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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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The Mystery of the Miniature on the Mount – St Michael’s Mount and the Grenville Miniature

And it’s not one that I have an answer to, I fear…. yet.
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The Serpent’s Root – Cornwall 1646.Two months and counting….

Release date of March 21st and if you’re wondering what may have befallen Hollie Babbitt and the rebel rabble since the end of “A Wilderness of Sin” – here’s a taster…

“I want to go home,” Luce said dully, and turned his head on the pillow, though his eyes stayed closed. “I want to go home, Hollie.”

“Aye, I thought –“

He was mending, and his hair was lank, sticking to his forehead with sticky sweat: bless the lad, there wouldn’t be a girl in Hampshire who’d look at him twice, now, but he opened his eyes then and looked up at Hollie.

“It’s all right,” he said, in that rusty, thready voice, strained with coughing. Closed his eyes again. “I’m sorry. I – she – I dreamed of her. Of Gray. It was nothing. The fever. I -” He trailed off, and under the blankets, his chest jerked, as if he might have sobbed. Only the once. “I almost believed it was real. That it – that she – that this was the dream, and she the reality. That I might wake and find myself at Bristol again, and be -. It was the fever. Nothing more.”

“Just the fever. Aye. I know.” And he wanted to do something reassuring, just a reaching out so that Luce might know that his lost girl might have faded like smoke, but that his friends were here, and real, and solid. But what comfort was that, when you had dreamed of a loss made whole again, and woke to find yourself in a lonely bed? Hollie put his hand on Luce’s shoulder, and squeezed, gently. (The brat was a boy again, all skin and bone and tousled hair. That made Hollie’s heart hurt, too, for the lad had no right to be so fragile.)

“Just the fever,” Luce echoed. “Surely.” And then he closed his eyes, and one single tear made its way from under his lashes, and slid down his face into his tangled hair. “It was a good dream, though. I wish -“
“No you don’t,” Hollie said, for that way lay madness.
“I miss her,” he said, as if Hollie had not spoken, and his voice was as flat as ever, as if he were talking of a skipped meal, or a forgotten engagement. “All the time, I miss her. And I do not know how I might bear it.”

And how could he answer that, without sounding as if Gray were a thing of no account? You get used to it? There will be other girls? “Yes,” he said, eventually, and hoped that was sufficient.

“She was not beautiful. I never counted her beautiful. But she was- alive, she was always so, so – she was never still, was she?” For the first time in weeks, another slow tear made its way from under his lashes, trickling down into his hair, soaking the greasy pillow. “Hollie?”

“Aye?”

Luce covered his eyes with the back of his wrist. “How do you forget?” he said, in a tiny voice.

And all Hollie could say was, “You don’t, Luce. You keep putting one foot in front of t’other. You don’t forget. But you get used to it.”
No consolation to think that after almost ten years there were still nights when he dreamed of Margriete, and still hurt to wake and find her gone. And that just for that first heartbeat, it hurt as much as it had.
“It will always hurt?” Luce said, and Hollie nodded, forgetting the lad had his eyes screwed tight shut.

“Like any other scar, brat. It will always hurt, if you get touched on it.”

“Good,” he said fiercely.  “For – I c-cannot bear that she should not be here, Hollie, and yet I cannot bear to pretend she never was.” And he sat up, quite forgetting that he was supposed to be on death’s doorstep, with all his tangled dirty hair falling about his face, and he buried his face in his two hands and sobbed like a little boy, with no thought for his beauty or his dignity. “It hurts,” he wailed, “it hurts, Hollie, it hurts!”

Aye. Well. Luce had forgot his beauty and his dignity, but Hollie was reminded, suddenly, that he had a daughter. And that one day, as the sparks flew upwards, she would look to him to comfort her. It was thinking of Thomazine that he sat on the edge of the bed and put his arms round the brat, patting him gingerly on the shoulder as he wept.
“It’ll all come good, Luce,” he said, and closed his eyes and thought of Thomazine. “It’ll all come good.”

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