Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Frances Wyatt, 1670s 

John Riley (1646-91)

Portrait of Frances Wyatt, 1670s, John Riley
Oil on canvas
17th Century
48 x 38 inches 124.5 x 97.5 cm
Richard, 3rd Marquess of Buckingham at Stowe House, Buckinghamshire. Stowe sale, 15 August 1848 & following days. J.S.Caldwell Esq., Linley Wood, Staffordshire. By descent to Capt.C.H.Heath Caldwell. His sale, Sotheby''s, 2
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Although eclipsed by the fame of Lely and Kneller, Riley was among the best native painters that England produced in the 17th-century. Executing portraits that are remarkable for their humanity and ability to portray character without resorting to frippery or fashion, he stands apart from the legions of foreign painters who settled in England during the Restoration.

This is a fine example of one of Riley''s sensitive female portraits which are noted for their atmospheric softness. When he found a successful formula for a portrait, Riley often re-used poses, drapery and settings. In this way, Frances Wyatt is closely comparable in format with his portrait of Viscountess Fanshawe, featuring the same prominent stone arm-rest and scroll feature to place the sitter. Whereas Lady Fanshawe holds a flower in her left hand, Frances Wyatt holds an orange. The heads, however, are distinctly individual and imbued with sympathetic characterisation. This is partly achieved through the use of red tints and glazes around the face.

The indistinct inscription on the portrait identifies the sitter as Frances Wiat and although it has not possible to firmly identity her, she is possibly a member of the family of Sir Francis Wyatt or Wyat (15757-1644) of Boxley Abbey, Kent. The Boxley estates had been amassed by the poet and courtier Sir Thomas Wyatt (15037-42) and his son, also Sir Thomas (15217-54) the conspirator. Sir Francis was governor of the colony of Virginia in 1621 and 1639-42. Riley, one of the sons of John Riley, the Lancaster herald and his wife Jochebed, was born in 1646 at Bishopsgate, London. He was apprenticed in around 1660 to the painter Isaac Fuller, and is also said to have studied under Gerard Soest. By the late 1670s, he had established his own practice but it was not until after Lely's death in 1680 that he became more widely known. Much of this is attributable to a change in patronage.

Whereas Lely had dominated the King and court, Riley had largely been patronised by the professional classes - merchants, clerics and writers. However, the influential courtier William Chiffinch was persuaded to sit and the success of the portrait (at least five versions were painted) brought him to the attention of Charles II, who commissioned portraits of himself and his wife, Queen Catherine. In December 1688 jointly with the young Kneller was sworn and admitted chief painter to the King. He also painted James II and Queen Maria d'Este, as well as the Duke of Monmouth and other influential nobles.

Unlike Lely and Kneller, Riley appears to have been uncomfortable in the atmosphere of the court and took personally Charles II''s comment on first seeing the portrait of himself:

Odds fish, then I am an ugly fellow.

Although extremely amiable, Riley was a shy and diffident character who Vertue tells us, was never guilty of apiece of Vanity (too common amongst Artists) of saying mighty things on his own Behalf; but contented himself with letting his Works spake for him; which ... were very Eloquent in his commendations.

It is perhaps not surprising that his most unconventional and original works are portraits of servants - A Scullion of Christ Church and Bridget Holmes (1591-1691) The latter, a portrait of a long-serving royal servant holding a broom, is invested with all the grandeur of a full-length but without any of the pretensions.

He was the teacher of Jonathan Richardson, who is said to have married his niece. Richardson inherited Riley''s studio and old master drawing collection, and an annuity amounting to some 700 or 800.
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