William Dobson

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife

c.1635–40

Artist
William Dobson 1611–1646
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 610 x 457 mm
frame: 812 x 664 x 95 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1992
Reference
T06640

Not on display

Summary

This, together with its identically sized companion - a self-portrait (private collection) - is probably Dobson's earliest surviving work. The two works can be seen hanging in Howsham Hall, Yorkshire in a watercolour of about 1830. Their previous history is not known, but the paintings at Howsham were connected with the Cholmley and Strickland families.

Dobson's first wife had died in September 1634. His life is not well documented, and it is not known exactly when in the late 1630s he married his second wife, Judith, who it is presumed is portrayed here. The thickly impastoed surface is characteristic of Dobson's early technique.

This is a very personal image, unexpectedly direct and intimate. Portraits in Britain at this time were generally formal public expressions of status. Dobson seems to have been employed mainly to paint men, for few female portraits by him survive. The present one, however, is handled with considerable delicacy and freshness. The sitter's glance is teasing, even challenging, and could be read as a riposte to the direct, almost confrontational gaze of her husband in his companion portrait. Dobson seems to take an erotic pleasure in contrasting the shiny texture of his wife's cream satin cap - beneath which her hair is confined, although some carefully curled ringlets have escaped - with the fleshy texture of her breasts and their deep cleavage.

Dobson has been described as 'the most distinguished purely British painter before Hogarth' (Waterhouse, p.80). Very little is known about him or his work before 1642 when, during the Civil War, he moved with Charles I's court to Oxford. Charles's portraitist Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) had died the previous year, and Dobson seems to have filled the vaccuum left by his death, although it is not clear whether he ever held an official court post. Between 1642 and 1646, he worked in Oxford, painting both the various courtiers, and also the King himself. One of his most celebrated works is the portrait of Endymion Porter (Tate N01249), thought to date from the earlier part of this period. When Oxford fell to the Parliamentarians in May 1646, Dobson appears to have returned to London.

Dobson was described by his earliest biographer Richard Graham as 'a Gentleman', which indicates that he was of relatively high social status: 'He was a fair, middle-siz'd Man, of a ready Wit, and pleasing Conversation; was somewhat loose, and irregular in his way of Living … and died very poor, at his House in St. Martin's Lane' (John Dryden, The Art of Painting by C. A. du Fresnoy, with a Short Account of the most Eminent Painters … by R[ichard]. G[raham]. Esq, 1716, pp.376-7).

It is not known whether Dobson and his wife had children. Judith evidently survived the Restoration, for John Aubrey later noted that 'Mris Judith Dobson, vidua pictoris [that is, 'the widow of the artist']' had commented that the first point-band (a form of lace collar) in England had been worn by Charles II at his coronation (John Aubrey, 'Brief Lives', chiefly of Contemporaries, ed. Andrew Clark, 1898, vol.II, p.318).

Further Reading:

William Dobson 1611-46, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 1983, no.2, reproduced in colour, pl.1
E. K. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530-1790, 5th edn, New Haven and London 1994, p.80-5
Waldemar Januszczak, 'The first great British painter?', tate, 17, Spring 1999, p.62

Karen Hearn
February 2001

Display caption

Dobson's first wife died in September 1634. It is thought that he married his second wife, Judith, soon after. This small scale portrait was probably painted to celebrate the second marriage. At the same time Dobson painted a self-portrait (which is now in a private collection).

This is an informal and very personal image, with the sitter's eyes caught in an intimate gaze. The string of pearls at her throat have been left unfinished.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

William Dobson 1611–1646

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife
c.1635–40
Oil on canvas
610 x 457 mm
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1992
T06640

Ownership history
…; the Strickland family, Howsham Hall, Yorkshire by c.1830; Howsham Hall sale, 1–4 November 1948 (793), where bought by Rev. Denzil Wright, father of Mrs Alexander Dunbar from whom purchased by Tate 1992.

Exhibition history
William Dobson 1611–46, National Portrait Gallery, London, 21 October 1983 – 8 January 1984, no.2, repr in colour pl.1.

References
Transactions of the East Riding Antiquarian Society, vol. 10 1903, p.53, no.90 (as ‘Mrs. Dobson, wife of the artist. Painted by her husband’); John Shaw, ‘Tate Adds New Portrait to its Stuart Display’, The Times, 2 September 1992, p.13; ‘Viewpoints’, Arts Review, October 1992, p.471; Karen Hearn, ‘More Than Just Portraits’, Apollo, February 1993, p.31; Tate Report 1992–94, 1994, p.17; Karen Hearn, ‘Acquisitions of Seventeenth-Century Painting at the Tate Gallery’, Apollo, December 1996, p.21 (and ‘Errata’, Apollo, March 1997, p.47); Waldemar Januszczak, ‘The First Great British Painter?’, Tate, no.17, Spring 1999, p.62.

This, together with its identically sized pendant – a self-portrait, wearing armour (private collection) – is probably Dobson’s earliest surviving work.1 The two head-and-shoulders images can be seen hanging in Howsham Hall in a watercolour by Mary Ellen Best of about 1830.2 The earlier history of the two works is not known, but many of the paintings at Howsham were connected with the Cholmley family, formerly of Whitby.

Dobson’s first wife had died in September 1634.3 His life is not well documented, and it is not known exactly when in the late 1630s he married his second wife, Judith, who is presumed to be portrayed here. The thickly impastoed surface is characteristic of Dobson’s early technique.

This is a very personal image, unexpectedly direct and intimate. Portraits in Britain from this period were generally quite formal public expressions of status. Dobson seems to have been employed predominantly to paint men, for few female portraits by him survive. Those that do are surprisingly variable in quality.4 His rough, slab-like technique of applying paint was perhaps not seen as appropriate for representations of ladies. The present image, however, is handled with considerable delicacy and freshness. The sitter’s glance is teasing, even challenging, and could be read as a riposte to the direct, almost confrontational gaze of her husband in the companion portrait. Dobson seems to take an erotic pleasure in contrasting the shiny texture of his wife’s cream satin cap – beneath which her hair is confined, although some carefully curled ringlets have escaped – with the fleshy texture of her breasts and their deep cleavage.

Dobson has been described as ‘the most distinguished purely British painter before Hogarth’.5 Very little is known about him or his work before 1642 when, during the Civil War, he moved with Charles I’s court to Oxford. Charles’s portraitist Sir Anthony van Dyck had died the previous year and Dobson seems to have filled the vacuum left by his death, although it is not clear whether he ever held an official court post. Between 1642 and 1646 he worked in Oxford, painting the various transplanted courtiers, and also the King himself. One of his most celebrated works is the portrait of Endymion Porter (Tate N01249), thought to date from the earlier part of this period. When Oxford fell to the Parliamentarians in May 1646, Dobson appears to have returned to London.

Dobson was described by his earliest biographer as ‘a Gentleman’, which indicates that he was of relatively high social status. According to Richard Graham, ‘He was a fair, middle-siz’d Man, of a ready Wit, and pleasing Conversation; was somewhat loose, and irregular in his way of Living ... and died very poor, at his House in St. Martin’s Lane, Anno 1647’.6

It is not known whether he and his wife had children. Judith evidently survived the Restoration, for later in the seventeenth century John Aubrey noted that ‘Mris Judith Dobson, vidua pictoris’ had commented that the first point-band (a form of lace collar) in England had been worn by Charles II at his coronation.7

In 1763 Horace Walpole stated that ‘Dobson’s wife, by him, is on the stairs of the Ashmolean museum at Oxford’; this work can no longer be identified.8

Karen Hearn
May 2006

Notes

1 Malcolm Rogers, William Dobson 1611–46, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 1983, p.22–3, no.1.
2 Sold Sotheby’s, New York, 21 January 1983 (210).
3 She was buried at St Martin-in-the Fields, London, on 26 September 1634; see Rogers 1983, p.9.
4 See for example Unknown Girl c.1643, reproduced in Rogers 1983, p.43, no.13.
5 E.K. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530–1790, 5th edn, London 1994, p.80.
6 John Dryden, The Art of Painting by C. A. du Fresnoy, with a Short Account of the Most Eminent Painters ... by R[ichard]. G[raham]. Esq, 1716, pp.376–7.
7 John Aubrey, ‘Brief Lives’, Chiefly of Contemporaries, ed. by Andrew Clark, vol.2, 1898, p.318.
8 Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, vol.2, London 1763, p.108.

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