Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Robert Dormer, 1st Earl of Carnarvon 1630s

Studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Portrait of Robert Dormer, 1st Earl of Carnarvon, Studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck
Oil on canvas
17th Century
108 x 80 cm, 42.5 x 31.5 inches
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Robert, 1st Earl of Carnavon was perhaps the most flamboyant of Charles I’s young Royalists. He was, by virtue of his father’s early death, a rich peer from an early age, and he married the eldest daughter of the first Earl of Pembroke at the age of fifteen. It was the perfect aristocratic match, although Carnarvon himself had no say in the matter. Under the practice of ‘wardship’, minors with no parents were effectively the property of the King, who could then sell them to the highest bidder. The Earl of Pembroke bought Dormer’s wardship for £4000, and thus secured for his daughter one of England’s richest men.

An education at Eton and Oxford indicates Carnarvon’s sharp intellect, and a trip abroad to Spain, Italy, Turkey and the middle east widened his horizons. This though did not mitigate an avaricious youth. He was, according to the seventeenth century biographer David Lloyd, “extreamly wild in his youth”, and addicted to gambling and hunting. He and his wife are recorded as regular performers in masques at court. One contemporary account recalls his demand, after a particularly fine meal, that he would “by God’s blood… have three whores” [1]. A later biographer blamed this on ‘the depravity of King James’ reign [which] had left foul traces on the manners of that which followed’. Whatever the causes, Carnarvon was in danger of being the high-living Catholic courtier so infuriating to hard-line Parliamentarians. However, he appears to have “hated drunkenness perfectly”[2], and this may have aided his appointment to the Lord Lieutenancy of Buckinghamshire, a move only possible with the support of Parliament.

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 seems to have cemented a change in Carnarvon’s attitude. He immediately went against the wishes of his powerful father-in-law and declared support for Charles I in 1642, shortly after the King’s failed attempt to arrest Members of Parliament. “Before the war”, the statesman-historian Lord Clarendon tells us, Carnarvon “seemed to be wholly delighted with hunting, hawking, and the like [but] after the troubles began he wholly gave himself up to the office and duty of a soldier, no man more diligently obliging or more dexterously commanding, for he was not only of a very keen courage, but an excellent discerner and pursuer of advantage upon his enemy.” [3]

Carnarvon was soon involved with raising money and troops for the King, and in return was knighted at the court-in-exile at York. At the indecisive battle of Edgehill in October 1642 he led with valour his own Cavalry regiment. He quickly became known as a successful cavalry commander, joining Prince Rupert’s attack on Cirencester, and fighting the Parliamentary army in the West Country. A leg wound at the battle of Lansdown in July 1643 put him temporarily out of action, but he was fit enough to play a decisive role in the Royalist victory at Roundway Down. By the Summer of 1643 he was General of the Western army, charged with sweeping up Parliamentary forces in Devon and Dorset. He secured, as much by reputation as by force, the surrender of Dorchester and Weymouth without a shot, but resigned in disgust after Royalist troops plundered the inhabitants, and he returned to the King’s side at the siege of Gloucester. He was killed at the Battle of Newbury by a lone trooper who chanced upon him returning from a successful cavalry charge. As he lay dying he was asked if he had one final request of the King. “No”, he replied, “in an hour like this, I have no prayer but to the King of Heaven.” [4]

This portrait is one of few known depictions of Lord Carnarvon, and is half of a since damaged double portrait which included Lady Carnarvon. Other portraits of Carnarvon are derived from Van Dyck’s monumental Herbert family portrait (Wilton House) in which Carnarvon is seen on the right with his wife, Lady Anna Herbert. As one of Van Dyck’s masterpieces, this has been copied by artists as varied as Gainsborough and Leemput, while two artists, William Hoare (in pastel) and Richard Brompton (in oils) have made stand alone portraits of Lord and Lady Carnarvon (Narford Hall and Highclere Castle respectively).

This composition, however, is clearly a different pose from the Wilton portrait. A complete version of this portrait is still in the possession of Carnarvon’s descendants. Significantly, it follows the pose used by Van Dyck in his Portrait of a Married Couple (Woburn Abbey), and this strongly suggests that the involvement of Van Dyck and his studio. That Portrait of a Married Couple was painted by Van Dyck during his second Antwerp period (1628-1632) makes it unlikely that the pose for Carnarvon’s portrait could have been copied by anyone other than a pupil of Van Dyck. The present portrait displays all the hallmarks of a technique inspired, and even instructed, by Van Dyck. Carnarvon’s hair, for example, has been laid in over a plain ground still clearly visible. His right hand, expertly drawn with an outline of light reddish brown on top of a warm ground, has been deftly painted to combine elegance with realism. The background of watery blues typical of Van Dyck’s palette has been applied rapidly, and in parts with the distinctive hogshair brush he so frequently used. Finally, the whole compsition is dominated by strong areas of brilliant colour, such as the warm dry red of Carnarvon’s cloak, offset by vigorous, dark shadows, and an almost polished finish.

[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 2004
[2] Lloyd, quoted in Memoirs of Prince Rupert and the Cavaliers, by Eliot Warburton (London 1848) Vol ii, p 295
[3] The Complete Peerage, G E Cokayne
[4] Warburton, loc cit, p 296
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