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Pious painter of the gentry

28 August 2015

Nicholas Cranfield on a court artist who rarely painted royalty

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Not yet the merry monarch: King Charles II, 1639, by Cornelius Johnson, in the current National Portrait Gallery exhibition

Not yet the merry monarch: King Charles II, 1639, by Cornelius Johnson, in the current National Portrait Gallery exhibition

CORNELIUS JOHNSON was a Flemish Londoner born in 1593. His parents were among the many Protestant immigrants who had come to England from the Low Countries in the wake of the re-Catholicisation of Flanders. In that regard, his background was similar to that of Daniel Mytens and Marcus Gheeraerts, who came to dominate the English artistic scene of Jacobean London.

Like the better-known Rubens, alongside whom Johnson worked for members of the Stuart court, Johnson’s family originated from Germany, but then had moved from Cologne to Antwerp. It appears that the artist’s father had worked as a spy for the notorious Sir Thomas Walsingham shortly before moving to London. That may have helped Johnson to assert his later claim (1634) to bear arms when he was allowed to incorporate the family’s German “burgher” arms.

The artist seemingly trained in London and the north Netherlands, possibly with Gheeraerts and Michiel van Miereveldt. He was back in London by 1619, and soon established himself as a prolific portraitist of both the rising gentry and the burgeoning eloquence of lawyers, making extensive use of the feigned-oval format and the 30-by-25-inch canvas, although he also painted miniatures.

One of the earliest of his English portraits shows Susannah Temple in 1620. Johnson’s characteristic attention to detail identifies her by her earring, as the very small martlet was part of the heraldic device of her father, Sir Alexander Temple of Etchingham. There is no evidence for the old family tradition that she had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anna of Denmark, but her younger brother James became one of the regicides in 1649.

Johnson first painted the prominent lawyer Thomas, later 1st Baron Coventry, in 1623 as Attorney General, a couple of years before he became Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He sat to Johnson at least five times, and the exhibition includes the final portrait of him, dated 1639, in a fine contemporary frame. Painted the year before his death, it dominates the gallery and reveals a man who had schemed his way to the top of the legal pole and has about him the ordure of success.

His right hand is laid imperiously on the red decorated velvet burse containing the Great Seal of England, while his left smoothes the satin of his Parliamentary robes. His steely gaze betrays none of the wisdom with which his last words the following spring admonished his royal master to accept the distastes of Parliament with patience “and suffer it without an unkind dissolution”.

It may have been Coventry who sponsored Johnson for a court post, as in 1632 Charles I promoted him to be one of his “picture-drawers”. But 1632 was also the year that Anthony Van Dyck, who was soon to eclipse him in royal favour, returned to London. The two were neighbours in Blackfriars, which must have rankled the longer-term resident, as, despite his court appointment, Johnson rarely painted royalty, and his reputation was overshadowed by the newly resident Fleming.

Three small full-length portraits of the King’s children from 1639 are in this show (all NPG). Painted in tight detail in their last years in London before the outbreak of the Civil War, the future Charles II, James II, and Princess Mary of Orange, later mother of William III, appear indifferent to the impending doom of the civil wars that would engulf their family and force Johnson and his family to follow them into exile, fleeing to the Netherlands in 1643. Rubens had died in 1640 and Van Dyck followed his former master to the grave in 1641, at last leaving the field clear for Johnson; but it was too late for him to make his name in England.

Professor Karen Hearn, who has brought this exceptionally revealing exhibition together from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate, where until 2012 she was for 20 years Curator of 16th and 17th Century British Art, has undertaken a range of archival work that brings Johnson out of the shadows and evidences his piety.

In London, Johnson and his family had been pillars of the so-called Dutch Church in Austin Friars, where he had been baptised. The church in Austin Friars provided him with a letter of attestation to foreign churches when he left England in October 1643, and he produced it on 2 March 1644 at the English church in Middleburg, where he first settled. His former London pastor had retired there a few years before, and Cornelius was in touch with his widow. There he painted the Burgomaster Apolonius Veth and his wife Cornelia (both Tate).

When the family moved to Amsterdam the following year, he produced the same letter of commendation. Four years later, when he returned to Middleburg, this time with a letter of recommendation from the English church in Amsterdam in his pocket, he rejoined the local congregation, where he served as an Elder for two years. They moved to Utrecht in 1652.

Well established as a portrait painter, Johnson died a wealthy man in October 1663 after ten years serving on the vestry of the English church there, the Maria Kirke. As sign of his status, 12 men bore him to his grave; with just eight of his hundred-and-something known portraits, Dr Hearn has brought him back to life.


“Cornelius Johnson: Charles I’s Forgotten Painter” is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place

London WC2, until 13 September. Phone 020 7306 0055


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