Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Michael Boyle (1609/10–1702), Archbishop of Armagh, Lord Chancellor and Lord Primate of Ireland 

John Michael Wright (1617–1694)

Portrait of Michael Boyle (1609/10–1702), Archbishop of Armagh, Lord Chancellor and Lord Primate of Ireland, John Michael Wright
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Oil on canvas
76 x 63.5 cm., 30 x 25 in.
 
Provenance:
Probably by descent to Anne, Viscountess Midleton (1670-1747); Thence by descent to Arthur Hill, 2nd Marquess of Downshire (1753-1801), Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland; Thence by descent.
Literature:
Mezzotint: Mid 18th Century, by Richard Purcell, Dublin (erroneously stating the artist as ‘Zoust’, or Gilbert Soest) Inscribed verso: ‘Lady Midleton’
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This spirited portrait is an important and newly discovered work by John Michael Wright, who, alongside Sir Peter Lely, was the leading portraitist of the Restoration period. The picture, which has fortunately survived in an excellent state of preservation, shows the high-pitched colours and intricate detail that Wright was known for. The sitter, Michael Boyle, was a powerful figure in Ireland, both as Archbishop of Armagh in the Church of Ireland, and also as Lord Chancellor.

Michael Boyle was born into a prominent family in Ireland (later the Earls of Cork), and was effectively destined for a career in the Church as the son of Richard Boyle, Archbishop of Tuam. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1637 and was soon able to secure his first parish, in Clonpriest, thanks in part to Boyle connections in County Cork. The onset of turbulent religious and political times in the run up to the English Civil War quickly allowed Boyle to demonstrate his political skills, and he went on to be viewed as a key Stuart and Protestant loyalist in Ireland. When Charles II regained the throne in 1660, Boyle was therefore rewarded with a grant of lands, and the position of Bishop of Cork. A close relationship with the 1st Duke of Ormond, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, gave Boyle the chance to secure further preferment. He was appointed to the Irish Privy Council in 1663, and in 1665 became Lord Chancellor of Ireland, in which position he often deputed for Ormond when the Lord Lieutenant was absent.

The present portrait shows Boyle holding the Lord Chancellor’s elaborate ‘purse’, which contained the seals of office. It has not yet been possible to establish exactly when it was painted, but given Boyle’s various trips to London it may predate Wright’s time in Ireland, where he arrived in 1678, and where he would paint a number of celebrated portraits of important Irish sitters, including Sir Neill O’Neill [Tate Britain]. An erroneous inscription on a mid-Eighteenth Century mezzotint, published by Richard Purcell in Dublin, has recently resulted in the attribution of the portrait being wrongly given to Gilbert Soest. However, not only does the portrait demonstrate all the distinctive characteristics of a work by Wright, but we know also that Boyle was closely involved with other Wright patrons, such as his brother-in-law, Murrough O’Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin [whose portrait by Wright now hangs at Manchester City Art Gallery], and the Duke of Ormond himself [painted by Wright in a full-length at Hardwick Hall, National Trust, and also in a reduced version, formerly with Philip Mould & Co., now in an Irish Private Collection]. The picture’s provenance can be traced back to Boyle himself, through Anne Trevor, Viscountess Midleton, whose first husband Michael Hill (1672-1699) was Boyle’s grandson. Thereafter, the portrait descended through the Marquesses of Downshire, and hung at Hillsborough Castle, now the official residence of the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland.
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