Sir William Killigrew (1606-1695) was a courtier to Charles I, and also later a playwright. Van Dyck depicts him as a meditative scholar, his gaze withdrawn from the viewer. He leans pensively against the base of a column, and the viewer’s attention is drawn to a ring tied with a ribbon to his black satin jacket - perhaps in allusion to, or in memory of, a loved one. Van Dyck depicts the fabrics with bravura: the white satin shirt and lace cuff of the right arm are sumptuously painted, while Killigrew's elegant right hand is tensed, belying the apparently relaxed nature of the pose.
Killigrew was descended from an old Cornish family, but was himself born in Middlesex, where his courtier father resided near the royal palace of Hampton Court. He and his siblings received a good education and most of them, including his sisters, were in their turn to hold significant court positions. His younger brother Thomas (1612-1683) is the best-known of them today, as a dramatist and as a theatre manager after the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660. In April 1624 William set off on a lengthy journey across Europe - a Jacobean version of the ‘Grand Tour’ – though his precise itinerary is unknown. By May 1626, he was back in England, where he was knighted by Charles I. At around the same time, he married Mary Hill, of Honiley, Warwickshire, and was appointed a Gentleman-Usher of the Privy Chamber to Charles I. In 1628 he was elected Member of Parliament for Penryn in Cornwall, and from 1633 to 1635 was Governor of Pendennis Castle, a post previously held by his father. He also involved himself in his father’s project of draining fen lands – the Lindsey level – in Lincolnshire. This was ultimately to exhaust his economic resources, and meant that he was to be financially hard-pressed for much of the rest of his life.
Van Dyck painted a number of portraits connected with the Killigrew family in or around the year 1638. These include a sombre double portrait of Thomas Killigrew and an Unknown Gentleman, surrounded by symbols of mourning (The Royal Collection). At the start of 1638 Cecelia Crofts, the wife of Thomas Killigrew, died, followed shortly afterwards by her sister Anne, Lady Cleveland.
Van Dyck has had a greater impact on British portrait-painting than any other artist. He was born and trained in Antwerp and first visited England in 1620-21, before moving to Italy where he assimilated the works of Titian and other Venetian painters. Out of these varying influences, he evolved new forms of portraiture by adapting the visual language of these earlier artists. In 1632 he returned to England and entered the service of Charles I; he reinvented the visual imagery of the English court.
The composition of this fine, sensitive portrait from the middle of van Dyck’s English career reflects his study of Venetian art. Titian had frequently included a column in the background of his male portraits to convey the status and worth of the sitter. He had probably first used this in the three-quarter-length portrait of Giacomo Doria, dressed in black satin and painted around 1533-5 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). In turn, this type of van Dyckian composition was to influence later British artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.
The inscription, lower left, 'SVR WILLIVM KILLIGR[E]W / A.Van.Dyck.pinxit. / 1638', resembles ones on van Dyck’s images of other Killigrew family members, including the companion portrait of the sitter's wife, Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew, which was subsequently also acquired by Tate (Tate T07956).
J. P. Vander Motten, Sir William Killigrew (1606-1695), Ghent, 1980.
Malcolm Rogers, 'Golden Houses for Shadows: Some Portraits of Thomas Killigrew and his Family', in ed. David Howarth, Art and Patronage at the Caroline Courts, Cambridge, 1993, pp.220-42
Karen Hearn, Sir Anthony van Dyck: Portrait of Sir William Killigrew, 1638, Tate, Patrons’ Papers 6, 2003.