Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dobson, William (1610-1646)

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DOBSON, WILLIAM (1610–1646), portrait-painter, was born in London, in the parish of St. Andrew, Holborn, in 1610. His father, who was master of the Alienation Office, had been a gentleman of good position in St. Albans, but having squandered his estate, he apprenticed his son to Robert Peake, a portrait-painter and dealer in pictures, who was afterwards knighted by Charles I. He appears, however, to have learned more of the elder Cleyn. According to Walpole, he acquired great skill by copying pictures by Titian and Vandyck, and one of his pictures exposed in the window of a shop on Snow Hill, London, attracted the attention of Vandyck, who found him at work in a garret, and introduced him to the notice of the king. On the death of Vandyck in 1641, Dobson was appointed sergeant-painter to Charles I, whom he accompanied to Oxford, where the king, Prince Rupert, and several of the nobility sat to him. Dobson stood high in the favour of Charles, by whom he was styled the ‘English Tintoret.’ He is said to have been so overwhelmed with commissions that he endeavoured to check them by obliging his sitters to pay half the price before he began, a practice which he was the first to introduce. The decline of the fortunes of Charles, however, coupled with his own imprudence and extravagance, involved him in debt to such an extent that he was thrown into prison, and obtained his release only through the kindness of a patron. He died soon after in London on 28 Oct. 1646, and was buried in the church of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. He was of middle height, possessing ready wit and pleasing conversation, and was twice married. There are two epigrams on portraits by him in Elsum's ‘Epigrams,’ 1700, and an elegy upon him in a collection of poems called ‘ Calanthe.’

Dobson was the first English painter, except Sir Nathaniel Bacon [q. v.], who distinguished himself in portrait and history. He was an excellent draughtsman and a good colourist, and although his portraits resemble somewhat those of Vandyck and Lely, his style is distinct enough to prevent his works being mistaken for theirs.

The principal subject picture by him is the ‘Beheading of St. John,’ in the collection of the Earl of Pembroke at Wilton House. Among his chief works in portraiture are the fine painting of himself and his wife at Hampton Court, and of which there are one or two replicas; a picture containing the portraits of ‘Two Gentlemen,’ also at Hampton Court, and of which a replica is said to be at Cobham Hall; a picture containing half-length portraits of Sir Charles Cotterell, Sir Balthazar Gerbier, and himself, in the possession of the Duke of Northumberland; the Family of Sir Thomas Browne, the author of ‘Religio Medici,’ in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Devonshire House; John Cleveland, the poet, in that of the Earl of Ellesmere at Bridgewater House; William Cavendish, first duke of Newcastle, in that of the Duke of Newcastle; Margaret Lemon, the mistress of Vandyck, in that of Earl Spencer at Althorp; James Graham, marquis of Montrose (ascribed also to Vandyck), in that of the Earl of Warwick; Bishop Rutter, in that of the Earl of Derby at Knowsley Hall; John Thurloe, secretary of state, in that of Lord Thurlow; John, first Lord Byron, in that of Lord De Tabley; the Tradescant Family, Sir John Suckling, the poet, and the artist's wife, in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford; a fine head of Abraham Vanderdort, the painter, formerly in the Houghton Gallery, and now in the Hermitage at St. Petersburg; and those of Lord-keeper Coventry, Colonel William Strode, one of the five members arrested by Charles I, Cornet Joyce, who carried off the king from Holmby House and delivered him up to the army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, afterwards third Lord Fairfax, Thomas Parr (‘Old Parr’), and Nathaniel Lee, the mad poet, all of which were in the National Portrait Exhibition of 1866, and a fine half-length of a sculptor (unknown), exhibited by the Earl of Jersey at the Royal Academy in 1888. There are in the National Portrait Gallery heads by Dobson of Sir Henry Vane the younger, Endymion Porter, Francis Quarles, the poet, and that of himself, which was engraved by Bannerman for the Strawberry Hill edition of Walpole's ‘Anecdotes,’ and by S. Freeman for Wornum's edition of the same work. Dobson's portrait, after a painting by himself, was also engraved in mezzotint by George White.

[Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting in England, ed. Wornum, 1849, ii. 351–4; Redgraves' Century of Painters of the English School, 1866, i. 29; Seguier's Critical and Commercial Dictionary of the Works of Painters, 1870; D'Argenville's Abrégé de la vie des plus fameux Peintres, 1762, iii. 411–13; Scharf's Historical and Descriptive Cat. of the National Portrait Gallery, 1884; Law's Historical Cat. of the Pictures at Hampton Court, 1881; Waagen's Treasures of Art in Great Britain, 4 vols., 1854–7; Catalogues of the Exhibitions of National Portraits on loan to the South Kensington Museum, 1866–8; Catalogues of the Exhibitions of Works of Old Masters at the Royal Academy, 1871–88.]

R. E. G.