For the Silly Season I've set myself the challenge of visiting a different art exhibition on every day of the month and blogging about it.

Monday 3 August

Exhibition: Cornelius Johnson, Charles I’s Forgotten Painter
Place: National Portrait Gallery

I was lured to the National Portrait Gallery by the Guardian listings, which suggested there was an Aubrey Beardsley show. What I found was a glass case containing a copy of The Yellow Book and three photographs of the old aesthete himself, one of which I had seen many times before (close up, shadowy contrasts, beaky nose in profile, long-fingered hand stroking the cheek – you probably know it too). Abandoning this feeble offering I went upstairs to the second floor and found something a little more stimulating: a temporary display of a dozen portraits by the English (but Dutch in origin and Dutch-trained) portrait painter Cornelius Johnson.


The NPG is billing Johnson as “the forgotten man of 17th century British art”, though I knew him as one of the two incumbent court painters to Charles I who had been brutally supplanted in 1632 by the arrival of Van Dyck. I had never much considered Johnson except in relationship to this event, however, and I didn’t know much about how the next thirty years of his life unfolded. 


The largest portrait here presents a prosperous image of one of his grandest patrons, Thomas Coventry, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal (1639), in all his pomp. It was painted late in Johnson's English career, and shows he was not too proud (or too stupid) to learn some compositional and atmospheric tricks from Van Dyck. The two artists would have known each other: they lived in the same neighbourhood of Blackfriars. The gold-embroidered bag on which Coventry rests his hand in this portrait contains the Seal itself, and below in a gallery case you can read the actual notes given by Johnson to the court doctor and amateur art enthusiast Theodore de Mayerne on how to mix yellow orpiment, the dangerously poisonous pigment needed to paint gold effects without using actual gold paint. 


The portrait of Susannah Temple (1620) is a comparatively early work, as well as being a slightly odd-looking one. The sharp-focused head is like an egg balanced on its lace collar, and the woman’s colouring is unhealthy, the rouged cheeks showing up the unnatural complexion, which is more than a bit peaky and jaundiced. On the other hand Susannah’s facial expression is wonderful, the eyes full of life, and what I interpret as mock severity, as if she’s saying “I must ask you, please, not to look at me in quite that way.” 


After Van Dyck's arrival, Johnson painted fewer (if any) court pictures but he remained busy around England portraying the gentry and minor nobility. Then the outbreak of Civil War forced him to migrate with his family to Holland, where he lived until his death twenty years later, and did some of his best work. He found it easy to adapt to the prevailing taste in Holland, perhaps reconnecting with the restrained sensibility of his ancestors after having had to deal with the peacocks and popinjays of Caroline England. The Portrait of a Lady (1646, sitter's identity unknown) is a superb essay in the mid 17th Century Dutch style, with more than a dash of the Rembrandts about it.

 I left the show liking Johnson more than I had done before. He himself was a large, expansive figure, but his best work is subtle and sensitive. He was (I thought a bit Woosterishly) quite a Good Egg.

Posted on August 3rd, 2015


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