Mention William Dobson (1611–46) outside of Great Britain and you’re likely to be met with a polite stare. Adding that he was an acclaimed painter of the Royalist aristocracy of seventeenth-century England doesn’t help. For most of us, our conception of high life in that time and place is tightly bound up with Anthony van Dyck’s portraits of Charles I and his court, their decorative children, and the occasional long-nosed, supercilious dog. We remember stylish women with complicated hairstyles and men with curls and tidy beards, everyone (except the dogs) swathed in gleaming silk and richly worked lace, festooned with bows, embroidery, and flounces. Other images come to mind, after a while—the no-nonsense, black-clad Puritans who abandoned England for the New World, for example—but van Dyck’s bravura renditions of slim, elegant, beautifully dressed people dominate. They’re seductive, gorgeous paintings and hard to forget.
Yet the Flemish virtuoso was not the only gifted artist recording England’s upper crust during the reign of the ill-fated Charles. The informative exhibition “William Dobson: Artist of the Civil War,” on view at Tate Britain, London, turns a sharply focused spotlight on the English-born painter of Charles’s circle.1 Dobson was so esteemed in his lifetime that he was regarded as van Dyck’s logical successor, the recipient of important commissions from the Cavaliers surrounding Charles I, after the Flemish painter died, aged forty-two, in 1641; Dobson was thirty.
Van Dyck was obviously a hard act to follow, but Dobson proves to be an admirable artist whose accomplishments are all the more impressive when we are reminded that he worked during an exceptionally difficult period in British history—the fraught years, 1642–51, when Royalists loyal to the monarchy and anti-Royalist Parliamentarians were engaged in a brutal war. (Dobson, it goes without saying, given the people he painted, was a Royalist.) Little, however, is known about the Englishman’s training. There’s an indication that he was apprenticed to someone known as a seller of prints, and he’s said to have worked with the German-born painter and tapestry designer Frans Cleyn. But there’s no firm information about where and how Dobson honed his considerable talent and developed his highly individual, rather idiosyncratic (it turns out) technique. Since he rarely dated his works, questions about chronology and the evolution of his approach must be decided based on circumstantial evidence, along with visual and technical analysis. About sixty works by Dobson are known. Tate Britain’s small, thoughtful installation of eight of these works, three from its own collection, includes a good deal of persuasive historical and technical information, presented in ways that also allows us to draw our own conclusions.
Dobson began his career in London and, in 1643, after the outbreak of the Civil War, he followed Charles and his circle into exile, to the fortified and eventually besieged Oxford. Most of the exhibition’s paintings were made in Oxford, during the war years before Dobson’s premature death, aged thirty-four, in 1646. Some of the most striking works on view, however, are securely believed to predate his move to Oxford and provide ample evidence of his precocious talent. Witness the earliest canvases included: a lively, informal portrait of Dobson’s wife, belonging to the Tate, and a forthright self-portrait from a private collection. The two small, identically sized canvases are thought to be a pair, almost certainly painted in the late 1630s, when Dobson was still in his twenties and still living in London. Mrs. Dobson gazes appraisingly at us, a little obliquely, in this affectionate, intimate portrayal of an alert, clever, pretty young woman. Her hair is covered by a voluminous bonnet, but one long curl escapes, trailing down her shoulder above an impressive display of décolletage. The artist himself faces us boldly, his features glowing against a dark background, framed by a mass of dark curls and punctuated by one of those fashionable, closely trimmed mustache–soul patch combinations of the period.
Receiving a finished portrait from him would have involved a considerable waiting period.
The wall text reminds us that the silvery palette of Mrs. Dobson’s portrait reflects her husband’s practice of beginning a canvas with a detailed preliminary version of the image, all tonal massing and subtle shadows, in “dead color”—that is, a range of grays, off-whites, and earthy browns. Brighter, more intense, often warmer hues were then superimposed as glazes or impastos, after the underpainting had been allowed to dry, so that the added chroma were not muddied or otherwise compromised by the subdued colors lying beneath. The cool palette of Mrs. Dobson’s portrait, her pale bonnet and clothing accentuating her pale skin, is sparked by the one note of warmth in the picture: her rosy lips, undoubtedly added as overpainting. Most seventeenth-century artists seem to have employed some sort of dead color “first draft” technique when starting a painting, but technical examination of Dobson’s work suggests that his underpaintings were more complete and more thickly painted than usual. Technical examination also makes it clear that since Dobson only applied the brighter colors when the underpainting was dry—as revealed by the sharp divisions between layers—his process was slow and protracted. Receiving a finished portrait from him would have involved a considerable waiting period.
The oddest work in the Dobson show is also believed to be early—that is, to date from before the start of the Civil War and to have been painted in London. It’s a bust-length portrait of a young woman named Mary Done, from the Grosvenor Museum, Chester. She’s shown three times: in right profile, full face, and three-quarter view. There’s precedent for this. Dobson could have known the three views of the head of Charles I—with the same lineup of positions—painted by van Dyck on a single canvas, made to allow Bernini to carve the king’s portrait without the presence of the living model. What’s bizarre about the portrait of Mary Done, besides its mysterious, near-monochrome palette of pale grays and off-browns, is that the young woman is shown twice as a sculpted bust and only once as a living person. As a sculpture, Miss Done closes her eyes, her face framed by the sort of bonnet worn by Mrs. Dobson, her body and clothing reduced to a toga-like drape above a tapered base. The picture’s dull colors emphasize the artifice of the depicted sculptures, suggesting that they are carved out of stone. The third Miss Done stands slightly behind the paired carvings, as if stepping in from the right side of the picture. Her open eyes, engaged expression, and contemporary dress (including one of those bonnets) mark her as vividly alive, as if she were there to bear witness to the accuracy of her portrayal in the illusory sculptures. It’s an ingenious justification for showing the same individual from three views, but the effect is strangely eerie and haunting, in part because the living Miss Done looks virtually identical to her sculptural equivalents, apart from her open eyes and more animated expression; her flesh appears as stony as that of her doppelgängers. Perhaps a now-faded or fugitive over-glazing once made the difference between “real” and “sculpted” figures more evident. The picture is believed to be early because Mary Done’s father was a well-known sympathizer with the Parliamentarian cause, a known anti-Royalist, which makes it improbable that the portrait would have been commissioned after Dobson moved to Oxford with his exiled king.
The other exhibited works are all half-length figures of seated men, all dignitaries of the Royalist cause, all painted, it is assumed, between 1642 and 1645, which means that most of them were executed in Oxford while the war was raging. Most include the “column and drape with glimpse of landscape” background, often used by van Dyck, that became a staple of English portraiture in the eighteenth century. The wall texts alert us to what we were told are disguised, coded emblems of loyalty, among other, sometimes more arcane references. There is a handsome horizontal double image, Portrait of an Old and a Younger Man (John Taylor and Sir John Dunham) (1643, Courtauld Gallery, London), thought to be of two poets who wrote works supporting the Royalists. The relatively close-cropped Taylor is in sensible black with a plain white collar, while the long-haired Dunham wears a splendid pearl gray silk suit with a lace collar. They’re shown against a fragment of distant landscape. Dunham places his right hand on Taylor’s left: a signal, we are told, of their friendship—despite the evident differences in their stations—and perhaps an allusion to their loyalty to the king.
The portrait of the wonderfully named Sir Endymion Porter, acquired by the Tate in 1888, has pride of place in the installation. That it was the most elaborate of the included portraits befits a favorite courtier of Charles. Sir Endymion is shown as a regular upper-class fellow who enjoys hunting, but there are also allusions to his support of the arts. He’s an imposing figure in a yellow ochre suit shot through with gold embroidery, with abundant lace, draped in an enormous ochre cloak with lavish metallic edging. He holds a gun as a sign of his prowess as a sportsman, while a young man, in profile, presents him with a very dead hare, presumably a recent kill, and an eager hound sticks his head into the picture to nose the prey. The young man looks anxiously at Sir Endymion, who pays no attention. Instead, he stares at us, as if deciding whether we, the viewers, are really significant enough to be in his presence. Sir Endymion’s aesthetic side is signaled by a classical relief on the marble plinth beneath his elbow and a large bust of Apollo that almost crowds out the young man. The date of this engaging portrait is in dispute. Its opulence and the presence of expensive pigments—presumably hard to obtain in a besieged city—may mean it was painted as early as 1642, in London, before Charles went into exile. Or not—which means it could have been made any time between 1642 and 1645.
Sir Endymion is flanked by two very similar images of seated men, the Tate’s Portrait of an Officer (ca. 1645) and Richard Neville (ca. 1643, National Portrait Gallery, London). Both men wear broad crimson silk sashes, emblems of adherence to the cause of the Royalists. Neville became the commander of the Earl of Carnarvon’s horse regiment after the death of the earl in battle in 1643. The painting, which denotes Neville’s military status with a gun and helmet in the foreground, may have been commissioned to commemorate this important appointment, an idea supported by a relief of Mars, god of war, and a distant view of skirmishing cavalry. This possibility, in turn, suggests the probable date assigned to the painting. An eager dog in the foreground may be anecdotal or yet another allusion to loyalty. The sitter in the Tate’s painting has not been identified, but a helmet in the background, revealed by recent conservation, confirms his military connection. Both paintings ring changes on tawny ochres—warm, essentially neutral hues that set off the crimson of the symbolic sashes; since they are relatively inexpensive earth colors, they could have been easier to obtain during the war years.
The two handsome military portraits are clearly the work of a painter of more than average ability, but they lack the sense of urgency and intensity of van Dyck’s paintings. While Dobson is attentive to the specifics of fabric, lace, metal, and the like, there’s none of the magical transubstantiation of pigment into evocations of light-struck substances that makes even van Dyck’s less inspired works hold our attention. It’s possible, of course, that Dobson’s pictures have lost some of their overpainting and appear dulled by the intrusion of dead color once concealed by brighter additions. Certainly Dobson’s stunning portrait of Sir Richard Fanshawe (ca. 1644, Valence House Museum) suggests that some of the other works in the show may have looked somewhat different in the past.
Sir Richard, we learn, joined Charles in Oxford in the spring of 1643 and left two years later to become the Secretary of War for the Prince of Wales. (His wife’s journal of their time in Oxford was quoted in the text panels as first-hand evidence of an uncomfortable existence.) Fanshawe, however, looks like a courtier, not a military man, in his glistening blue silk suit, with his slender, fragile-seeming physique, all sloping shoulders and long neck. It’s not surprising that we should think this, however, since, in contrast to Neville’s portrait, with its allusions to warfare, the emphasis here is the end of violence. Fanshawe translated Giovanni Battista Guarini’s poem The Faithful Shepherd, a paean to the restoration of peace, a theme thought to be alluded to by the paper he holds. In the background, an elaborately carved column—with drape and a slice of Titian-derived landscape—enhances the non-belligerent mood. A sleek, affectionate black and white greyhound, as lean and suave as his master, leaps up to rest his paws on Fanshawe’s lap, his opaque black markings working with the arc of an opaque black cloak across the sitter’s knees to set off the shimmering triangle of the blue silk suit. The dull gray of the background drape helps to animate the space of this potent picture through its tonal relationship with the emphatic, foreground cloak. Spatially puzzling and completely unexplained by the wall texts is an oversized classical stone head in the lower-left corner of the picture. Neither Fanshawe nor his dog takes any notice of it.
We learn that some of Dobson’s late pictures, made in besieged Oxford, lack the detailed dead color underpainting he usually employed, possibly because his sitters were unable to give him the extra time required for this preliminary layer to dry. Perhaps this accounts for the freshness and vivacity of Fanshawe’s portrait. But then there was that vibrant early portrait of his wife, a testament to the uses of dead color, we are told. There are still many questions to be answered about Dobson. What seems fairly certain is that the history of English painting might have been different if he had lived longer. It’s a tragic story. After Oxford fell to the Parliamentarians, Dobson returned to London and died in obscurity, a sad end for someone described by the seventeenth-century biographer John Aubrey as “the most excellent painter that England hath yet bred.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 35
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