Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Petyt (1640/1-1707), holding a copy of Magna Carta c.1690

Richard Van Bleeck (c.1670-c.1748)

Portrait of William Petyt (1640/1-1707), holding a copy of Magna Carta, Richard Van Bleeck
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 x 25 in.
The Earls of Darnley, Cobham Hall; Darnley sale, Christie’s, London 1st May 1925, lot 6 (as by “R. or P. Van Bleeck”); Bt. Collings; Anonymous sale, Christie’s, London, 21st January 1927, lot 82, sold for 14 gns.; Daniel Phillips Esq., Gloucestershire by 1976; Offered at Bonhams, London 14th June 2006 as a portrait of “Sylvester Petyt”; English Private Collection.
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This portrait shows one of the leading legal and constitutional scholars of the late seventeenth century, William Petyt. His highly influential 1680 book ‘The Antient Right of the Commons of England Asserted’, based on his study of Saxon and Norman documents, helped make the argument in favour of deposing King James II from the throne in 1688. He is shown here in a full-bottomed wig, with the Petyt arms in the left-hand corner of the canvas. Until recently, however, the identity of the sitter had become confused with that of his brother, Sylvester Petyt, while the text of the document in the sitter’s hand had become illegible through discoloured varnish and dirt. Recent conservation and research has now established the correct identity and provenance of the portrait, as well as uncovering the inscription ‘Magna Carta’ on the document being held by Petyt.

Petyt was born to minor gentry in Yorkshire, and was educated at Skipton School and Christ’s College, Cambridge. He was first admitted to Middle Temple in 1660, but later joined Inner Temple in 1664. His father and brother were members of Barnard’s Inn. Petyt’s meticulous study of such ancient documents as Magna Carta and the laws of Edward the Confessor ensured that his views on the constitution came to prominence during the repeated crises that led to the end of the Stuart dynasty in Britain.
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