Have you heard of William Dobson?

September 19 2011

Image of Have you heard of William Dobson?

Picture: Tate, 'Portrait of the Artist's Wife' by William Dobson.

It's the fashion these days, when making a historical TV programme or writing a book, to say that your subject is 'forgotten' or 'secret', allowing you to 'reveal' or 'uncover' their hidden story. Waldemar Januszczak is doing just this to William Dobson (1611-46).

Dobson has been rebranded as 'The Lost Genius of British Art' for Waldemar's new programme on BBC4 (Thursday 22nd Sept, 9pm). But I suspect most of you will know something about William Dobson, or at least have heard of him. Dobson was the first truly great English artist. If he's forgotten, it's because most people don't know much about British art. So hats off to Waldemar and the BBC for commissioning the programme. Waldemar has even set up a Dobson website, where you can see where his pictures now hang. 

Waldemar wrote a peculiar but engaging article about Dobson in the Sunday Times recently, in which he speculated on Dobson's artistic origins: [more below]

Some say Dobson was actually van Dyck’s pupil. If he was, then, gadzooks, how different they were. Where van Dyck, who was from Flanders, was always guilty of outrageous flattery, Dobson, who was from London, couldn’t do it. When someone sat for van Dyck, they invariably ended up looking thinner, taller, more elegant than they were. Van Dyck was, as you know, perhaps the greatest improver-upon-nature that royal portraiture has ever seen. Look, for instance, at what he did to Charles I’s queen, the much-hated French Catholic Henrietta Maria. According to the Venetian ambassador, Henrietta was small and mousy, with front teeth that stuck out “like the guns on a ship”. But when van Dyck painted her, he turned her into one of the most delicate beauties of the age. Witness those exquisite portraits of her that now hang in Windsor Castle, which you must know so well. What beautiful lies they tell.

Dobson did the opposite. When he painted you, he put a stone on you. Or even two. When he painted his own wife in that busty portrait of her in Tate Britain, he turned her into a proudly thrusting Barbara Windsor. She is the first buxom wench in British art, and I’d buy cockles from her any day.

Such reasoning is of course subjective. Personally, I find the evidence actually on Dobson's canvasses, the application of paint, the technique of the drapery, the glazey flesh tones, to be quite convincing evidence that Dobson was, if not a formal pupil of Van Dyck, more than heavily influenced by him, and probably in some way instructed by him. There is little evidence on Dobson's life, but we know that he received encouragement from Van Dyck - indeed he could not have gained his position at court without it.

Incidentally, I've not come across the Venetian Ambassador's quote on Henrietta Maria. the one I know is from Prince Rupert's sister, Sophia, who said that the Queen had teeth 'protruding from her mouth like guns from a fort''.

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