John Riley

James Sotheby


Not on display

John Riley 1646–1691
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1270 × 1027 mm
Purchased 1955

Technique and condition

The painting support is a twill canvas that has been primed with a dark, reddish ground. The ground is only visible in a few areas, for example where the surface paint is especially thin. The palette is subdued and limited but this is certainly exaggerated by layers of discolored and unsaturing varnish. The blue drapery, the lace and the fleshtones are the only clearly legible passages although some rich coloration is discernable, for example, in the dark green of the curtain, in traces of red in the costume and in the remote scenery beyond the window. Removal of the varnish will enhance these colors, reveal details, as well as restore the illusion of depth in the painting. However due to the dark ground and the effects of lining and aging, the tonality of the painting has probably shifted permanently.

Extensive changes in the costume are visible with infrared reflectography. In particular the blue drapery has been largely reworked with a different system of folds. The blue glazes that enhance the shadows are nearly transparent in the infrared region and thus are likely to be prussian blue. Prussian blue began to be used commonly in the 18th Century so this is either an extremely early occurrence of the pigment or an indication that this is a later modification.

Helen Spande
November 2002

Catalogue entry

John Riley 1646–1693

James Sotheby
Oil paint on canvas
1270 x 1030 mm
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1955

Ownership history
commissioned by the sitter, who paid £26.17.6 for it in 1689; thence by descent in the Sotheby family, of Hackney and Sewardstone, Essex, and later of Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire, until sold Sotheby Heirlooms sale, Sotheby’s 12 October 1955 (106); bt Agnew (£80) on behalf of the Tate Gallery.

J. Douglas Stewart, ‘Records of Payments to Sir Godfrey Kneller and his Contemporaries’, Burlington Magazine, January 1971, p.30 note 6.

This portrait is recorded in the notebooks of James Sotheby (c.1682–1742), eldest son of the sitter, James Sotheby (1655/6–1720), of Hackney and Sewardstone, Essex. Consisting mainly of extracts from the accounts of his father, the notebooks contain details concerning property and rents, but also the purchase of pictures, miniatures, silver and other works of art. ‘1689. My Father a Half Length by Riley’, he notes, and the payment of £ In the 1680s Riley is thought to have charged around £20 for a three quarter length portrait (described as half length in the seventeenth century), but the sum paid by Sotheby, although it probably includes the cost of the frame, indicates that by the end of the decade his prices had risen.2

On 23 April 1681, in succession to Sir Peter Lely, Riley had been sworn ‘Painter & Picture drawer in Ordinary’ to the King, an office he maintained under James II and in which he was confirmed by the new monarchs, William and Mary, in 1689, but this time jointly with Godfrey Kneller. But despite being the official court artist, it was the truthful directness of his portraits, his ‘peculiar Excellence in a Head’, and lack of fashionable ‘manner’ that recommended him to his earliest biographers.3 A modest, quiet man, ‘extreamly Courteous in his Behaviour, Obliging in his Conversation’,4 Riley was born in London, in the parish of St Botolph without Bishopsgate,5 and it was from London that he seems to have drawn numerous patrons, among them Lord Mayors, City aldermen and middle ranking professionals.

James Sotheby is often described as a merchant but documentary sources do not support this. His father, James Sotheby I (1607–1685), certainly was, however. A freeman of the Haberdashers’ Company, he is probably the ‘Mr Southerby, Hackney’ listed in the London merchants directory of 1677.6 The Sothebys were a long-established gentry family of Bishop Wilton and Pocklington, Yorkshire, but James Sotheby I’s father, Thomas, was actually rector of Comb, Suffolk, and his children seem to have been born and raised in Bury St Edmunds.7 How or when James Sotheby I became established in London is not known, but profits from his trade seem to have enabled the purchase of valuable freehold and copyhold land there. As well as his Hackney home, he owned a wharf and land in Bermondsey, and the freehold of several taverns,8 including The Bull and The Golden Key, Cheapside, the Rose Tavern and The Feathers, Fleet Street, The Bird in Hand Inn, St Saviour’s Dockhead, and the Fountain Tavern, on the Strand, where, on 28 November 1661, Samuel Pepys had ‘stayed till 12 at night, drinking and singing’.9 Following the pattern of many City merchants, in 1673 he purchased a country estate, Sewardstone, in Waltham Holy Cross, Essex, on the edge of Epping Forest.10

All this was inherited by his son James Sotheby who, in 1674, had married Anne Robinson, granddaughter of the distinguished City figure Sir Nicholas Crispe, a prominent merchant of considerable wealth and standing. Anne was also heiress to the large ninety-three-acre Bishop Hall estate in Hackney, which the present day Victoria Park partly occupies, sequestrated from the royalist Earl of Cleveland and bought in 1654 by her grandfather, William Robinson. Despite their ownership of Sewardstone, the Sotheby family seem to have identified themselves with Hackney. An area of open fields and fine prospects, and within easy reach of the City, Pepys records several pleasurable excursions there, to ‘take the ayre’. He visited the gardens of the fine houses owned by noblemen and rich merchants, ‘played at shuffle-board’ and ate ‘cream and good cherries’ in the local tavern.11 In 1667 he attended a service in the parish church, St Augustine, where he admired the handsome organ and crowded congregation, including Lady Vyner ‘rich in Jewells’.12 It was here that James Sotheby’s parents were buried, and where he chose to be buried himself, ‘under a stone, near the font’. His later monument, by Roubiliac, was erected in 1750 by his son, William, and daughter, Mary, ‘the only surviving children out of seven’.13

James Sotheby thus had an impressive City pedigree, his wealth and standing based on the foundations laid by his merchant father and his wife’s merchant forebears. Sotheby added to his landholdings with the purchase, in 1686, of a six-acre estate, Dannetts field, near Cambridge Heath, Stepney, bordering Bishop’s Hall,14 but his main residence was in Hatton Garden,15 an area developed from 1659 on the site of Hatton House, and described in John Strype’s 1720 Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, in which Sotheby is listed as a subscriber, as ‘very gracefully built, and well inhabited by Gentry’.16 Sotheby’s aspirations were those of a virtuoso gentleman. The inscription on the Roubiliac monument, as well as providing biographical details otherwise not recorded, celebrates him as an antiquarian and collector. Sotheby was a ‘strenuous asserter of civil and religious liberty, whose character recommended him to the personal knowledge and favour of King William’, it reads, ‘as in the preceding reign it had exposed him to the resentment of King James, who, on that account, first closetted and then imprisoned him’. He was also ‘well skilled in the polite literature, in most branches of which he left a very valuable collection. To the same love of their country, pursuit of knowledge, and practice of virtue, he endeavoured to form and train up his descendants, it is to be hoped, not altogether unsuccessfully’.17

Sotheby was indeed a collector of importance, especially of books, manuscripts, paintings and miniatures. Details of his purchases can be found in the Sotheby notebooks, and items original to his collection were sold in the Sotheby Heirlooms sales of 1955.18 In his will Sotheby bequeathed the different aspects of his collection very particularly.19 To his wife Anne he left all his jewels, plate and English books. The family portraits, those that he had commissioned as well as inherited, and his ‘Italian Pictures’, of which he seems particularly proud, also went to Anne, but for her life only and thence to his eldest son, James. To James directly he bequeathed all his books ‘of foreign language’, his manuscripts and his collection of ‘Roman and Grecian Coins and Medals’. He makes no specific mention of miniatures, although his collection of the latter is now regarded as one of the most important to have been assembled in the later seventeenth century. Sotheby began commissioning and purchasing art in the late 1670s, but the majority of his acquisitions seem to have been made in the early 1700s, at which date, in 1701, he also rebuilt Sewardstone (his wife’s inheritance of the Bishop’s Hall estate in 1700 is possibly significant).20 Although a period which witnessed an explosion in the number of art auctions, and a marked increase in the number of middling rank buyers, Sotheby was active at the exclusive, top end of the art market, interested only in quality works reserved for sales aimed at ‘Persons of Quality and Gentlemen’. More usually he by-passed auctions altogether, preferring instead to purchase directly from owners and collectors, and from artist-dealers and agents able to obtain the best works. Several of his prized possessions had distinguished provenances, and were works which were known, discussed and admired by connoisseurs of the day.

George Vertue was intensely interested in the Sotheby collection, which he viewed at least twice but after it had been inherited by Sotheby’s son, William. A picture which provoked a long deliberation was the ‘Dance of Henry VIII’, a painting ‘4 foot square on bord’ thought to represent Henry VIII dancing with Anne Boleyn.21 Purchased by Sotheby on 19 June 1703, it had come from the Norfolk collection at Weybridge, where John Evelyn had seen it in 1675 and pronounced it ‘an incomparable painting by Holbein’.22 Lely thought it was by ‘Gennet, painter to Fr 1er’, a fact, noted by Sotheby’s son in his notebook, that Lely had ‘told a friend of his who communicated it to my father’. Vertue decided it had been begun be Genet but completed by Holbein (in 1955 it was sold as Franco-Flemish school, Three Elegant Couples Dancing in a Landscape). Sotheby owned a surprising number of religious pictures, including The Assumption of the Virgin by Rubens, bought on 2 December 1709 from ‘Mr Marlow, Sir Edmund King’s Executor’ for £25; and one of his prized Italian pictures must have been his Portrait of a Venetian Senator, purchased, via a dealer, as a Veronese from the high profile sale of Sir Peter Lely’s pictures in 1682, but sold in 1955 as by Tintoretto.

Vertue estimated that Sotheby had ‘about 30 or 40’ miniatures by the best artists, including Hilliard, Isaac and Peter Oliver, John Hoskins and Samuel Cooper.23 His Isaac Oliver Anne of Denmark (National Portrait Gallery, London) was bought from the picture restorer and dealer Parry Walton, while his Venus and Cupid by Peter Oliver (sold at Bonhams on 19 November 2008, lot 25) was purchased from the dealer William Gibson in 1703 for £10. It was one of three rare and important cabinet miniatures by Oliver owned by him, the others being The Penitent Magdalen and the Head of St John the Baptist, of the type based on Old Master paintings much prized by Charles I. Sotheby’s miniatures were presented with expense and care, in uniform gilt-metal cases with engraved borders and pierced spiral crestings, with the monogram JS engraved on the reverse. The ‘Case, Cristal &c’ for Venus and Cupid was provided by Mr Seamer, or Seymour, a goldsmith listed at (Three) Flower-de-Luce, near Serjeants’ Inn, Fleet Street, and paid for in January 1705.24 At £9.5.3 it cost almost as much as the miniature itself.

Sotheby purchased at least one work, of dogs, from Leonard Knyff, owned an equestrian portrait by Jan Wyck and the four flower pieces by Monnoyer sold from the Sotheby collection in 1955 may have been owned by him. But his commissioning of contemporary artists otherwise seems to have been restricted to portraiture. As early as 1679 Sotheby had commissioned his own portrait from Matthew Dixon, followed by that of his wife and his daughter Anne in 1680, for what appears to have been the relatively low outlay of £8.5.0 each. Described by Vertue as done ‘tollerably well in Sr P Lelys style’,25 cost may have been a factor in the choice of artist, although John Evelyn also commissioned work from Dixon, who appears to have been an artist rated at the time. Sotheby’s appearance in Riley’s portrait of him, paid for a decade later, is strikingly similar to Dixon’s, proving that both artists captured a good likeness. In commissioning Riley it is probably incorrect to presume on Sotheby’s part the deliberate choice of a particular aesthetic, particularly if placed in the context of Sotheby’s other commissions. Although the lack of pretension and gentle honesty of Riley’s portraits was championed as their distinctive feature by his biographers, as well as their warm colouring, use of browns and reds, and ‘natural observation’, which Vertue highlighted as the hallmark of the ‘Riley school’,26 Sotheby in fact commissioned family portraits from a wide range of artists. Portraits of his wife were commissioned from Kneller in 1692 and 1711; of himself and his daughter Anne from Hugh Howard in 1709 or 12; of his sons Thomas and James from Enoch Seeman in 1710 and 1712; and of his daughter Mary from Jacques d’Agar in 1714.

Riley presents Sotheby as a gentleman, in front of a grand fluted column and with his arm casually resting on a stone plinth, on which his sword, symbol of his status, rests. His pose, standing with his hand on his hip and his thumb tucked into a loosely tied sash, is from Riley’s somewhat limited repertoire of poses, and one which he deployed for other sitters, sometimes in reverse. Riley employed the posture painter John Baptist Gaspars, as well as several students, and in 1689, just two years before his death, was in a working partnership with John Closterman, who painted postures and drapery and claimed half the cost of each three quarter and full length portrait. The portrait of Sotheby appears to be by Riley himself, however, including the fine, crisp lace, although X-ray has revealed alterations. Sotheby’s blue cloak is in fact a change of mind, painted over what appears to have been a Roman tunic, perhaps intended to reflect Sotheby’s classical learning and virtue, and a red cloak knotted at the shoulder. The belt also appears to have been added, which suggests that the sword was too. Riley’s patrons seem to have been in the habit of finding fault and directing amendments. This would ‘mortify [Riley] to such a degree’, says Vertue, ‘that he would go out of the room & go into another were his scholars were & vent his passion ... then return to the company. put on an obliging and agreeable air, with the countenance of satisfaction wait their pleasure’.27 Whether the changes were made by the artist or requested by Sotheby is not known.
Tabitha Barber
July 2009


1 National Art Library, Sotheby notebooks, MSL/1955/2715-30.
2 J. Douglas Stewart, ‘Records of Payments to Sir Godfrey Kneller and his Contemporaries’, Burlington Magazine, January 1971, p.30 note 6.
3 Richard Graham, ‘A short account of the most eminent painters, both ancient and modern’, in C.A. Du Fresnoy, The Art of Painting, trans by J. Dryden, 1695, p.348.
4 Ibid., p.348.
5 For a revised account of Riley’s parentage, see J. Douglas Stewart, ‘Riley, John’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 2004,, accessed 15 May 2013.
6 A collection of the merchants living in and about the city of London, 1677.
7 For the Sotheby pedigree see Burke’s Landed Gentry (1952); baptism records (not verified) of James Sotheby I’s siblings taken from the International Genealogical Index.
8 Details can be found among the Sotheby papers at Essex Record Office, D/DSo/T6, T28, T29 and T48.
9 R.C. Latham and W. Matthews (eds.), The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 9 vols, 1983, vol.2, 29 November 1661, pp.221–2.
10 Essex Record Office, D/DSo/T6.
11 Diary of Samuel Pepys, vol.5, 11 June 1664, p.175.
12 Diary of Samuel Pepys, vol.8, 21 April 1667, p.174.
13 Daniel Lysons, The Environs of London, Vol.2: County of Middlesex, 1795, p.451.
14 Essex Record Office, D/DU 804/7.
15 A series of letters, 1686–94 (Essex Record Office, D/Du 804/6) from James Sotheby to relatives in Bury St Edmunds are addressed from Hatton Garden; and in his will (The National Archives, PRO PROB 11/577) Sotheby describes himself as ‘of Hatton Garden’. A series of letters, the first dated 1686, have Hatton Garden as his address.
16 John Strype, Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1720, p.255.
17 Lysons 1795, p.451.
18 The Sotheby Heirlooms, Part I (miniatures), Sotheby’s, 11 October 1955; Part II (paintings), 12 October 1955.
19 The National Archives, PRO PROB 11/577.
20 Account for rebuilding Sewardstone, 1701, among the Sotheby papers in the Northamptonshire Record Office, ref E(S).
21 George Vertue, ‘Notebooks V’, Walpole Society, vol.26, 1937–8, pp.10–11.
22 The following details of Sotheby’s collection, and payments, are taken from a combination of the Sotheby’s sale catalogues (see note 15) and the Sotheby notebooks, National Art Library (see note 1).
23 Vertue, ‘Notebooks V’, p.15.
24 For the identification of Seamer, see the entry on Venus and Cupid, Bonhams sale catalogue, 19 November 2008 (no.25).
25 Vertue, ‘Notebooks V’, p.42.
26 Vertue saw Thomas Murray’s ‘certain colouring of a face from natural observation’, as the particular trait of the ‘Riley school’, Riley having trained Murray. See George Vertue, ‘Notebooks II’, Walpole Society, vol.20, 1931–2, p.75.
27 George Vertue, ‘Notebooks IV’, Walpole Society, vol.24, 1935–6, p.28.

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