Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King Charles I (1600-1649) 

William Dobson (1611-46)

Portrait of King Charles I (1600-1649), William Dobson
Oil on canvas
17th Century
19 x 15½ inches, 48.3 x 39.4 cm
This important portrait of Charles I derives from sittings granted by the King while at Oxford during the Civil War. The sittings are recorded by Dobson’s first biographer, Richard Graham, who states that the King “sat several times to him for his picture” after the Court had been forced to leave London in 1642. Dobson was then, after the death of Van Dyck in 1641, the pre-eminent artist in England, and almost certainly held the post of Serjeant Painter until the King’s defeat in 1646. It is principally through Dobson’s eyes that we see the fading grandeur and increasing melancholy of the Royalist court, in stark contrast to Van Dyck’s presentation of the Caroline regime in all its swaggering glory.

Dobson’s likeness is the only depiction of Charles in oil during his campaign against Parliamentary forces in the Civil War. Lely’s portrait of Charles with his son James, by Lely (Northumberland Collection) was painted in 1647 while he was held at Hampton Court after his surrender at Newark in 1646, while Edmund Bower’s portrait of Charles at his Trial (Royal Collection), the final likeness of the King, was painted in 1649. At first glance Dobson’s portrait appears to be based on Van Dyck’s earlier likenesses. But Dobson’s careful study of Charles’ face captures perfectly the marked change in the King’s circumstances. The portrait betrays a sense of distraction not seen in the confident, flamboyant images of the 1630s. Here, Charles is portrayed in simple armour with a plain white collar against a grey background. Only the gold chain of the Garter gives any allusion to his position. The picture clearly reflects the martial atmosphere at Oxford, for, before the war, Charles had normally reserved armour for Van Dyck’s life-seized mounted portraits.

This picture is one of three similar portraits of the King by Dobson. An unfinished example is in the Royal Collection, while another, sold at Christies 17th November 1989 (lot 42, £165,000), is now in an English private collection. The present picture was included in the 1983 Dobson exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Dr Rogers, in the catalogue entry accompanying the picture, linked the picture closely to the Dobson portrait of Charles I mentioned by John Elsum in his Epigram. Elsum compared Dobson’s Charles I to Van Dyck’s portraits, and noted that in Dobson’s effort “…you see the great Vandyke”. While the present picture, Rogers suggested, markedly reflects Van Dyck’s “smoothness of texture”, and could thus have been the picture seen by Elsum, the picture’s status as the original portrait of Charles I was doubted by Oliver Millar, who, writing a review of the Dobson exhibition in the Burlington Magazine (January 1984, Vol. 126), suggested that the Royal Collection version was in fact the original, the present picture being “too soft and dull to be regarded as an original”.

The present picture’s status thus remained uncertain after the National Portrait Gallery exhibition. When sold recently at Christies, London, it was catalogued as ‘After Dobson’. Recent conservation, however, has led to the removal of several layers of thick and discoloured varnish. The picture’s subtle characterisation can now be seen, as can Dobson’s Van Dyckian technique. The softness noted by Millar was due in part to Dobson’s thin use of paint towards the end of his stay at Oxford, when his artistic supplies began to run out as Parliamentary forces closed in on the city. A number of Dobson’s Oxford portraits are painted in a similarly thin manner, while some are left unfinished, such as the portrait of James, Duke of York in the Royal Collection.

The present picture is therefore now recognised as one of three versions of Charles’ portrait by Dobson. As with almost all of Charles’ portraits, especially those by Van Dyck, numerous autograph repetitions were made to satisfy the demand for the King’s picture. There would have been a similar demand for Charles’ portrait during the Civil War, with the need to maintain the distribution of the King’s image amongst his supporters. The small head and shoulders portraits produced by Dobson would have been perfectly suited to such a purpose, a hypothesis supported by the fact that the present picture was recorded in the collection of the Dukes of Hamilton in 1696. It could thus have been intended for James, 1st Duke of Hamilton, who was not only a great art collector, but one of Charles’ main allies.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.