Catalogue entry

Simon du Bois 1632–1708

Portrait of a Gentleman, probably Arthur Parsons MD
Oil on canvas
762 x 635 mm
Inscribed ‘S. du Bois. Fecit 1683’ lower right; ‘Nat: xxix Octob: 1653’ top left; ‘Aetat suae xxx’ top right.
Presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1998

Ownership history
…; acquired from a private house in London in the 1970s by Malcolm Stevens Esq?, from whom purchased by the Patrons of British Art for Tate.

Tate Report 1998–2000, 2000, p.95.

An early twentieth-century label which was formerly attached to the back identifies the subject as ‘Arthur Parsons M.D. Oxon. B. 1656. Dsp. M. Mary Jackson.’. The Latin inscriptions on the front of the work, however, indicate that the sitter was born on 29 October 1653 and that at the date of this portrait he was either aged thirty or in his thirtieth year. The discrepancy between the sitter’s date of birth as given on the front of the painting and that apparently recorded for Parsons may leave the sitter’s identity in doubt.

Arthur was probably the son of Arthur and Agnes Parsons of West Buckland, Somerset.1 When he matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, on 22 March 1672 he was said to be aged 16.2 He graduated as a Bachelor of Arts from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1675 and subsequently travelled to the Netherlands to study medicine at the universities of Leiden and of Groningen.3 At this period, Leiden was the Dutch Republic’s most distinguished university, and attracted Europe’s best foreign students. Its faculty of medicine had a considerable international reputation, and by the 1680s ‘the value of a Leiden degree counted for much, particularly among the upper classes and generally conservative members of the medical profession’.4 A printed copy of Parsons’s Leiden University thesis on kidney disease is now in the British Library.5 Returning to England, he was admitted Extra Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians on 17 March 1684 (1683 Old Style). He may have commissioned the present portrait to mark this professional achievement, and his experience of Holland could have made it natural for him to turn for this to a Netherlandish painter.

Parsons subsequently practised as a physician at Taunton in Somerset before moving to nearby Bishops Hull. The date of his first marriage – presumably to the Mary Jackson named on the paper label – is not recorded, nor is the date of her death. On 15 October 1713 he remarried and his wife Elizabeth subsequently became his executrix. He died in 1720, leaving bequests to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, ‘where I had the hon[ou]r to be educated’ and to the church of St Magdalen, Taunton.6 He seems to have left no children of his own, and his will hints at some family disharmony: ‘To my nephew William Caspey of London I do forgive his two sitters Betty and Mary all the disrespect and ill usage I have had from them’.

Born in Antwerp, the son of the painter Hendrik du Bois, Simon du Bois studied with Philips Wouwerman in 1652–3 and then spent some years in Italy. In about 1680 he settled in England with his brother Edward, living in Covent Garden in London and, according to the antiquarian Horace Walpole, ‘heaping up money’.7 His most important patron was the distinguished lawyer John, 1st Lord Somers, who became Lord Chancellor, and was later to act as the artist’s executor.8 Granted British denization (a form of naturalisation) in 1697, du Bois also acted as a dealer in works of art, and assembled a collection of paintings, prints and antiquities in conjunction with the marine painter William van de Velde, whose daughter he married in 1706. As well as portraits, du Bois painted battle scenes and pastiches of Italian Old Masters, some of which, according to Vertue, were passed off as genuine.

Du Bois’s earliest English works, of which this is one, are head-and-shoulders portraits in plain feigned oval surrounds. They are characterised by strong Italianate lighting, a sfumato, or cloudy handling of the flesh and an exceptional attention to detail in the depiction of the fashionable lace cravats worn by his male sitters. They are thus a vivid fusion of Netherlandish and Italian elements. The present portrait, of considerable charm and subtlety, particularly emphasises the Italianate element in the melting pot of Continental influences that made up late-seventeenth century art in Britain.

This portrait is in very good condition, and is set in an elaborately carved and gilded frame of a flower and acorn design. This frame is probably contemporary with the painting, and may be original to it.

Karen Hearn
May 2006


1 Philip Hocking of Somerset Archive and Record Service, letter to the author, 28 May 1998.
2 Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses 1500–1714, Oxford [not dated], vol.3, p.1122; W. Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 1861, vol.I, p.432.
3 R.W. Innes Smith, English-Speaking Students of Medicine at the University of Leyden, Edinburgh and London 1932, p.178.
4 G.S. Rousseau, ‘Science and Medicine at Leiden’, in R.P. Maccubbin and M. Hamilton-Phillips (eds.), The Age of William III & Mary II, Williamsburg 1988, pp.195–6.
5 Arthur Parsons, De Calculo Renum et Vesicae, 1678, British Library 1185.i.17 (18.).
6 His will was not proved until February 1735 (PROB 11/574, sig 142).
7 Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, vol.III, London 1763, p.119.
8 ‘when Dubois Dy’d by his will. he left his Lordship all his books of prints which were considerable for a man of his station. likewise his Fathers & Mothers picture painted by Vandyke’. See Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, vol.I, London 1929–30, p.125. On the association between Du Bois and Somers, see Carol Gibson-Wood, ‘Jonathan Richardson, Lord Somers’s Collection of Drawings, and Early Art-Historical Writing in England’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.52, 1989, pp.167–76. Du Bois’s posthumous sale on 2 February 1709 contained 379 lots of paintings (British Library Harley 5947).