Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir William Robinson Bt, c.1693 

Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646-1723)

Portrait of Sir William Robinson Bt, c.1693, Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50½ x 40½ in (128.5 x 103 cm)
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The discovery, and correct identification, of the present portrait is a major event in the iconography of Irish architecture. Together with its companion version in California (Huntington Museum) it represents the earliest known portrait of an Irish architect, and one of the earliest and most significant figures in the history of Irish building, Sir William Robinson. With the reintroduction of the National Portrait collection into the National Gallery in Merrion Square, there has recently been a greater interest in, and scholarship on, the portrayal of famous figures from Ireland’s past; the present work is a welcome addition to that canon.

Robinson’s influence in Ireland can be directly compared to that of Wren in England. In the Royal Hospital Kilmainhaim (now the Irish Museum of Modern Art) he created the ‘most important seventeenth-century building in Ireland, and the earliest full-scale exercise of architectural Classicism in the country’. Robinson’s career developed, in both the public and private realms, after his appointment in 1671 as ‘engineer and surveyor general of all fortifications, buildings etc in Ireland’. Described by the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl or Essex as a very ingenious man and well skilled in some parts of the mathematics’, his interest in the subject is demonstrated by the geometrical drawing he holds in this portrait.

The importance of the Royal Hospital for Irish architecture cannot be overstated. In its design and execution Robinson established ‘standards of monumental classicism, which in the following century transformed Dublin into a major European capital’, and directly influenced his successors in Ireland, including Thomas Burgh, Edward Lovett Pearce, Thomas Pooley and Francis Johnston whom, as McParland notes, ‘knew [its] fabric intimately’ .

The Royal Hospital Kilmainhaim hall and chapel are rooms of particular architectural and artistic significance. The chapel is decorated with a stucco ceiling of unparalleled sumptuousness and daring in its high relief (which was restored in the early twentieth century), and a remarkable carved altar by the Huguenot sculptor James Tabary. Although it constitutes one of the great glories of seventeenth-century Irish carving, Tabary’s work was not fully appreciated at the time, and he fell foul of Robinson. A note of the hospital’s governors for 1687 notes that he was ‘not allowed the full value of his worke in carveing, frameing and setting up the Altar-peece…it did appear by the Certificate of Mr Robinson…that the said Altar-peece was valued at two hundred and fifty pounds.’ The Hospital’s hall houses a historically significant collection of portraits which is one of the few such institutional collections to remain intact. It includes a series of works by Thomas Pooley and sitters such as the hospital’s joint founders Charles II and the Duke of Ormonde, as well as Archbishop Marsh. Sadly, however, Robinson himself is not commemorated in the hall or elsewhere in the Hospital. Equally, no image portrait of him exists in any of the Irish national collections.

The Hospital continued in its original function until the 1920s. With the removal of British troops at Independence a variety of proposals were made for its use, including as a site for the National University and indeed, the new Irish Parliament. It was used as a police barracks and subsequently became a store for the National Museum. By the 1970s the parlous condition of the building was a cause for great concern, but it was magnificently restored at a cost of £22 million and designated as the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The versatility of its architecture has seen it adapt admirably to its new use. As Olley writes: ‘The Royal Hospital is a remarkable building. In type it is functionally non-specific; it is monastery, mediaeval mansion, country house, college, government offices, grand urban square, hospital and now the Irish Museum of Modern Art.’

Robinson resigned from his position as Surveyor General, on 19 April 1700, no doubt in part because of the crippling gout from which he suffered. The following year, however, he was knighted and admitted to the Irish Privy Council. He acted as Receiver General until 1703 when he was embroiled in a budgetary scandal and declared ‘unfit for any public employment in this Kingdom’ and temporarily imprisoned in Dublin Castle. In addition to his most famous building, the Royal Hospital, Robinson worked extensively on public and private commissions in Ireland, perhaps most notably Marsh’s Library, which he designed after his retirement as Surveyor General. He also worked at Dublin Castle, the old Four Courts and Kilkenny Castle. He may have built, and certainly extended, his own house at Islandbridge near the Royal Hospital and acted as technical adviser and contractor for Essex Bridge. In addition, his governmental and military work included repairs and extensions to Charlemont Fort, County Armagh and Rincurran (later Charles) Fort, Kinsale. Robinson served as a Member of the Irish Parliament for Knocktopher (1692-93), county Wicklow (1695-1699) and for Trinity College (1703-12). In one of five will which he drew up from 1686 to 1712 will he left a bequest for ‘erecting and endowing some public works edifice for the advancement of learning and good works’, while his awareness of the commemorative nature of portraiture is shown by his leaving of £15 to James Hayes for a portrait of himself.

The present portrait is a replica of Kneller’s portrait of Robinson in the Huntington Art Gallery, California, which was painted for Thomas, 1st Earl of Coningsbury, Robinson’s superior as Receiver and Paymaster-General of the forces in Ireland. The Huntington portrait is dated 1693 in which year Coningsbury was appointed Vice-Treasurer of Ireland and commissioned portraits of several of his colleagues. It hung at his Hereforshire home of Hampton Court, where an eighteenth-century source noted it prominently on display in the Great Dining Parlour together with portraits of several other of Coningsbury’s contemporaries in Ireland. It is quite probable that the present version of the portrait was painted for Robinson himself; certainly this would accord with the common practice of Kneller’s patrons.

As noted above the image is the earliest known portrait of an Irish architect, and forms a prototype for later images including Cuming’s famous portrait of James Gandon (National Gallery of Ireland) and indeed the recently rediscovered portrait of Robert Mack by John Trotter (private collection). In contrast to Cuming’s portrait of Gandon, and indeed the traditional iconography of the depiction of architects (demonstrated in a different cultural climate by Berti’s Portrait of Alessandro Galilei, the architect of Castletown), Robinson is not shown here with one of his famous buildings in the background. Instead he is depicted very much as a gentleman, the drawing referring (as noted above) to his interest in mathematics, the ship in the background presumably to his mercantile interests and involvement in the victualling of the forces in his position of Commissionary-General of Pay and Provisions – one of the ships is clearly a man-of-war. Alternatively, as Loeber notes, there may be a connection with his appointment in the year the portrait was painted as a Freeman of the Company of the Royal Fishery in Ireland.

The magisterial authority and elegance that the pose imbues upon the sitter contrasts, for example with the clutter of attributes which crowd the foreground of Verrio’s Portrait of Sir Christopher Wren (Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford) which Kneller had a hand in finishing. Kneller, clearly learnt from this work and the simplicity of his own famous portrait of Wren (Royal Society, London) can be compared directly to the forceful economy of the present work. Everything that is not essential to capturing the essence of the man is removed to make for a work of remarkable modern directness – comparable in Irish terms to the most engaged and focused works of Orpen. At the same time, by adding, as the Huntington Catalogue notes, ‘baroque flourishes to a venerable portrait format’ Kneller creates ‘a majestic presentation, calculated to impress.’ Certainly, we can gauge how impressive the portrait would have looked back in Ireland, if indeed this is the version that the sitter kept for himself. The 1690s was very much the beginning of portraiture in Ireland. With the exception of Pooley mentioned above, Garret Morphey, who returned home at the beginning of the decade was ‘the first painter to raise the quality of Irish art from its first provincial fumblings to a more competent professional level.’ Not surprisingly then, works by Kneller were particularly treasured in Ireland. When, for example, George Conyngham, a landowner in county Derry made his will he left a portrait of himself by the minor Ulster artist Strickland Lowry to his daughter, but stipulated that the Kneller portraits of William and Mary, descend to his son and heir ‘and so remain in the family seat of Springhill’. It is not surprising, then, that a man of Robinson’s position, taste and authority would have chosen the greatest portrait painter in the British Isles to create the defining image of his professional attainments. The portrait certainly captures the essence of the man and his determined character, as Barnard describes him ‘a self-made man [who] advanced through industry, talent and ruthlessness’.

There are intriguing links between the two close contemporaries and fellow knights Kneller and Robinson. Both originally studied mathematics and made highly successfully careers in their adopted countries. Kneller originally from Lubeck in Germany, dominated portraiture in England after his arrival in 1676, painting almost every figure of note in the last quarter of the seventeenth century and serving five successive monarchs. He pioneered the ‘Kit-Cat’ format of head and shoulders portrait, named after his famous series of works depicting members of the club of the same name (National Portrait Gallery, London) and in 1711 established the first school of art in the British Isles. His clientele included many Irish figures including the 2nd Duke of Ormonde, Robert Boyle, Robert Southwell and William Congreve while he had several Irish pupils notably Stephen Slaughter, James Worsdale and Charles Jervas. Indeed, Lord Killanin, Kneller’s biographer, traces the whole development of Irish portraiture back to Kneller, through Jervas, a progression he notes ‘to Francis Bindon and James Latham, and eventually through Hussey, Hone and Hunter, Archer Shee, Catterson Smith, to Shannon, Orpen and Lavery. Perhaps this overstates things; certainly, however, it is in his bold depiction of Robinson that Kneller engages most definitively with Ireland. Curiously anticipating the restrained, yet confident, swagger of Kneller’s own self portrait of almost twenty years later (National Portrait Gallery, London), he creates a work of iconic importance for Irish architectural portraiture and at the same time records for posterity the features of one of Ireland's greatest architects.
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