Happy Birthday, Mr Dobson!

Well, sort of.  On this day in 1611, William Dobson was baptised at St Andrew’s church in Holborn, the first son of an eventual 12 surviving siblings. His actual date of birth is unknown, so 4th March (and not 28th February – I’m looking at you, Dictionary of National Biography) –  is the day I like to mark as his birthday.

As it’s his anniversary, I went to the National Portrait Gallery in London today to see some of his works. Sadly only one was on display (Richard Neville), thanks to the NPG’s new brainchild of mixing art from different periods so you can ‘compare and contrast’. It’s a bloody awful idea, as it meant the space normally occupied by genuine Stuart-era portraits (in the room entitled “The Stuart Room”, oddly enough) was taken up by two large, modern 21st century paintings, and a number of 17th century works had been removed. Being a pure traditionalist I don’t hold with mixing genres in a normally chronological space, as it spoils the ‘feel’ of a period and is frankly pretty jarring. I won’t even start on the inclusion of an underwear clad, modern actress on the wall in the next room, designated for 19th century portraiture…What I love about NPG, normally, is that it tends to stick to chronological hanging, allowing you to immerse yourself in a style or period rather than viewing by genre or theme. Mixed hangings may work in other galleries, just please knock it off here!

But back to William 🙂

Here’s a lesser-known self-portrait from the late 1630s, and my favourite of all of his works. It’s in a private collection, sadly, but was included in the 1983 exhibition catalogue.

WD self portrait bandw

As it’s his birthday, I thought this would be the perfect time to announce the title of my new biography. “William Dobson: The King’s Painter” will be published soon by Tyger’s Head Books, and covers his childhood, family, career and, of course, his life during the English Civil War. A lot of commonly held beliefs about the man are debunked, and previously undiscovered surprises are revealed. (The Archbishop of Canterbury? Really?!!))

I’ll give more details and a publication date as soon as they are available!

John Weesop

Known only for his portraits during the 1640s, John Weesop is, in my opinion, an artist who deserves a second look. Ellis Waterhouse’s “Painting in Britain 1530-1790” mentions him briefly (p.77), stating only that he was an imitator of Van Dyck and left the country not long after the end of the war. The art historian Sir Oliver Millar, however, found evidence that Weesop was still in London in 1653, but died shortly after.**  Believed to have been Flemish, we have an insight into his character from the antiquarian George Vertue*, who wrote that:

“Weesop arrived here in 1641, a little before the death of Vandyck, of whose manner he was a lucky imitator, and had the honour of having some of his pictures pass for that master’s. He left England in 1649, saying ‘he would never stay in a country where they cut off the King’s head and were not ashamed of the action.’ It had been more sensible to say, he would not stay where they cut off the head of a King that rewarded painters and defaced and sold his collection.”

Looked at collectively, the works attributed to him are of a quite recognisable style, particularly in the frequent use of gold decoration on his sitters’ outfits. We’ve already seen one portrait, which I posted on January 16th, and here are a few more.

Unknown Man by Weesop
An Unknown Man, c.1640 ©National Trust, Lacock Abbey, Fox Talbot Museum and Village
Lady by Weesop
Portrait of a lady, c.1648 (location unknown)
Jermyn by Weesop
Thomas, 2nd Baron Jermyn (date and location unknown)
Henry Gage by Weesop
Sir Henry Gage (date unknown) ©National Portrait Gallery, London
Double portrait of a Lady and a Gentleman (date and location unknown, sold at Sotheby’s in 2002)

*George Vertue, Anecdotes of Painting in England, With Some Account of the Principal Artists; and Incidental Notes on Other Arts, Volume 2, Thomas Farmer, 1762, p. 117

**O. Millar, ‘Weesop: flesh on a skeleton’, The Burlington Magazine 1183/143 (Oct. 2001), p. 625-630

Culture in the Conflict

Most of the paintings that make us think of  the English Civil War tend to be of soldiers, courtiers or royalty, those individuals closest to the fighting,  yet if you look around you’ll find a surprising number of poets, writers and musicians as well, keeping the arts alive while all around was falling apart. Here are just a few I’ve come across, dated either during the war, or just before/after.

I found this picture of (allegedly) the poet and writer  John Milton, in a 1932 edition of the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs*. No date is given, but it is claimed to be a Dobson. This is, in my opinion, incorrect, not only because it just doesn’t LOOK like a Dobson, but Milton was strongly in favour of the Parliamentarian cause, and therefore highly unlikely to have had his portrait painted by the King’s principle artist over in Royalist HQ, Oxford. (If painted before 1642, of course. Before that, and before sides were drawn, there’s no great reason it couldn’t have happened).  I have no suggestions who did paint it though, or where it may be now. Any thoughts?

The diarist John Evelyn, by Robert Walker, 1648.
©National Portrait Gallery, London

Ben Jonson
Apologies for the poor quality of this one, but it’s the only copy I have. Also found in an old book, this (again, alleged) image of the playwright and poet Ben Jonson, is labelled as a Dobson. It would have to be a very early one if taken from the life, as Jonson died in 1637 and Dobson was only a few years out of his apprenticeship by then. I don’t know where this is now, but would love to see a clearer version.

Portrait of a Musician by William Dobson, c. 1644
©Ferens Art Gallery, Hull

The philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, by William Dobson, c. 1640s.
©The Royal Society

I’m not convinced by this attribution either…

*The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol 60, no.346, Jan., 1932.

Sir Anthony van Dyck

No discussion of 17th century portraiture in England would be complete without mentioning the great Sir Anthony van Dyck. A student of Rubens (who painted the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London, which still stands today), he came to England in the 1620s to work as court painter to King Charles I, and remained there until his own death in 1641.

Unlike his successor in Charles’ employ, William Dobson, Van Dyck was fortunate to have  worked in the studio of the great Master, Peter Paul Rubens, and to have employed his talent in Europe, painting for wealthy and influential patrons across the continent. In England he produced some of the most recognised works in the history of English portraiture, such as this one of King Charles:

Charles I three
Dated c.1635/1636, ©The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

….and his own self-portrait, which was recently purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in London after a successful publicity campaign to save it from being sold abroad or into private hands.

Van Dyck self portrait
Painted c.1640, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Van Dyck’s death in 1641, shortly before the King left London for the final time as the Civil War began, leaves us with an intriguing question. Had he lived, would he have followed the King, and continued painting portraits of what was left of the Royalist aristocracy in exile from London? Or would he have looked to his own comfort and self-preservation and fled back to the safety of Europe? I don’t know enough about him to be able to offer an answer, but the timing of his death seems oddly fitting, as if he was no longer needed by the times, with war and ugliness on the horizon, and was making way for someone else. Would his beautiful and elegant style have ‘fit’ in the middle of such a fight? I’d love to know how his work would, by necessity and austerity, have changed had he lived and remained by the King’s side to paint the Royalists at war, but then if he had, we wouldn’t have had Dobson, and the visual memory of the conflict that has been passed down to us would be strikingly different.

The Early Years

I’ve been focussing a lot on portraits from the 1640s, so I thought I’d take a look at some earlier painters, active during the reign of King James I, to illustrate how portraiture (and fashion) changed as the century went on.

First, we have Flemish-born John de Critz (1551/2-1642), who was employed by King James in 1603 as serjeant painter* (jointly at first with another painter named Leonard Fryer, who had held the post under Queen Elizabeth), and produced pictures of the royal family, their Court and the nobility.

In this picture of James’s queen, Anne of Denmark (date not given), both the art and fashion still strongly resemble the Elizabethan style, and the sometimes flat, static poses and brushwork. I do like the drapery and shine on her skirts, however, and the intricate patterning of the lace collar.

Anne of Denmark
Anne of Denmark,  by John de Critz the Elder, ©National Portrait Gallery, London
(c) Montacute House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
James VI & I (1566-1625), by John de Critz the Elder,  date? © National Trust

Robert Peake the Elder (c.1551-1619) was an English artist employed by Queen Elizabeth, and after her death, by King James.  He shared the role of serjeant painter with John de Critz from 1607, and had also been appointed official picture-maker to the young heir, Prince Henry of Wales, of whom he created this unusually colourful portrait in 1603.

Henry Prince of Wales
Henry Frederick (1594–1612), Prince of Wales, with Sir John Harington (1592–1614), in the Hunting Field, 1603. ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Finally,  we have Paul van Somer (c1577-1621) another Flemish painter, who came to England around 1616 and began working at King James’s court.

James I van Somer I
James I of England and VI of Scotland, date? by Paul van Somer I, ©Museo del Prado, Madrid

Portraiture was developing, although not drastically so as yet. But with the 1620s came the period of Peter Paul Rubens, Daniel Mytens, and  Antony Van Dyck, all of whom would bring a new ‘look’ to English portraiture…



*The Serjeant Painters were employed, not only to paint original portraits and copies,  but also in the gilding and decorating of royal residences, coaches, barges, etc.

The Lisle & Lucas Picture Puzzle – Part 2

To the regular visitor of the National Portrait Gallery in London, the engraved image of Sir Charles Lucas (in the previous post) might seem familiar. The portrait it was taken from hangs there, surrounded by portraits of the man’s contemporaries, both friends and enemies, on a wall in Room 5.

 NPG 5382; Richard Neville by William Dobson
©National Portrait Gallery, London

Yet there is no mention of Sir Charles Lucas here. Instead, this painting (from c.1643) is displayed under the name of Richard Neville, a landowner from Billingbear in Berkshire. If you run an internet search for images of Charles Lucas, most of the results will be variations on this one, the one Vertue apparently borrowed from a connection of Lucas, and which was painted by William Dobson.

Yet there is another. Now in private hands and dated c.1645, it is inscribed with Lucas’s name, and is a confirmed work of William Dobson:

Dobson Lucas
Inscribed Sr.Charles Lucas /1645
Private collection

Clearly they are two different men. In the 1983 National Portrait Gallery catalogue for the Dobson exhibition of that year (get a copy, it’s a mine of information!), we read that the ‘Neville’ version, which had passed by descent through the Neville family until purchased by the NPG in 1981, was identified from family documents as Richard Neville as early as 1770. The catalogue also states that the same picture had however been identifed as Lucas as early as 1713 but, because it bore no resemblance to the other, inscribed Lucas (for which there are conveniently no earlier engravings, nor any clear descriptions in any books or documents I’ve found so far), ‘obviously’ the ‘Neville’ version cannot be Charles Lucas.

Still with me?

I have some questions about this. Firstly, on what evidence is the Neville attribution based? Perhaps in the family records there is an explanation which would resolve the whole thing, but as far as I can see he has only been identified as such since the late 18th century, while the Lucas identification existed as early as 70 years after the end of the Civil War. Secondly, close inspection of the Vertue engravings shows that, beneath them, in very, very small lettering on the frames, are written the names of those who lent Vertue both portraits. That of Lucas states that it was in the possession of a Lord Byron. Exactly which Lord Byron is unsure, but as Charles Lucas’s elder brother married a Mary Byron, I think it is safe to presume they are of the same family, and that the portrait was passed down by descent.  If this is true, is it likely they’d be passing down a painting of the wrong man? Unlikely, in my view, but not impossible. However, if the ‘Neville’ has actually been Lucas all along, where does that leave the 1645 Dobson, which is universally accepted as Lucas?

I have no answers, just a great big headache!!


In my study of the English Civil War and its art, I’ve picked up a library of invaluable books, many now out of print, that are a goldmine of detail and images not always available in modern publications. I wanted to share some of the best ones, in case they may be of use to others in their own research. I’ve also found they’re very useful in establishing provenance, as they list past owners of paintings that may have since been sold. They’re not so out of print that they’re impossible to find, and you can probably source a cheap copy somewhere like http://www.abebooks.com or Ebay.

  • A History of British Painting – Ernest Short –  What it says on the tin, with a good section on the Stuarts and mid-17th century art.
  • British Portraits – Royal Academy of Arts – Produced for an exhibition at the RA, 1956-7. A good catalogue with many black and white plates, and a small selection from Charles I’s reign.
  • Endymion Porter and William Dobson – William Vaughan, for The Tate Gallery – Published for an exhibition of the same name at the Tate Gallery, 1970. Dobson’s portrait of Porter is one of his most recognised paintings, and can today be viewed (hopefully, unless it’s been stored) at the Tate Britain in London. Includes biographical sections on both Porter and Dobson, many pictures, maps and illustrations, and a section about the conflict itself.
  • The Age of Charles I – Tate Gallery – Published for an exhibition in 1972-3. Many illustrations, including William Dobson, Robert Walker, John Hayls, and other lesser known painters. Unusually, it includes ECW miniatures as well.
  • An Illustrated Souvenir of the Exhibition of 17th Century Art in Europe, 1938 – Royal Academy of Arts. Again, what it says! Mostly black and white plates, with a few from the ECW period.
  • The Life and Times of Charles I – D.R.Watson – not strictly an art book, but full of paintings, maps, illustrations and a guide to the ECW.
  •  Last but not least, an essential book on the subject  (and my ‘bible’) – William Dobson, 1611-1646 – National Portrait Gallery, 1983. As well as both colour and black and white images of Dobson’s works from the exhibition, including detailed provenance and biographies of the sitters,  there’s an excellent biographical section that forms the most extensive research on Dobson published to date.*

Let me know if you have any other recommendations!


*A new biography of William Dobson is due for publication in 2016. More details soon.


Walker et al

Dobson’s opposite number in the Parliamentarian army, Robert Walker, is as much a mystery as Dobson is.  We know nothing of his background, or how he came to be working in the Parliament camp, but it is said he was older than Dobson by  about a decade (he was allegedly born in 1599), and was a member of the Painter-Stainer’s Company. Here he is, in a self-portrait c.1645-1650…

Robert Walker
“Robert Walker”, c.1645-1650, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

While Dobson’s movements are easy to pin down, as he almost certainly didn’t move from Oxford until the Royalists surrendered and left it in 1646, it’s unclear whether Walker was similarly based in one location, or if he was on the move.  He was prolific, however,  with many of the Parliamentarian high command sitting for him, both during the war and afterwards under the Commonwealth. Walker’s most recognised painting is probably this one of Oliver Cromwell.

NPG 536; Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker
“Oliver Cromwell”, c.1649, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Although portraits  from this period tend to be, at first glance at least, simplistically attributed to either Dobson or Walker depending on whether the sitter looks like a Roundhead or a Cavalier, of course they weren’t the only painters trying to make a living during the conflict. Other names I’ve come across while researching Civil War portraits include Gerard Soest (attrib.):

Unknown possibly by Soest
“Portrait of a Royalist Officer”, c.1646-1649, ©The Samuel Cortauld Trust,
The Courtauld Gallery, London

John Weesop:

Marmaduke-Darcy Weesop
“Marmaduke d’Arcy”, c.1645-1648, ©The Huntington Library,
Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

…and John Hayls:

Thomas Pigott
“Colonel Thomas Pigott”, c.1647, ©North Somerset Museum/North Somerset Council

I know nothing about the above painters, but would be very interested to learn more about them, and any others who where about during the wars and painting soldiers, from either side. Let me know!


What I love about 17th century portraiture is that you can watch its artistic development changing as the decades pass,  from the end of the Tudors to the beginning of the Stuarts, through the Civil War and on into the Restoration.  Beginning with the likes of William Peake and John de Critz in the opening years of the century, to Daniel Mytens, Peter Paul Rubens, Antony Van Dyck, William Dobson, Godfrey Kneller and Peter Lely, each decade seems to have its own illustrator to tell its story.

You can also chart the events of the period through its art, from the death of Elizabeth and the end of the Tudor dynasty in 1603, through King James’s court to the unsettled and nervous reign of Charles I, into the austere war years, and on to the glamour of Charles II’s restored monarchy. For me, no other period in British history can be so well-defined by those that painted it.

There were many memorable artists  working in England during the 17th century, but my favourite of them all is William Dobson.

William Dobson
“Portrait of the Artist”, possibly c.1645/6, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Dobson was an Englishman, born in St Albans in 1611 and trained in London with what seems to have been an ordinary painter’s apprenticeship. What is remarkable about him is that he wasn’t famous or well-travelled like Sir Antony Van Dyck or Rubens, both of whom worked for the most prestigious and influential people across Europe, nor did he have a distinguished education or career to recommend him, yet somehow, by the end of 1642, he had left London and was living in Oxford as the court painter to King Charles I. We have no idea how he got the job, but the works he produced of the Royalist supporters during four years of civil war became the eye-witness images of the conflict that we recognise today.  The Parliamentarian side had their own painter, Robert Walker, whose work we know by his many portraits of Oliver Cromwell, and other artists were also present during the period, but no name is as closely associated with the tragedy of the English Civil War as William Dobson. His ability to portray ‘real’ people, with their flaws and vulnerabilities,  is what makes his work so poignant and moving. Take this painting of the troubled King Charles, for example. I’ve not seen any other royal picture, of any king or queen, painted more honestly than this.

Charles I
“Charles I” c. 1642-1646, ©HistoricalPortraits.com/Philip Mould Ltd
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