5 December 2011

400th anniversary of William Dobson

Detail from Dobson's (middle) self-portrait with Nicholas Lanier and Sir Charles
Cotterell, c.1644-5. 

Further evidence that BBC4 is increasing the quality of depth of its schedule was provided by the recent broadcast of The Lost Genius of British Art: William Dobson. English Civil War historians will be well aware of Dobson's role in cultivating the Cavalier image during his time at the Oxford court, but presenter Waldemar Januszczak goes further, claiming him as English painting's first great genius. The programme celebrates the 400th anniversary of the painter's birth, which is also being marked in a display at the National Portrait Gallery and a new website.

But have all Dobson's works been accounted for? ...

'The most excellent painter that England hath yet bred'

So said John Aubrey; praise echoed by Januszczak and Earl Spencer, who both explain in the BBC programme why Dobson transcends his reputation as the Royalist's go-to man and deserves greater recognition for his role in the development of English painting.

William Dobson was born in 1611 in London, the son of another decorative artist. In 1625 he was apprenticed to William Peake, the court artist probably best known for his image-defining portraits of Henry, Prince of Wales, before Henry's tragic and untimely death in 1612. In 1632 Dobson went to work under Francis Cleyn, a German painter and tapestry designer who had come to England in 1623.

At some stage after this time Dobson became acquainted with the royal collection. He would have studied the works by Titian and Van Dyck, possibly given access by Abraham van der Doort, Surveyor of the King's Pictures, or by being taught by Van Dyck, the king's official painter, himself.

Whatever his relationship with the Flemish master, his commissions were few up until Van Dyck's death in 1641. At the outbreak of war Dobson moved with the court to St John's College in Oxford, where he would  produce the portraits of the Royalist soldiers, statesmen and courtiers until the king fled in 1646. Some examples of his work here include a portrait of the young Prince Charles, the future Charles II, after the Battle of Edgehill, the diplomat Endymion Porter and architect and designer Inigo Jones. He also produced a number of self-portraits, including this one, where he inserts himself between two other connoisseurs of the day.

Three months after returning to London in 1646 Dobson was dead. There is a record of his death in a parish register, and according to his first biographer was buried in St. Martin-in-the-Field, but no other evidence has come to light to explain his swift demise.

Although Dobson followed Van Dyck as the king's principal court painter, his style owed little to him, eschewing elegance and flattery for more transparent, confrontational representations, a technique accentuated by capturing the subject in a square rather than full portrait canvas.

Further details about the broadcast can found found here.

Display at the National Portrait Gallery 17.08.11-18.03.12

I popped along to the current display, which is running at the NPG from 17th August 2011-18th March 2012.

A selection of paintings and engravings are hung in a small section attacted to the Stuart gallery. Of those in their collection the portrait of Colonel Richard Neville is the best. Here is a restless man, a fighting man (note the sculpture of Mercury above the helmet), barely able to sit still for the artist if it means laying down his pistol. The battle scene in the background is likely to represent Neville leading his cavalry at Cropredy Bridge, where the King commanded the Royalist army in the field. His hand, outstretched to the dog next to him, alludes to this loyalty, and is a common symbol used in portraiture of the period.

As well as the oil paintings a selection of prints from the gallery's archive explore Dobson's relationship with the engraver William Faithorne (who was also apprenticed to William Peake).

New Dobson website

Waldemar Januszczak, ZCZ Films and a number of art institutions across the country have also put together a website devoted to Dobson, featuring a catalogue of his works and an art trail where visitors can see the surviving paintings mapped to their present locations.

Only one painting exists with Dobson's signature. As well as displaying all the others which are almost certainly by his hand, the website notes that some others strongly attributed to him have survived, but with their subjects unknown. These are:
My own internet searches reveal other works not mentioned on the website but which appear to survive. These are portraits of:
Plus quite a few others on the http://dobsonart.webs.com/ site, though some of these might be wrongly attributed.

The Lost Genius of British Art: William Dobson (the BBC programme)
William Dobson 1611-46 (the NPG display)
http://www.williamdobson.tv/ (Waldemar Januszczak's Dobson website, including the Dobson Art Trail)


  1. I attended the interesting if small display at the gallery last weekend. Worth also seeing the other portraits from the civil war next door.

  2. Hello - Sorry, a few corrections! :) Dobson's father was not an artist, he was a lawyer (records of this are held at the National Archives at Kew). Also it was William Peake's father, Sir Robert Peake the Elder, who was court artist for Prince Henry, not William himself.