This portrait is the first that Kneller painted in England and is the only one known to date from 1676, the year he arrived in London from Hamburg. John Banckes, the subject of this portrait, was his first English patron, with whom he lodged for about a year. In early sources Banckes is described as a 'Hamburg merchant & Banker' (Vertue Notebooks I, Walpole Society, 18, 1940, pp.27-8), although the letter on the table shown here, addressed to 'Mr John Banckes, Mrchant, London', was sent from Amsterdam.
It was through Banckes that Kneller was introduced to James Vernon (1646-1727), then secretary to the Duke of Monmouth. On seeing Kneller's image of Banckes, as well as those of Banckes's family, Vernon commissioned his own portrait (1677, National Portrait Gallery, London). In a letter of 12 April 1677 to his brother, John Zachary, then in York (transcribed in Stewart 1983, pp.183-6), Kneller makes it clear that he hoped to use Vernon, and Vernon's access to Monmouth, as an avenue to fashionable society and court commissions. At the time of writing he was engaged on Vernon's portrait, as well as one of Vernon's wife and another of 'Miladi Barti', probably Lady Bertie, for which he was not preparing to charge a fee but expected, instead, introductions to other patrons. He describes his aspirations and the necessity of having handsome, easily accessible rooms to attract clients. By this date he had moved from Banckes's house and was living in Durham Yard, near Whitehall Palace, accommodation secured for him by Vernon and rented to him by a rich French tailor, who worked 'for the greatest ladies of the court'. His bed was 'lined with yellow silk and covered in grand style', he says, and his larger room hung with expensive landscape tapestries. 'You can't imagine how Mr Bancks fawns on me', he continues, 'He wants another portrait of himself to send to the country with the others, but I'm not in any haste and certainly he will have to come to my rooms: already you know, change of status, change of humour'. To what extent this informal letter, which adopts a humorous and boastful air, reflects Kneller's true attitude towards his first patron is uncertain. It does, however, reveal Kneller's ambitious determination to establish himself as a fashionable portraitist, and the means by which he did so.
Banckes's portrait, signed 'Godefrid' Kneller opposed to the anglicised 'Godfrey' he adopted later, is painted in a gentler, more hesitant style than his confidant, maturer works. As such it is closer to his early continental works and reflective of his Dutch training, in Amsterdam under Rembrandt (1606-69) and Ferdinand Bol (1616-80). Banckes, painted with a direct honesty and informality, appears as a man of relaxed ease, his expression shy and genial. He stands before a rich, ornamental garden, the oriental carpet covering the table indicating his cultivation and prosperity. This is Kneller's only known portrait of Banckes; whether the second was ever undertaken is unclear.
J Douglas Stewart, Sir Godfrey Kneller and the English Baroque Portrait, Oxford 1983, pp.18-22 and 183-6
Tate Gallery Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, 1996, pp.42-3.