Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Thomas, Lord Coventry, 1627 

Cornelius Johnson 

Portrait of Thomas, Lord Coventry, 1627, Cornelius Johnson
Oil on canvas
17th Century
48 x 39 1/2 in (121.9 x 100.3 cm)
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When Thomas Lord Coventry died in 1640 he was mourned by all men of moderate and sensible politics. This is remarkable for man whose career spanned some of the most turbulent decades in English politics. Contemporaries acknowlegded his aprticular grasp of law and of government. In the words of Clarendon: ''he understood not only the whole science and mystery of the law at least as well as any man that ever sate(sic) in that place, but had a clear conception of the whole policy of government both of Church and State.''

His upbringing at least prepared him for the business of the law. His father was Sir Thomas Coventry (1547-1606), a greatly respected Justice of the Common Pleas. Thomas the youger's progression through the ranks of the judiciary was speedy, although among a body polarised between support for Bacon and for Lord Coke he was seen as a partisan of the latter. Until Bacon's fall this was an obstacle. Bacon acknowledged this in a note to the King in November 1616, when Coventry's name was mentioned for the Recordership of London: The man upon whom the choice is like to fall, I hold doubtful for your service; not but he is an honest man and well-learned, but he hath been, as it were, bred by Lord Coke and seasoned in his ways.'' Lord Coke had previously made his definition of the royal prerogative which, much-praised as it is today, resulted in considerable displeasure from the throne.

In 1627 he was made Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, which event is commemorated by this portrait, in which Coventry rests his hand upon the seal bag, richly worked with the royal arms. Coventry acknowledged the patronage of the Duke of Buckingham in his appointment, although with a degree of independence which bridled, and -as with Bacon- until the removal of Buckingham (by murder) his career was somewhat checked. He maintained a very close support for the King, however, and in April of the following year was rewarded with a Barony.

During the reign of King Charles I Coventry was responsible for effecting many of that monarch's more unpopular policies, which frequently he tried to mitigate, frequently hampered by his master''s single mindedness and by the eagerness of his poitical victims to accept a martyrdom. Specific measures such as the enforcement of ship money fell to Coventry, and he undertook them, perhaps with reluctance. Conscious of the catastrophe looming and which neither side seemed willing to avert he gave a dying message to the King in 1640 as the writs for the Short Parliament were being issued. He urged that ''his Majesty would take all distastes from the Parliament summoned against April with patience and suffer it without an unkind dissolution.'' It would be pleasing to think that Coventry died with some hope that this advice would be followed.

Cornelius Johnson is a painter with a remarkable talent for likeness and costume, who has inevitably suffered from comparison with his near-contemporary Van Dyck. Although of emigre parents, he is one of the earliest English-born easel painters to whom a large body of work can be ascibed. His training was probably received in Holland, but his contribution to English painting before the arrival of Van Dyck was considerable. To the already-existing national preoccupation with meticulously depicted costume he added a greater sense of likeness, realism and volume. He was named King''s Painter in 1632, and continued to enjoy a considerable practice in this country -helping to establish the popularity of the 30 by 25 inch canvas and the feigned oval format- until his wife's fears of the impending civil war induced him to leave for the Continent.
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