Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Isabella Willis (d.1727) 1690s

John Closterman (1665-1711)

Portrait of Isabella Willis (d.1727), John Closterman
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
Private Collection possibly the Feilding or Willis families
Closterman’s interest in sculptural form is a theme of his later portraiture, in which the drapery folds and sinuous poses mimic the appearance of ancient statuary. In this example, just as in his Portrait of the Ashley-Cooper Brothers (National Portrait Gallery, London) the curving pose reveals a Hellenistic influence, a source made explicit in the large bust, possibly of Venus, that Mrs Willis embraces. Such literal references to sculpture, however, are rare in Closterman’s art and one of the only other significant appearances of sculpture in his work is the frieze that provides a repoussoir parapet for Grinling Gibbons and his wife in a lost double portrait known only from an engraving. The floral garland that Mrs Willis holds demonstrates Closterman’s virtuoso treatment of flowers, which he also employs to such effect in portraits such as The Taylor children of Bifrons Park (National Portrait Gallery, London). In The Taylor children the floral element suggests youth and the transience of childhood; here with the bust of Venus the allusion is also the youth and to the evanescence of beauty.

Isabella Willis was the wife of Richard Willis DD (1664 – 1734), a Whig bishop and controversialist who had been chaplain to King William III in 1694. Willis entertained ambitions of becoming archbishop of Canterbury. His political unpopularity made such an elevation impossible, but he was appointed Bishop of Salisbury and later of Winchester, where his magnificent tomb by John Cheere is among the notable monuments in the cathedral. He and Isabella had two sons John and William. Isabella died in 1727 and was buried in Chelsea church.

It is possible that this portrait descended together with two depicting Isabella’s relations in the Feilding family, since John Willis married the daughter of Colonel Feilding. The origin of these portraits is not yet known, however, and although ownership by the family of the Feilding Earls of Denbigh of Newnham Paddox is possible, it seems likely that they descended in the Willis family, since none of the several sales of Feilding possessions last century includes them.
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