One of my favourite paintings at Knole is A Gentleman with a Page by William Dobson (1611 – 1646). The frame has been inscribed – much later – as Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex but in fact his identity is unknown, though there are several contenders.
I’m a huge fan of Dobson who, despite his amazing talents, remains relatively unknown. He became principal painter to Charles I in 1641 following the death of Van Dyck and accompanied the King to Oxford where he painted portraits of the Royal Family and their leading Royalist supporters. Following the King’s defeat by Cromwell in 1646, Dobson returned to London where he died in poverty, aged just 35.
He was described by the writer John Aubrey as ‘the most excellent painter that England hath yet bred’ and his career was significant as a witness to one of the most turbulent periods of British history – the English Civil War (1642-46). His paintings are rich and detailed with strong faces. In the case of the many soldiers he painted he showed solid stances with the backdrop of a stormy and changeable sky. His format, a square canvas and painting the sitter from the knees up made them appear stout and he did not flatter in the way that Van Dyck had done. Many faces have an air of melancholy – perhaps reflecting the insecure times, and imperfections, lines, and creases show the lives that his sitters led and the times in which they were living. He also made use of symbolism to mark who his sitters were though this is not so obvious in the Knole Dobson.
The Knole Dobson is first mentioned in the 1706 inventory as “G:Monck” but by 1731 it was of an unknown “man in Buff” referring to the yellow-brown of his doublet. By 1738 our sitter was back to being “General Monk” – though Dobson did not paint Parliamentarians – and by the end of the C18th he was “supposed Lord Capel”.
Other suggestions have been Sir Thomas Dallison (1591 – 1645) based on the age of the sitter, given as fifty – “AEtis Suae, 50”. Dallison was baptized on 4th June so he would have been fifty for the first half of 1642 – the given date of the painting. However, this is complicated by the fact that until 1752 Britain used the Old Style calendar and the start date of a new year was 25th March (known as Lady Day) – so the dates might not match up. Good explanations for Old Style and New Style dates can be found on the internet – I won’t go into it here, it’s too lengthy! Robert Devereux, Endymion Porter (the Tate Britain holds a Dobson of this sitter) and Lord Rockingham (Rockingham Castle have this painting) amongst others have also been suggested.
Art critic Waldemar Januszczak has undertaken the most recent research into our painting, suggesting it might be William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle – though the depictions of the eyes are different to all other known portraits of the Duke. The painting is dated 1642, at the beginning of the Civil War, soon after Dobson’s arrival in Oxford though Januszczak has suggested that there is a possibility that it was painted during a brief spell in York before the move to Oxford.
Unlike other Dobson’s, the symbolism is not particularly obvious which would normally give a clue as to the sitter. Januszczak read the column wrapped with vine as a visual representation of “Pleasure reconciled to Virtue”, a concept linked to Cavendish through the decoration of his retreat Bolsover Castle. The vine represents wine and by extension Pleasure, while the column is steadfastness or Virtue, but they are intertwined so as to be reconciled. This notion comes from a masque by Ben Jonson, for whom Cavendish was a great patron. A wider discussion of Januszczak’s thoughts on our painting – and on Dobson himself – can be found here: http://www.williamdobson.tv/research/
Whoever our man may be, the question remains how such a picture that arrived at Knole in the early years of the C18th and was painted only 50 years before, had managed to lose its identity. Given its appearance in the 1706 inventory it’s likely that the picture was acquired by the 1st Duke though it’s possible it might have connections with his wife, Elizabeth Colyear.