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William Dobson: the Cavalier Chronicler


Tide, time and weather have not yet permitted me to go over to St Michael’s Mount to look at the mysterious miniature, so I have been a little remiss in this latest blog post. 

But in the meantime – this Dobson chap. 

William Dobson was described by the diarist John Aubrey as “the most excellent painter that England hath yet bred”. 
He was born in 1611, the son of another decorative artist called William Dobson, and died in poverty after what is tactfully described as “an irregular life” at the age of 35, buried on 28thOctober 1646 in St Martin in the Fields. He married twice: once to Elizabeth, who was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields on  26thSeptember 1634 (bearing in mind that at the time of her death Dobson would have been twenty-three years old. That’s no age to be a widower -) and then to Judith Sander, of whom he painted a rather lovely portrait, in December 1637. She survived him, to re-marry: there is a record in the church of St Bartholomew the Great, London, of a little girl, Katherine, daughter of a William and Judith Dobson, christened 16 April 1639. 

Apprenticed to the younger William Peake, and thought to have then joined the studio of the German-born painter and tapestry designer Francis Cleyn, it’s interesting that unlike his mentors Dobson seems to have been exclusively working in paint. 
Cleyn was described in his heyday as “a second Titian” and as “il famossisimo pittore, miracolo del secole” – most of his employment was in decorating the mansions of the gentry, including Somerset House, Carew House, and the Gilt Room at Holland House in London. With the civil war his patrons were forced to cut back in their spending, though, and most of Cleyn’s prosperity came from engraved book illustrations and etchings 
William Peake was credited with making a gilded staff for the effigy of the young Prince of Wales in 1612, and although no copies of his paintings still exist, there are various engravings either by him or published by him in the National Portrait Gallery – mostly of eminent courtiers like Lord Darnley and the Earl of Worcester. 

Master Dobson, though, painted: and so far as we know, nothing else. There are no surviving engravings, sketches, sculptures – nothing but a substantial body of some sixty pieces of art, which, given that Dobson died at the age of thirty-five, and assuming that the majority of his work displays an adult maturity, must have represented aphenomenaloutput. We know nothing of any apprentices, and his death in reduced circumstances would suggest that he had not been in a position to train a younger artist for some time previous to this: I am surmising, therefore, that all his work was done by himself, not – as was often the case with many of the fashionable artists of the Stuart era – merely the face and hands, and the background filled in by a journeyman. 

During the 1630s he made a modest living – presumably as a portrait painter – and but when Charles I’s court painter Anthony van Dyck died in 1641, Dobson became serjeant painter to the King and groom of the privy chamber. (There is a story that Van Dyck himself introduced Dobson to the King when he saw one of the young artist’s paintings in a shop window.) 
When civil war broke out, he followed the King to Oxford 

He was, in effect, the King’s chronicler, and so it was no surprise that towards the latter end of the war when the Royalist star was waning, that poor Dobson’s popularity – and commissions -declined with it. 

Now I have to say, from a personal point of view, I love his paintings: they’re not formal, posed artworks, but real flesh and blood people – not all of whom I would like to be in a small space with, to be fair: Endymion Porter looks like a beery old toper and there is a twinkle in his pouchy eye best described as lewd.Carry On Cavalier, in his full glory. 

copyright Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


My own personal favourite is the portrait of a family, probably that of Richard Streatfeild, c. 1645. 
Mum looks as if she wants to laugh, and is stroking the curls of a very impish young miss in a pink frock, who appears to be playing peep-bo with the artist. 
Dad is looking sternly into the middle distance, whilst being poked in the belly by his youngest with a handful of coral. 
It is a very real, and very tender, family portrait, with real – and not very beautiful – people in it. 
(If it is the Streatfeild family, and if you’re curious, the children would be Alice, who would have been about 18 months old, William, who would have been a few months old, and six-year-old Henry. William and Henry lived into the first quarter of the 18thcentury, and Alice went on to marry William Woodgate, the Sherriff of Kent, in 1664. Richard and Anne Streatfeild had another three children after these three, and amazingly, every single one survived to adulthood. Don’t you love happy endings?) 

So. William Dobson. Fantastic painter, not as well known as he should be, a short but tragic life. 
Dead at 35, dying in debt in 1646 back in London. 

How did he manage to paint a miniature of King Charles for Sir Bevil Grenville, when he wasn’t a miniature painter –so far as we know?

The mysterious miniature of St Michael’s Mount plays a part in my new book The Serpent’s Root, available for pre-order at mybook.to/TheSerpentsRoot

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