William Dobson (London 1611-1646) Portrait of the artist, bust-length, in a black tunic and white collar

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Lot 14
William Dobson
(London 1611-1646)
Portrait of the artist, bust-length, in a black tunic and white collar

Sold for £ 1,106,500 (US$ 1,528,339) inc. premium
William Dobson (London 1611-1646)
Portrait of the artist, bust-length, in a black tunic and white collar
oil on canvas
62 x 47.2cm (24 7/16 x 18 9/16in).


  • Provenance
    The Strickland Collection, Howsham Hall, by 1791
    Howsham Hall sale, 1-4 November 1948, lot 792, where purchased by the present owner's grandfather

    Arts Council travelling exhibition, British Self Portraits, 1962, cat. no. 6
    London, National Portrait Gallery, William Dobson 1611- 1646: The Royalists at War, 21 October 1983 - 8 January 1984, cat. no. 1

    A Catalogue of the Rich and Elegant Household Furniture, China, Pier Glasses etc belonging to the later Nath ; Cholmley Esq., 1791, no. 60 ('1 Head of Dobson the Painter')
    Hawkesbury (Lord), 'East Riding Portraits', in Transactions of the East Riding Antiquarian Society, vol. X, 1903, p. 53, no. 89
    Catalogue of Valuable Oil Paintings at Howsham Hall, Whitby, 1911, p. 25, no. 199
    M. Rogers, William Dobson 1611-1646: The Royalists at War, exh. cat., London, 1983, cat. no. 1, ill., p. 22

    'The most excellent painter that England has yet bred'

    This strikingly powerful self-portrait, which has been widely praised for its originality is, alongside the artist's wife (see fig. 1), William Dobson's earliest attributable work, probably painted in the late 1630s (we know from an inventory of 1791 that the present portrait and that of his wife were hanging together at Howsham Hall by that time; see fig. 2). Its rarity and importance in the history of British art can barely be overestimated.

    Until Dobson, with the exceptions of the miniaturists, Nicholas Hilliard and Samuel Cooper (who as 'limners' would not, in any case have been considered at this time as working in the same field as larger scale painters in oil), all the artists of any standing at the English court had been imported from abroad. Indeed, this continued to be the case for the following seventy years and Dobson is now widely considered to be the most distinguished native born British artist before William Hogarth.

    Given the extraordinary sensitivity and psychological insight for which Dobson is so well known, it is all the more remarkable, as well as fortunate that his life coincided with and is so closely associated with one of the most turbulent and significant epochs of British history - the English Civil War. Today it is Dobson's portraits that come to mind when we come to visualise this poignant period of British history. As official court painter to Charles I, the tragic British king later beheaded by parliament, Dobson was an eye-witness to a period of immense drama and upheaval during which the world order was turned upside-down. Based in Oxford, where Dobson followed the court in early 1643 after it was transferred there when parliament took control of London, it was in that city that Dobson produced the vast majority of his sixty-or so surviving portraits, which convey to us today the romantically doomed world of the cavaliers and heroes of the Civil War.

    Van Dyck died in December 1641, allowing Dobson to make his own mark. He was called upon to paint not only the King, the Prince of Wales (see fig. 3), the Duke of York, and the Palatine princes, Rupert and Maurice, but also many of the Royalists who had flocked to Oxford. The present portrait, however, together with its companion piece, are the only works by Dobson that can be assigned with certainty to the period before he set up practice in Oxford. It thus provides a crucial insight into the background and origins of this major force in British cultural identity, since surprisingly little is known about how such a remarkable home-bred talent came to the fore. We know that Dobson's father, also William, was a gentleman of St Albans employed by Francis Bacon, Viscount Verulam, on the building and decoration of Verulam House and Gorhambury; he was also probably Master of the Alienation Office and a member of the Painter-Stainers' Company, but according to John Aubrey, 'he spending his estate luxuriously upon women, necessity forced his son William Dobson to be the most excellent painter that England has yet bred.'

    It was apparently around the time of the completion of his apprenticeship under William Peake (the Holborn picture dealer, printseller, and stationer) in 1632 that Dobson moved to the parish of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields. The motivation for this would no doubt have been because of its proximity to the court in Whitehall. Dobson would have thus luxuriated in the position of being the first and, sadly the last, native artist of any stature to benefit from a first-hand study of the masterpieces which filled the palaces of Whitehall and Saint James's – most notably those of van Dyck, the great Venetians, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, to which Charles was especially devoted. He may also have been familiar with the almost equally magnificent collections of the 2nd Earl of Arundel and the Duke of Buckingham, not to mention other members of the group of Whitehall connoisseurs who shared the King's tastes.

    In 1653, on a visit to the studio of the German artist, Francis Cleyn (1582?-1658) 'neare Covent Garden Church', the antiquary Richard Symonds was told that 'he [Cleyn] was Dobson's master & taught him his art.' It is not known whether Cleyn was living in Covent Garden in the 1630s but it is possible that Dobson moved to the vicinity in order to work with him. We know that Symonds saw a self-portrait by Titian in Cleyn's studio and he also noted a group portrait of Cleyn 'and his family by Candle light', which was clearly a Caravaggesque piece from the Utrecht School and it has been suggested that it was during this time that Dobson developed his interest in tenebrism which colours some of his early work, including the present portrait. As noted in the 1983 catalogue entry for our painting, however, as well as revealing the influence of the followers of Caravaggio, the 'dramatic lighting, pugnacious upward tilt of the head and half-open mouth ... may also indicate a strain of bohemianism in Dobson's character.' While Dobson has often been described, without any apparent foundation, as a pupil of van Dyck, whose influence is more discernible in Dobson's portrait of his wife, the English artist's use of rich impasto and dramatic chiaroscuro that we see here shows a complete technical independence of the Fleming. It has also been noted that Dobson did not feel the need to flatter his subjects as did the more eminent master. Indeed, although these tenebrist elements are not so discernable in the portrait of Judith Dobson, both these early works show a vigour and insightful vitality that is lacking in the formulaic conventions one finds in many of the portraits of van Dyck and his followers.

    'a fair middle-sized man, of ready wit, and a pleasing conversation, yet being somewhat loose and irregular in his way of living'

    The bohemianism that has been noted in this particular self-portrait was most likely a reflection of the artist's youthful temperament, which he appears to have inherited from his father. It was around this time that Symonds stated that 'one Mr Vaughan of the Exchequer office did relieve him out of prison and thereupon he made his picture which Dobson would use to say twas his master piece.' In many ways we see in this portrait the classic romantic image of the rakish artistic genius who died too young. Buckeridge, in his 1706 An Essay towards an English School of Painters, described him as: 'a fair middle-sized man, of ready wit, and a pleasing conversation, yet being somewhat loose and irregular in his way of living, he, notwithstanding the many opportunities he had of making his fortune, died poor at his house in Saint Martin's Lane' ( his death was plainly unexpected since he had been nominated as a steward of the Painter–Stainers' Company two months before his burial in St Martin-in-the-Fields on 28 October 1646).

    The influence of a life cut short can be detected in the paintings of such other major portrait painters working in Britain in the 17th century, such as Sir Peter Lely, John Michael Wright (who also trained with Cleyn), Isaac Fuller, and John Hayls. For many years Dobson had been overlooked by art historians but two exhibitions in the twentieth century (the exhibitions at the Tate Gallery in 1951 and at the National Portrait Gallery in 1983–4, in which this self-portrait played a prominent part) have established his reputation among the first rank of English painters. In The Lost Genius of British Art: William Dobson, a 2013 documentary for the BBC, Waldemar Januszczak argues that William Dobson was the first English painter of genius. He describes his record of Royalist supporters, heroes and cavaliers as the first true examples of British art: 'Dobson's face should be on our banknotes. His name should be on all our lips.'
William Dobson (London 1611-1646) Portrait of the artist, bust-length, in a black tunic and white collar
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