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.

Milton
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?

Evelyn
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.

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

Hobbes
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.

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The Lisle & Lucas Picture Puzzle – Part 1

In 1648, Royalist officers Sir George Lisle and Sir Charles Lucas were executed by Parliament for their part in the siege of Colchester. Following their deaths, in which outraged Royalists proclaimed them ‘martyrs’, their images (often more imagined than real) were printed, painted or engraved for newsbooks and pamphlets that related the controversial events in Essex.

In the 18th century, the engraver George Vertue produced these line drawings to illustrate a poster lamenting their deaths. (Lisle is on the left).

Lisle Lucas Vertue
©National Portrait Gallery, London

Vertue is said to have taken the likenesses from original paintings by William Dobson, which were themselves believed to have remained in the hands of descendants or acquaintances of the men, giving strength to their claim to be the authentic faces of Lisle and Lucas. Given that Lisle is known to have spent time in Oxford (and even lived in the same London street as Dobson, pre-war), it’s very likely he did sit for Dobson at some point, but as yet no painting resembling Vertue’s engraving has been located. There are a couple of paintings labelled as Lisle, however, including this one:

George Lisle 1

It went to auction in 1990 and the artist is unknown. The date, if taken from the life, is likely 1640s, but I’m certain it’s not a Dobson. There are troubling elements such as the hands, the right hidden behind that odd plumed helmet, and the left inelegantly fisted over what may be a faint sword pommel. This is not the source of Vertue’s engraving, and of the others I’ve seen (but don’t have an available image for) none are candidates either.

Elusive though Lisle’s true image may be, that’s nothing to the problems I’ve had identifying the real face of Charles Lucas. I’ll attempt to unravel that one for you in the next post. 🙂

Dobson

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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