Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of John Locke (1632-1704) 

Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646-1723)

Portrait of John Locke (1632-1704), Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 in. (74.2 x 62 cm.)
Mrs Osbourne, by 1836; John Edward Tanner, Newbury, Berks, by 1872; thence by descent.
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John Locke was a pre-eminent English philosopher whose radical theories about the relationship between government and people helped change the nature of society across the world. His writings not only inspired political change in England, but also the emergence of the enlightenment in France, and, ultimately, the development of the American Constitution.

Described by J S Mill as the unquestioned founder of the analytical philosophy of mind, John Locke's influence and authority as philosopher was unrivalled in England during his lifetime and well into the eighteenth century. He was born in Somerset and educated at Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford, where he attained his Masters Degree in 1658. He began his career by lecturing in Greek and Rhetoric, but, feeling constrained by the ‘old’ model of academia and Aristotelian philosophy, soon left to pursue a career in medicine. His main patron was the first Earl of Shaftsbury, sometime Lord Chancellor, whose resident physician and friend he became in 1667. He flourished under Shaftesbury’s patronage and enjoyed a number of administrative posts in Government, amongst which was writing the ‘fundamental constitutions’ of the new colony of Carolina. But after Shaftsbury's imprisonment and subsequent flight to Holland, Locke, as a fellow Whig, came under suspicion of collusion as the reactionary Tories, in support of the future James II, gradually assumed power. He was suspected of involvement in the Rye House Plot, the 1683 attempt to assassinate Charles II and James, Locke was forced to flee to Holland.

It was while in exile that the most important of Locke’s ideas on society and government were refined. Whilst living in Amsterdam, where the English government tried to arrest him, he began to finish his two most significant books, Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government. The foundation for both was Locke’s philosophy of empiricism. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (published in 1689) Locke wrote that everyone should approach the world objectively and without prejudice, guided only by what they observed and sensed. The theory is perhaps best demonstrated by Locke’s contemporary Isaac Newton, who wrote, in 1687, that ‘We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their experiences’, and one only has to look at Newton’s discovery of gravity to see how important empiricism was in leading to a radical re-examination of the world in the late seventeenth century.

Out of empiricism grew Locke’s basic premise that all mankind was born equal, with each person acquiring character through their observations and experiences, and by extension any sense of right or wrong. Nobody was ‘naturally’ better than anyone else, and, since everyone was born with the same mental sheet of ‘white Paper, void of all Characters’, nobody could be considered to be born ‘better’ than others. Such reasoning sounds perfectly logical today, but in the seventeenth century, where Kings ruled by Divine Right, and the church preached the doctrine of original sin, Locke’s writings were considered radical, and, by some, dangerous.

Locke’s broader reflections on human nature were focused on a specifically political cause in Two Treatises of Government (published in 1690). Issued anonymously in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, when the Catholic James II had been overthrown by the Protestant William of Orange, Two Treatises put forward a radical interpretation of civil society, arguing that any government which did not enjoy the consent of the people was not legitimate, and could be overthrown for breaking the social contract between ruler and ruled. A despotic ruler was ‘to be esteemed the common Enemy and Pest of mankind; and is to be treated accordingly’, Locke wrote, stating not only the guiding principle of Whig politics for the next century, but, in the eyes of the architects of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, the template for any document on fair and just government.

Texts such as Two Treatises were obviously viewed with great favour by the new Whig regime of William and Mary, and at the end of his career Locke was offered a number of Government posts. He declined the offer of an ambassadorship, claiming a lack of social skills, and a dislike of the copious drinking necessary to conduct diplomacy: ‘I know noe such rack in the world to draw out mens thoughts as a well managed Bottle’, he wrote. He did, however, accept a post at the Board of Trade, where he advised on various measures to counteract the deterioration of the silver currency. Ill health, brought on by a cold carriage journey after the King summoned him urgently to Kensington palace, forced him to resign from the Board of Trade in 1700. He died four years later in 1704.

This portrait is a studio variant of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s original portrait of 1704, which is in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Kneller portrayed Locke a number of times towards the end of his life, with the present image being the last. A mezzotint was published in 1721 by John Smith.
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