip Mould Ltd

James II Kneller
King James II, 1683, by Sir Godfrey Kneller
©Government Art Collection

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York  (first wife of the future King James II), c.1662, by Sir Peter Lely

Mary of Modena, second wife and Queen Consort of King James II, 1680, by Simon Petersz Verelst

To Clean Or Not To Clean?

A reader has sent me a fascinating update regarding George Lisle, and before I move on from the Lisle and Lucas mysteries, I wanted to share it here.

We know that the George Lisle portrait was sold in 1990, looking shiny and spotless, and that it was auctioned with an attribution to “circle of John Michael Wright”.  Yet we now know it had also been up for sale a year earlier, selling at a different auction house, this time attributed to “studio of Sir Peter Lely”.

In that year it had also had a thorough cleaning.

Lisle 2 before and after clean

It’s not often we see a painting before and after cleaning, so this is a great example of how the judgement of whether to clean at all, and how much, can be a tricky decision. I personally prefer the dirtier version, perhaps because it looks like it really has been on a wall or in an attic for a few centuries, collecting the dust and dirt that betrays its true age and the passing of all that time. After cleaning, in my opinion it’s a little too scrubbed, too polished, and has lost some of its character in the process. Curious too, to note how attribution to a particular artist is also an inexact science. This portrait has gone from Lely’s circle to Wright’s in the space of a year, and still nobody seems to have a clue who painted it!


Many thanks to Tyger’s Head Books for the images and new information.

Neil Jeffares

Fairness, candour & curiosity – from finance to art history

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