Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718) Poet Laureate 1700c.

Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646-1723)

Portrait of Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718) Poet Laureate, Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt
Oil on canvas
17th Century
36 x 28 inches 91.3 x 71.2 cm
Reputedly the collection of Jacob Tonson Sr; Viscount Harcourt Collection, Nuneham Courtney by 1792; By family descent at Nuneham Courtney; Christie''s London 11th June 1948 (125).
Horace Walpole and Sir Joshua Reynolds Catalogue of the Pictures at Nuneham Courtney (completed) 1797 The Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press. Entry for Nicholas Rowe, compiled by Sir Sidney Lee 1897: ''His portrait was twice painted by Kneller; the pictures are now at Knole Park, Sevenoaks, and at Nuneham respectively.''
The Second National Portrait Exhibition 1867 South Kensington (now Victoria and Albert) Museum no. 157 as by Sir Godfrey Kneller.
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Like that of his friend Jonathan Swift, Nicholas Rowe's career demonstrates that in the early eighteenth century a playwright and poet might quite conventionally enter political life and serve more worldly ambitions. Service to great men was the route to position and income for every man of talents who did not have sufficient money or patronage of his own. It was also - importantly - perhaps the most rewarding way of immersing oneself in the busy life of the capital, with its round of attendance at Court, coffeehouse meetings and dinner at the houses of great men, which were certainly to be enjoyed as ends in themselves. This must be as true of Rowe, and just as Swift served as secretary to Sir William Temple and then as advisor and pamphleteer to Lords Halifax and Bolingbroke, so Rowe became undersecretary to the Duke of Queensberry and Dover, the Queen's great minister for Scotland and architect of the Union, from 1708 until the Duke's death in 1711. He appears in this guise in Swift's Journal to Stella, where in October 1710 we learn:

Mr Rowe the poet desired me to dine with him to-day. I went to his office (he is under-secretary in Mr Addison's place that he had in England), and there was Mr Prior; and they both fell commending my Shower beyond anything that has been written of the kind: there never was such a shower since DanaŽ's, etc. You must tell me how it is liked among you. I dined with Rowe; Prior could not come: and after dinner we went to a blind tavern where Congreve, Sir Richard Temple, Eastcourt and Charles Main were over a bowl of bad punch. The knight sent for six flasks of his own wine for me, and we stayed till twelve.
Swift Journal to Stella October 27th 1710

Unlike Swift Rowe's sympathies were with the Whigs, and he attained the ultimate goal on the accession of George I in being appointed poet laureate, whilst Swift and Gay were tarred by their loyalty to the former administration and were frustrated. But he had nailed his colours to the mast early, with his highly individual conception of the life of Tamburlaine. In Tamurlane 1702 he invented appropriate qualities to make his subject a mirror of King William III, as the villain Bajazet was cast as Louis XIV. Samuel Johnson later records drily:

The virtues of Tamerlane seem to have been arbitrarily assigned him by his poet, for I know not that history gives any other qualities than those which make a conquerer. The fashion, however, of the time was to accumulate upon Louis all that can raise horror and detestation: and whatever good was withheld from him, that it might not be thrown away was bestowed upon King William. This was the tragedy which Rowe valued most, and that which probably, by the help of political auxiliaries, excited most applause: but occasional poetry must content itself with occasional praise.

Johnson Lives of the Poets

It is worth remembering, however, that political loyalties among the literati were less binding - or at least less deep-running - than among the statesmen, and if Swift, Prior and Gay might be termed Tories and Rowe, Steele and Addison Whigs this distinction never prevented their friendship. The Union between England and Scotland was perhaps the most lasting achievement of the reign of Queen Anne in the opinion of Whigs and moderate Tories. As Swift reveals, however, whatever their political feelings on the matter, Whig and Tory could unite in opposing one of its consequences as a matter of taste:

Steele, the rogue, has done the impudentest thing in the world; he said something in a Tatler, that we ought to use the word Great Britain, and not England, in common conversation; as the finest lady in Great Britain, etc. Upon this Rowe, Prior, and I sent him a letter, tuning this into ridicule. He has today printed the letter, and signed it J.S., M.P., and N.R., the first letters of our names. Congreve told me today he smoked it immediately.
Swift Journal to Stella December 1st 1710

This private mockery did not prevent public endorsement. Rowe's Royal Convert of 1707 concluded with its Saxon heroine anticipating the glorious union of England and Scotland in a panegyric of Queen Anne. Six years later Rowe dedicated Jane Shore to the late Duke of Queensberry, Rowe's patron and the architect of this Union, and eulogised the young Duke his son. Here Rowe approached more sympathetic territory; there is little evidence that the great Duke of Queensberry was much affected by literature, but his son and daughter in law were friends and patrons of John Gay.

Rowe had dedicated the Royal Convert to Charles Montagu Earl of Halifax, the Williamite minister who was a member of the unofficial Whig ''Junto.'' Halifax had been one of the signatories of the declaration inviting William of Orange to land in England and was thus a powerful patron for one of Rowe''s ambitions and politics. He remained a powerful member of the Whig party, and returned to office on the accession of George I. That Rowe so swiftly achieved numerous appointments after 1715 and in addition to Poet Laureate was also made one of the land surveyors of the customs of the Port of London may be traced to Halifax's patronage. The fact that Rowe's portrait of c.1715 so exactly reproduces Halifax's Kit-Cat portrait by Kneller in all save the face should be seen either as an expression of Rowe''s loyalty to his patron either in gratitude for or anticipation of great rewards.

He was also appointed clerk of the council to the Prince of Wales, the future George II. This office is an example of the fruits that Swift and Gay may have hoped for from Henrietta Howard Countess of Suffolk, the Prince's Mistress who as their friend was thought to be best placed to reward them. Swift may have reflected at that time on his generous action earlier in pleading for the Whig writers to the opposing Party:

I met Mr Addison and Pastoral Philips on the Mall to-day, and took a turn with them; but they both looked terribly dry and cold. A curse of Party! And do you know I have taken more pains to recommend the Whig wits to the favour and mercy of the ministers than any other people. Steele I have kept in his place. Congreve I have got to be used kindly, and secured. Rowe I have recommended, and got promise of a place.
Swift Journal to Stella December 27th 1713

The reputation of the plays has not outlived their author. Rowe is still commended today, however, for what must have been at the time a remarkable feat of organisation and scholarship, since he produced the first edition of Shakespeare to mark scene and act divisions and to preface each play with a Dramatis Personae. This work was produced in 1709 with a dedication to the 6th Duke of Somerset - the ''Proud Duke'', a member of the Kit Cat club and Whig magnate - and was published in six volumes. This would be a document of great worth on its own, but Rowe also engaged the actor Thomas Betterton in a commission which became of lasting value in the study of William Shakespeare's life. Betterton was sent to Stratford on Avon to collect biographical and anecdotal material on the playwright. No serious attempt to do this had been made before, and had the research been conducted any later than Rowe''s commission -a lifetime after Shakespeare's death- much invaluable material would have been lost forever. Even though a good deal of the material is now called into question it provides a fascinating vignette of the playwright's unknown life.

This portrait may be dated to c.1715, when it would seem to have provided the source for an engraving of that year by Faber. The engraving shows a full-length composition with variations on the present portrait, but may not be a literal reproduction of any full-length portrait -certainly no example has ever been recorded, and the head and bust of the figure correspond exactly to this Kit Cat portrait. The Kit Cat format -curiously once extended to half-length later in the eighteenth century, though now restored to its correct dimensions- is an interesting circumstance, since tradition holds that the portrait once belonged to Jacob Tonson, Rowe's publisher, and may, therefore, have hung nearby the Kneller Kit Cat portraits now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Throughout much of its existence this portrait has been attributed to Kneller, but details of execution suggest a studio hand, as does the fact that the figure is an exact repetition of Kneller's Earl of Halifax (vide supra). This would be highly unlikely in an autograph work, but quite acceptable for a studio piece.
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