Artist biography

English painter. Dobson was apprenticed to William Peake (c. 1580–1639). Dobson followed the embattled Charles I to Oxford. He probably arrived there late in 1642. His business seems to have been brisk from the start.

The extent of Dobson's royal patronage is unknown. The King seems to have sat only for a full-face head (Brit. Royal Col.), presumably to be used for the production of repetitions, but Dobson painted Charles, Prince of Wales (c. 1643; Edinburgh, N.P.G.), and James, Duke of York, as well as the Palatine princes Rupert and Maurice.

His style developed and finally deteriorated so that it is possible to gauge an approximate chronology for most of his works. His lack of sound training and his technical weaknesses were offset by his evident pleasure in the use of paint and his natural instinct for colour, enhanced by his powers of observation. While it must have become increasingly difficult to obtain materials in wartime Oxford, the failure of the royalist cause and personal disillusionment must have contributed to this clear deterioration of technique. Dobson's powers of observation and characterisation remained unimpaired, however, and the fragility of the later paintings adds to their air of melancholy.

Oxford capitulated to the Parliamentary forces in June 1646, and Dobson was back in London by August, when he was nominated (but not elected) Steward of the Painter-Stainers' Company. He died in poverty the following October. He left no followers of any significance, and his influence on his contemporaries was negligible.

R. Symonds: Note Book, 1651–3 (London, BM, MS. Egerton. 1636, fols 180, 206); fully transcribed in M. Beal: A Study of Richard Symonds (New York, 1984), pp. 299, 311
J. Aubrey: Brief Lives (1669–96; London, BM, MS.); ed. A. Clark, i (London, 1898), p. 78
R. Graham: ‘A Short Account of the Most Eminent Painters, both Ancient and Modern', The Art of Painting, ed. Du Fresnoy (Eng. trans., London, 1695)
B. Buckeridge: ‘An Essay towards an English School of Painters', The Art of Painting, ed. R. de Piles (London, ?1706), pp. 368–70
H. Walpole: Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762–71); ed. R. N. Wornum, ii (1849), pp. 351–4
C. H. Collins Baker: Lely and the Stuart Portrait Painters, i (London, 1862), pp. 99–101
‘The Note Books of G. Vertue', Walpole Soc., i (1911); ii (1912); iii (1913); iv (1914); v (1915); index p. 64; vi (1916), pp. 9, 72, 175
William Dobson, 1611–1646 (exh. cat. by O. Millar, London, Tate, 1951)
E. K. Waterhouse: Painting in England, 1530 to 1790 (London, 1953, rev. 4/1978), pp. 80–85
M. Whinney and O. Millar: English Art, 1625–1714 (Oxford, 1957), pp. 84–8
O. Millar: The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen (London, 1963), pp. 113–14
W. Vaughan: Endymion Porter and William Dobson (London, 1970)
The Age of Charles I (exh. cat. by O. Millar, London, Tate, 1972), pp. 99–102
William Dobson, 1611–1646 (exh. cat. by M. Rogers, London, N.P.G., 1983) [most comprehensive study of Dobson and his work to date; most known works illustr.]


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