Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Elias Keach (c.1665-1701), c.1697 

Robert White (1645-1703)

Portrait of Elias Keach (c.1665-1701), c.1697, Robert White
Graphite on vellum
17th Century
Oval, 4 1/8 in. (105 mm.) high
Christie’s, London, 9th November 1993, lot 1; Sotheby’s, London, 14th July 2010, lot 42.
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This plumbago portrait of the Baptist pastor Elias Keach by Robert White was engraved in 1697 for John Marshall, a bookseller at the Bible on Gracechurch Street. A print of this engraving is in the National Portrait Gallery, London [NPG D20943]. Gracechurch Street boasted a small Baptist community with a local church during the reign of Charles II.

Elias Keach was the only son of the famous English Particular Baptist minister Benjamin Keach and his first wife Jane Grove. Although little is known of Elias Keach’s early life, he is greatly overshadowed by his father’s ministerial work, he was described as wayward, ‘he was a gay, wild and thoughtless young man’ incapable of being tamed by those around him. Escaping English life, Elias travelled to America in 1687 where he wore the black robe of a pastor and presumably preached for money. During one sermon he was overcome with guilt, announced that he was an imposter and sought refuge from a nearby minister Thomas Duggan of Cold Spring. Duggan took pity on Keach and Keach was soon converted; he went on to become a Baptist pastor and founded two churches in Pennsylvania, Pennepek in 1688, the first Baptist church in Pennsylvania and one of the oldest congregations in North America, and Burlington Baptist church. In 1695 he returned to London and was reunited with his family. He preached at a church in Wapping before moving to Ayles Street in Goodman Fields and died in 1701, three years before his father.

Robert White has paid meticulous attention to the face of his sitter, emphasising the turn of his head with subtle chiaroscuro. In contrast, the line drawn clothes are only vaguely sketched by White as, for the engraving, Keach’s clothes would have almost certainly been completed by a studio assistant rather than by White himself. C.F. Bell and Rachel Poole in their article ‘English Seventeenth-Century Portrait Drawings in Oxford Collections’ acknowledge White’s engraving of Elias Keach dating to 1697 but do not refer to this plumbago portrait.

Robert White Biography:
The art of producing plumbago portraits had been established in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and reached its height in popularity in Britain between 1650 and 1720. Many draughtsmen both in Britain and in the Netherlands, including Robert White, were primarily printmakers or publishers and the majority of their ad vivum drawings were intended to be made into engravings. Although Keach’s clothes in the present plumbago portrait do not look detailed enough to be successfully transcribed into an engraving, this is almost certainly because a studio assistant would have completed the clothes and the background of the engraving, rather than White himself.

Robert White was a Londoner but apprenticed with the earliest and most influential plumbago portraitist in Britain at the time, David Loggan, who had a successful business in Oxford. White primarily drew buildings for Loggan whilst he was training but produced his own prints from 1666 to 1702. Although White was financially successful, he always kept the same house in Bloomsbury Market where he sold his prints. At the time of his death he did not leave a will and his son continued to live in his father’s print shop until his death.

White’s drawings are rare in private collections, however, three of his finest miniatures belong to the Duke of Portland and include a self-portrait of White, James Scott Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch and a portrait of Charles II. Several of his plumbago portraits are in public collections including the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ashmolean Museum and the Huntington Library in California.
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