The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust owns many fascinating and important treasures relating to arguably Britain’s greatest playwright. However, often overlooked in its collection is a rare and fine portrait by William Dobson (1611-46), a man whom the 17th century antiquary John Aubrey called “the most excellent painter that England hath yet bred.”1
Although little is known about Dobson’s life, he produced some of the most compelling images of members of the Royalist Court at Oxford during the disastrous English Civil Wars. It is believed that Dobson’s career as a painter may have started while he trained with the Jacobean painter and print-seller, William Peake. He eventually ended up in the workshop of the decorative painter Francis Cleyn, a German born artist working with both book illustrations and tapestries. Although little is known of how he became such a talented painter, it is very likely he had access to the vast Royal Collection of the connoisseur King Charles I, and might have been a pupil of the prolific portrait painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck.
Outbreak of the Civil War
After the death of Van Dyck in 1641, and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Dobson followed the King’s court to Oxford. Between the years 1642-1645 he painted many of the leading players and heroes of the Royalist Court at Oxford, including the King, Prince Rupert, Prince Maurice, and the future Charles II when Prince of Wales. Unlike Van Dyck, who often flattered his sitters with a particularly slender elegance, Dobson’s sitters are real human-beings made of flesh and blood.
On the main staircase of Nash’s House in Stratford-upon-Avon hangs Dobson’s significant portrait of Sir Edward Walker (1612-77), King Charles I’s Secretary-at-War. Walker was described as “a very importunate, ambitious, and foolish man, that studies nothing but his own ends”, attributes that Dobson might have attempted to capture in this rather lofty pose. Onto the thickly woven canvas, Dobson depicts the courtier in an outdoor setting, wearing rich black clothing and with a letter and classical bust resting on a ledge next to him, all likely to be allusions to his wisdom, education and status.
Although the awkward pose which Walker holds has been criticised for its weaknesses, especially in the way his left arm seems disconnected from his body, this magnificent portrait is evidence of Dobson’s grasp of the dramatic style of baroque portraiture made fashionable in contemporary Europe. Bewilderingly, this nationally important artwork did not bear any plaque to identify either the sitter or the painter when I last visited.
Although it is not known with any certainty the exact date in which this particular portrait was painted, it has been suggested that the great vivacity and intensely expressive head of Walker corresponds to Dobson’s works made around 1645. At this point the Parliamentarian army was closing in on Oxford and the remaining Royalist strongholds, and it is believed that the increasingly thin application of paint is reflective of the growing starvation of materials the painter was experiencing. For example, it is believed that the garter sash worn by Walker was originally a much brighter blue, but has since faded to a murky brown-green colour due to the blue pigment deteriorating, a sign of the scarcity of good quality colours perhaps?
Walker remained by the King’s side during the entire siege and was present during the city’s surrender in June 1646. After fleeing into exile with Charles II, Walker lived long enough to help arrange the ceremonies of the coronation of the King after the Restoration of 1660. Dobson’s fate, however, was far less glorious. After fleeing Oxford after its surrender, he arrived back in London where he attempted to restart his career as a painter. It is likely that the changing times and ill-health, alongside the new Parliamentarian regime, made this impossible. He died a mere three months after his return to the capital, an event so unremarkable that it warranted one sole record in the Parish Register.
The painting’s recent history
This important portrait eventually passed into the hands of the the Clopton family, after Walker’s daughter Barbara married Sir John Clopton. It remained hanging on the walls of Clopton House, located on the edge of Stratford-upon-Avon, until the painting was sold at auction in October 1930 and was purchased by the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Birthplace.
As the art critic Waldemar Januszczack has wisely pronounced, “[Dobson] was an unusually talented native artist whose work is bound up inextricably with one of the most dramatic events in history: The English Civil War. He was there. He saw it. He painted it. And he should not be forgotten.”
Malcolm Rogers, exhibition catalogue. William Dobson 1611-46, National Portrait Gallery, London 1983. cat no. 30
ZCZ Films, The Lost Genius of Art: William Dobson, first aired on BBC4 22 September 2014.
1 – John Aubrey, ‘Brief Lives’ chiefly of Contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey ed. Andrew Clark, I, 1898, p. 78