William Style (1599/1600 or 1603-79) was the son of William Style of Langley, Kent and his second wife Mary, daughter of Sir Robert Clarke, Baron of the Exchequer. He matriculated from Queen's College, Oxford in 1618, aged 15, and became a student at the Inner Temple in London that same year, completing his legal training as a barrister in 1628.
During his legal career, Style published some minor works on law and, in 1640, a translation from the Latin of a devotional handbook by the Nuremberg humanist and theologian Johann Michael Dilherr, entitled Contemplations, Sighes and Groanes of a Christian, the original of which had first been published in Jena in 1634.
Many features in this portrait closely echo Dilherr's text. It may have even been painted while Style was working on his translation - his preface is dated 'From my chamber in the Inner Temple August 20 1639', and the date '1636' over the archway in the painting could commemorate the year of Style's entrance into a new understanding of religious life at that time. It was this which led him to embark upon the translation. His text is an exhortation in very elaborate language to abandon worldly vanities for a more Christian life. In it he uses the garden as an analogue for the church.
In accord with these sentiments Style, in this painting, turns his back on his worldly possessions, starting with his coat-of-arms set in the window, top left, reinforced with the Latin motto underneath 'vix ea nostra voco' ('I scarcely call these things my own'). In further echoes of Dilherr's text, Style also turns away from his books and writing, his outer garments and a chair, and from worldly music in the shape of a small violin of the type used by dancing-masters. Behind him is the classical archway which makes no sense architecturally, but perhaps represents the entrance to the garden of the Church, a metaphor particularly common in Catholic literature. The garden is protected by a green hedge from the mountainous wilderness beyond. The latter is dominated by an antique ruin, symbolising, perhaps, the pagan world.
The costly black-and-white floor is a feature more commonly seen in Dutch paintings of this period, although it is now thought that very few such floors existed in reality. The curious object and the Latin motto at his feet, to which Style so purposefully points with his cane, would have been easily understood by his contemporaries: 'Microcosmus Microcosmi non impletur Megacosmo' can be translated as 'The microcosm (or heart) of the microcosm (or man) is not filled (even) by the megacosm (or world)' - that is to say that the human heart is not sated with the whole created world, but only with its Creator. This image of a globe within a burning heart could have been inspired by Peter Heylyn's Microcosumus. A little description of the Great World, 1621. Heylyn and Style overlapped as students at Oxford University (Heylyn matriculated in 1617 and subsequently became a high-churchman). However, as Dixon Hunt has pointed out, the image of the world within a heart was also a favourite image of the radical sect, the Family of Love, groups of which worshipped in secret in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England (Dixon Hunt, pp.301-3).
It has not yet proved possible to identify the painter of this remarkable work, although it shows some resemblance to the work of the British portraitist Edward Bower (active c.1636-67) whose first definitely identified painting dates from 1636. At some time during the 1630s, Bower may have worked as an assistant to Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Bower is known to have had a studio located at Temple Bar, in London, at the junction of the Strand and Fleet Street, which would have been conveniently close to Style's quarters at the Inner Temple.
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1978-80 , London 1981, pp.4-6 (where reproduced, p.4, in reverse)
John Dixon Hunt, 'The Portrait of William Style of Langley: Some Reflections', John Donne Journal, vol.5, nos.1-2, Raleigh North Carolina 1986, pp.291-310