Friday, April 17, 2015

Sir Godfrey Kneller, the de Veres, and the Beauclerks

by Margaret Porter

Such are thy pictures, Kneller, and such thy skill,
That Nature seems obedient to thy will;
Comes out and meets thy pencil in the draught,
Lives there, and wants but words to speak her thoughts.
                                                       ~~ John Dryden

Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford
In 1678, two years after arriving in England with his brother, the German artist Godfrey Kneller produced a magisterial, much-admired portrait of King Charles II. As a result, "his reputation daily increased so that most noblemen and ladies would have their pictures done by him," irrespective of their political affiliation or religious preferences. Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford, a soldier and courtier boasting one of the longest pedigrees in the land, was among the artist's subjects. Kneller painted his illustrious client in battle armour. 

the first portrait
When the Earl's daughter Lady Diana de Vere first posed for Kneller, she was no more than ten years old. Holding up a floral garland, she stands beside her younger sister Mary, seated beside her. By the early 1680s, when this double portrait  was completed, the German artist was at the pinnacle of prominence.

Nell Gwyn, with her son and without, with or without her clothes on, was often painted by renowned portraitists Peter Lely and Simon Verelst. Kneller succeeded them as the most fashionable artist of the day, remaining so after Nell’s death in 1687 and the Glorious Revolution of the following year. King William III and Queen Mary II shared the deposed James II's preference for Kneller's work.

Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St Albans
By 1690 Nell's son and heir, the Duke of St Albans, had embarked upon a military career. At about that time the handsome young man posed for a three-quarter length portrait. This would be the first of many Beauclerk portraits produced by Kneller, now a naturalised Englishman. He'd established a residence and studio in the north east corner of Covent Garden. Not only the nobility flocked there--the Duke’s father, King Charles II, had also visited the artist to sit for his portraits, a mark of great favour.

One of Kneller's most memorable and presumably enjoyable commissions came a year after the double coronation of William and Mary. As the former battled foreign enemies on the Continent, the Queen decided to imitate her own mother's gallery of beauties at Windsor Castle, produced by Lely. Mary proposed a set of paintings for Hampton Court Palace, being altered by Sir Christopher Wren to suit her and William's architectural tastes. Her plan was mocked by her father’s former mistress, Lady Dorchester, who famously quipped, "Madam, if the King was to ask for portraits of all the wits in his court, would not the rest think he called them fools?"

Diana, a Hampton Court Beauty
Undeterred, Mary put Kneller to work, and her loveliest and most virtuous attendants made their way to his studio to have their charms preserved as life-sized canvases. Of the twelve original paintings only eight remain. The most admired of the set is that of Lady Diana de Vere, who at that time was either officially or unofficially attached to the court as maid of honor. She poses with an orange tree, holding an orange in her hand—doubtless designating the de Veres’ fealty to the new rulers from the House of Orange. The paintings of Diana and the other ladies were positioned in the narrow spaces between the tall windows of Hampton Court's riverside Water Gallery (later demolished). Each was set within a blue-and-white painted frame to complement the Queen’s extensive Delftware collection. Diana's portrait currently hangs in the King’s Dining Room, and is now surrounded by giltwood frame. Duchess of St Albans, the title she gained at her marriage to Charles Beauclerk, was inscribed at a later date. (A detail of this work appears on the cover of my novel A Pledge of Better Times.)

The 20th Earl of Oxford 
in Garter Robes
 Having pleased the monarchs with portraits of beauties and military men, on 3 March 1691/2, Kneller became Sir Godfrey. “His Majesty, to shew his Kingly approbation of his Art and Manners, was pleas’d to confer the Honour of Knighthood upon him…and as an extraordinary Mark of his Grace and Favour, Honour’d him with the Present of a Sword, by the Hands of the Right Honourable Lord Chamberlain." The artist also became a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, and received an honorary doctorate from Oxford. An acquaintance reported, "In June 1693 Sir Godfrey Kneller told me he has had fourteen persons sett to him in a day." Some of those persons sat to him as many as a dozen times for a single portrait! Diana’s father, Lord Oxford, a Knight of the Garter, a member of the Privy Council, a Lieutenant General, and a Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber, commissioned a splendid full-length Kneller likeness at approximately the time his daughter was posing for her Beauty portrait.

Diana, 1694
Author's collection
Upon her marriage in 1694, Diana became Duchess of St Albans and again sat to Kneller—for a third time. The painting was promptly delivered to engraver John Smith, who revised her features and hair somewhat when producing prints for public sale. One of these holds a special place in my personal art gallery!

 In 1695, the Crown granted Kneller an annuity of £200 per year. Two years afterwards he received additional proofs of William’s admiration, a large gold medal stamped with the King’s image and a golden chain worth £300. It appears in most of the later self-portraits (as seen below) and on the bust attached to his burial monument.

After her accession to the throne, Diana’s friend Queen Mary would sit only to Kneller. A copy of her portrait, or the King’s, could be purchased for the price of £50, and judging from their wide dissemination this was a reliable source of income for Kneller and his assistants. Not only were the paintings acquired for civic and government buildings, they went abroad as presents to fellow rulers, territorial governors, ambassadorial residences, and so forth. And Kneller even travelled with—or without—the King, to make portraits of foreign allies and friends in the Low Countries.

1st Duke of St Albans, 1704
Kneller produced a Kit-Kat style portrait of Charles Beauclerk wearing a blue coat in 1704, as the the Duke was falling out of favour with Queen Anne—not that he ever really had it. Probably at her husband's instigation, Kneller created additional pictures of Diana: seated in a landscape wearing “a dark blue dress with red scarf,” and an oval half-length in which she appears in a “white dress with red mantle and holding a chalice.” These two passed through auction houses and are privately owned. Lord Cholmondeley’s Houghton Hall holds another Kneller portrait of “the Duchess of St. Albans ... in a blue dress, her son in a brown coat and a purple mantle, at her side.”

Duke of St Albans
The private family apartments of a Gloucestershire castle contain large three-quarter sized portraits of both Charles and Diana, and I greatly appreciate the owners’ invitation to view and photograph these paintings. They appear to have been created in 1718, after Charles became a Knight of the Garter—he wears a handsome crimson coat crossed with a blue sash from which hangs a jewel-studded Lesser George medallion.

Diana, Duchess of St Albans

Diana sits serenely in a white dress, fingering a blue ribbon. By my count this later painting represents the seventh time she posed for Kneller, indicating that she must have got to know him rather well!

Kneller's Self-portrait
Kneller was a companion of Dryden, Addison, Swift, and Pope, most of whom wrote verses proclaiming his talent and fame and what they regarded as his genius. He died aged seventy-four on 19 October, 1723, three years ahead of his regular client the Duke of St Albans. Two days before his death his friend Pope visited him, and declared, “I believe, Sir Godfrey, if Almighty God had had your assistance, the world would have been formed more perfect.”

These laudatory lines were composed by Addison:

Thou, Kneller, long with noble pride,
The foremost of thy art hast vied
With nature in a generous strife,
And touched the canvas into life.

Though later critics were less enamoured of Kneller’s style and works than his contemporaries, I remain forever grateful to him for touching those canvases and presenting my characters as they appeared to him in life!

Images:, National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons, author's collection and personal photo archive

Sources: Documents in the British Library; Sir Godfrey Kneller: His Life & Times, Lord Killanin; Beauty, Sex, and Power: A Story of Debauchery and Decadent Art at the Late Stuart Court, Brett Dolman, David Souden, Olivia Fryman; Oxford Dictionary of English Biography


Margaret Porter, who can claim a few tiny drops of de Vere blood, is the award-winning and bestselling author of several historical fiction genres, and is also published in nonfiction and poetry. A Pledge of Better Times, the story of courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans, and of Diana's father Aubrey de Vere, was just released in trade paperback and ebook. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.

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