Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King James II (1633-1701), full-length, in Garter Robes 

Robert Wignall (dates unknown- Seventeenth Century)

Portrait of King James II (1633-1701), full-length, in Garter Robes, Robert Wignall
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
90 x 56 in. (229 x 142 cm.)
Melton Constable, Norfolk, until 1987. Private collection, UK.
J. Ingamells, Later Stuart Portraits 1685-1714, (London, 2009), p.129; D.Singh, Portraits in Norfolk Houses, (Norwich, 1927-8), vol.II, p.36, no.44.
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This majestic portrait of King James II, which was recently considered to be by an unknown hand, is in fact a signed work by Robert Wignall, a highly sophisticated yet largely forgotten painter working in late-seventeenth century England.

Despite a number of attempts by scholars to find more information on the life and work of Wignall, we still know frustratingly little about him, and the only contemporary reference to his career is provided by an article published in the London Gazette in 1697 which states that one Matthew Lock recently “went away from his master Mr. Wiggnall picture-drawer”. We therefore know that he was working in London in the late-seventeenth century, and, judging by the subject of this work, presumably prior to the abdication of James II in 1688. Wignall, therefore, would have been one of the many artists, both native and foreign, whose fortunes changed following the death of Sir Peter Lely in 1680, a portrait painter who had, in turn, since the death of Sir Anthony Van Dyck in 1641, dominated the market for portraiture.

At present, there are only two other recorded signed portraits by Wignall. One was sold at Christie’s on 11 December 1909 as part of a collection of family portraits belonging to the late Henry North, 3rd Earl of Sheffield. The sitter was Matthew Gibbon (1642-1709), a linen-draper of Leadenhall Street and descendant of the historian Edward Gibbon (1737-94), who appointed John Baker Holroyd, 1st Earl of Sheffield (1735-1821) as the executor of his estate. The other portrait sold through auction house Robinson and Fisher on 8 July 1937, and depicted a young boy wearing a blue and white drapery seated on a cushion in a landscape, much in the style of Sir Peter Lely’s child portraits of the late 1660s. Both these works were apparently also signed ‘Robt. Wignall’ which raises a curious question as to why more paintings by Wignall, who clearly took enough pride in his works to sign them, have not let come to light.

In his seminal monograph ‘Later Stuart Portraits […]’ , John Ingamells dates this work to c.1685 although catalogues it as by an unknown hand. It is unlikely that Ingamells saw this work first hand when it was at Christie’s in 1992, and no doubt took this attribution from the auction house, who must have overlooked the signature. Interestingly, Ingamells also states that there is a three-quarter length version of this portrait in a Swedish private collection, which suggests that Wignall and his assistants produced a number of these portrait-types, although it is unclear at this stage whether the Swedish version is a reduced-scale work or a cut-down full-length.

A portrait miniature by Susannah Penelope Rosse (1647-1700) in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum [no.453-1892], shows a gentleman with the inscription ‘Mr Wignall, Painter’ on the reverse, however, it is quite possible that this instead depicts James Wignall, who was thought to be a painter-decorator working in and around the West End.

James II was the second surviving son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria and succeeded his brother Charles II in 1685. During the English Civil War, James was captured but escaped into exile in Europe and returned to England in 1660 when the monarchy was restored and his elder brother Charles was crowned king. James married the daughter of Charles II’s chief advisor Anne Hyde and converted to Catholicism in 1669 which led to rebellion.

After Anne’s death in 1671, James married Mary of Modena who gave birth to a son in 1688 which guaranteed the Catholic succession. This caused unrest amongst Protestant noblemen who appealed to William of Orange to intervene. William invaded the south west of England in November 1688 and James retreated abroad, leaving the throne open for William and Mary to be crowned king and queen. James attempted to reclaim the English throne but was defeated at the Battle of Boyne in July 1690 and later died in Saint-Germain, France, in 1701 having lived his last years in exile.
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