Sir Godfrey Kneller

Portrait of John Banckes


Sir Godfrey Kneller 1646–1723
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1372 × 1016 mm
frame: 1477 × 1130 × 60 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987


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.

Further reading:
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.

Tabitha Barber
June 2001

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Display caption

This portrait is of John Banckes, Kneller’s first English patron, who probably brought the painter to London from Hamburg. Banckes was described as a 'Hamburg merchant & banker'. He is wearing the kind of gown that would have been worn in the home and in coffee houses and meeting places to do business. Kneller was ambitious and soon abandoned his middle-class patron in favour of the Duke of Monmouth. Before long, Kneller was England's foremost portrait painter to the aristocracy and the royal family, a position he was to hold for the next fifty years.

Gallery label, January 2019

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Catalogue entry

T05019 Portrait of John Banckes 1676

Oil on canvas 1372 × 1016 (54 × 40)
Inscribed ‘Godefrid Kneller | A.o 1676 F.’ b.l. and ‘For Mr John Banckes. | Mrchant | London | from Amstm’ on paper on table
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987
Prov: Painted for the sitter; ...; entered the Bastard family collection at an unknown date; Col. Reginald Bastard by 1956 (when lent to RA), thence by descent to John Rodney Bastard of Kitley House, near Plymouth, Devon; sold by his widow, Kitley House sale, Christie's 19–20 October 1987 (218, repr. in col.) £20,900 bt Jonathan Harris, from whom bt by Tate Gallery
Exh: British Portraits, RA, Nov. 1956–March 1957 (140); Sir Godfrey Kneller, National Portrait Gallery, Nov. 1971–Jan. 1972 (13, repr.)
Lit: Vertue Notebooks 1, Walpole Society, vol.18, 1940, pp.27–8; Review of NPG exhibition, Burlington Magazine, vol.99, 1957, pp.24–7, fig.34; J.Douglas Stewart, Sir Godfrey Kneller and the English Baroque Portrait, 1983, pp.11, 18–20, 22n, 93, 184–5, cat. no.72, pls.8, 117 (detail). Also repr: Tate Gallery Report 1986–88, 1988, p.50 (col.)

Banckes was Kneller's first English patron and by all accounts instrumental in bringing the painter to England. In a notebook compiled in 1713–21 (BM Add. 21111, transcribed in Walpole Society, vol.18), Vertue records Banckes's role in the painter's career at some length:

Kneller... came to England about the year 1674... he was here recommended to Mr Banks a Hamburg merchant & Banker at whose house he was lodg'd & boarded. this Mr Banks had his picture done by Mr Kneller. & his wife & family. these pictures being seen by several people of consequence were very much approv'd off, among the rest one Mr Vernon, who was then secretary to the Duke of Monmouth resolved to have his picture done by this hand which when done gave him so much satisfaction that he promised to show it to the Duke.

Kneller is now generally thought to have arrived in England in 1676, not 1674, and the Banckes portrait remains the only known English portrait by the artist to be dated 1676. The above-mentioned portrait of James Vernon, signed and dated 1677, is now in the National Portrait Gallery. It gained Kneller the patronage of the Duke of Monmouth and set off his meteoric rise as England's foremost portrait painter to the aristocracy and the court, a position he was to hold for the next fifty years.

Not much is known about Banckes. Stewart (1983) suggests that he could be the ‘John Bankes Fenchurch-street’ listed in A collection of the Merchants Now Living in and about the City of London, 1677, but thinks the spelling is against this. Vertue describes him as a ‘Hamburg merchant & Banker’, but the letter on the table seems to stress links with Amsterdam (where Kneller is said to have studied under Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt in the early 1660s). Banckes does, however, seem to have had two brothers who were merchants at Hamburg in 1672. Stewart cites four letters in the British Museum (Add. MS 21948, fols.312, 320, 345, 351), written 10 September–4 October 1672, from the Hamburg merchants Charles and James Banckes to the Duke of Richmond, then at Copenhagen, about some trading interests, in which they refer to an order received ‘from our brother John Banckes to furnish your Grace the vallew of five hundred pounds starling’. He could also be the ‘Mr John Bancks’ mentioned by Cesare Morelli in a letter to Pepys, 29 May 1679, as ‘one of those merchants who knew me in Portugal, and now reside in London’ (Samuel Pepys, Letters and the Second Diary, ed. R.G. Howarth, 1932, p.83).

A letter from Godfrey Kneller to his elder brother John Zachary at York, datable to 12 April 1677 (British Museum Add MS 4277, fol.104, transcribed in full and translated from the Italian original in Stewart 1983, Appendix 11), shows that the very ambitious painter did not feel overly obliged to his first English patron. He describes with satisfaction his fine new rooms in Whitehall and his success with his rapidly growing clientele. He adds that

Mr Bancks wishes to recommend me to the clergy. He has recommended me to such an extent that I have already begun the portrait of Miladi Barti [? Lady Bertie], who had her portrait done by Lely; his portrait is not like, but mine is a much better likeness already. So I've already begun three portraits up in my handsome new rooms. Because everyone ought to come to me, even the greatest...You can't imagine how Mr. Bancks fawns on me. 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.

No other portrait of Banckes is known, and the portraits of his wife and family have also been lost sight of. It is interesting to note that they were sent ‘to the country’, implying that Banckes had a country seat. The description Kneller gives of his living and working conditions in this letter also implies that at this early stage in his career he was still working entirely on his own, without any assistants. One can assume therefore that the paintings of this date - including this portrait of Banckes - are entirely by his own hand, unlike the products of his later studio practice, where he painted only the face mask, while the rest was completed by assistants and specialised drapery painters.

The portrait is one of Kneller's most relaxed and informal works. In conception it is quite like ‘Herr von Copet’ painted in Germany the previous year (now in the Kurpfälzisches Museum, Heidelberg), but enhanced by what Stewart calls ‘Van Dyckian grace and lack of “pose”’ and a ‘shy, genial expression’. The Turkey carpet on the table gives it a very Dutch feel, fitting in well with the portraits of wealthy merchants by Nicholas Maes and Caspar Netscher. The significance of the statue in the left background, showing a female perhaps holding a hoop or circle, remains unclear.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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