Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kneller, Godfrey
KNELLER, Sir GODFREY, whose original name was Gottfried Kniller (1646–1723), painter, born at Lübeck in North Germany on 8 Aug. 1646, was third son of Zacharias Kniller and Lucia Beuten his wife. His father, born at Eisleben in Thuringia on 16 Nov. 1611, was son of a landed proprietor at Halle in Saxony, who was surveyor-general and inspector of revenues for the mines belonging to the Count Mansfeldt; he left Eisleben, possibly through the continued wars, and settled in Lübeck, where he practised as a portrait-painter, and from 1659 was master of the works to the church of St. Catherine. A portrait by him of Johannes Olearius was engraved. He married at Lübeck 31 Oct. 1639, and was the father of three sons, besides the eminent painter Johann, born 15 Dec. 1642, Johann Zacharias, born 6 Oct. 1644 (see below), and Andreas, born 23 Aug. 1649, afterwards organist to St. Peter's Church at Hamburg. The father died 4 April 1675, and was buried in St. Catherine's Church, where, in the following year, a portrait of him was painted and dedicated by his two painter-sons; a few portraits from his hand still exist at Lübeck.
Gottfried was destined for a military life, and was sent to Leyden to study mathematics and fortification. His inherited love of painting was, however, so strong that his father removed him to Amsterdam, where he became a pupil of Ferdinand Bol, with the additional privilege, as there seems no reason to doubt, of an occasional lesson in 1668 from the great Rembrandt himself. He then returned to Lübeck, where he soon found employment. Two portraits remain in the town library, one of an aged student, painted by Godfrey Kniller in 1668, and a companion portrait of a youthful scholar, by Godfrey's elder brother, John Zacharias, in the same year. Godfrey appears at first to have intended painting large scriptural or historical subjects in the style of Rembrandt's school, and one of ‘Tobit and the Angel,’ painted in 1672, remained in his own collection till his death. In 1672 the two brothers went to Italy to study historical painting. They first visited Rome, where Godfrey studied from the antique and the paintings of Raphael and the Carracci, and worked in the studios of Carlo Maratti and Bernini. The latter held him in high estimation. After spending some time in Naples they went to Venice, where Godfrey studied the works of Titian and Tintoretto, and laid the foundation of his future fame as a portrait-painter. There he was largely employed by the leading families, especially that of Bassadonna, for whom he painted a portrait of Cardinal Bassadonna, which was sent to Rome as a present to the pope. On his way home he visited Nuremberg, where he painted numerous portraits, and then found occupation at Hamburg. There he painted a large family portrait, which attracted much attention, for a wealthy merchant, Jacob del Böe, an amateur of art, who had inherited a valuable collection of Dutch paintings from his brother, Professor Sylvius of Leyden. The collection included fine works of Gerard Douw, Frans van Mieris, and others, and del Böe gave the painter free access to them for study. After their father's death in 1675, Kneller, as he then wrote his name, purposed returning with his brother through France to Italy, and went to England on the way; he bore a letter of recommendation from del Böe to a wealthy Hamburg merchant in London, Jonathan Banks.
Banks gave Kneller a warm welcome, lodged him in his house, and commissioned him to paint portraits of himself and his family. These were seen by many people of consequence, including Mr. Vernon, secretary to the Duke of Monmouth, who had his own picture done, and secured for Kneller a suitable house in Durham Yard, where he resided for four years. When the duke saw Vernon's portrait he gave Kneller permission to execute one of himself, and he was so much pleased with the result (the picture is now in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch) that he recommended Kneller to the king. Charles II was (1678) about to sit to Sir Peter Lely [q. v.], at the request of James, duke of York, when Monmouth obtained leave for Kneller to draw the king's portrait at the same sitting. The first sitting took place in the presence of the two royal dukes and other members of the court, and at the close Kneller had not only nearly completed the portrait, but had obtained so good a likeness as to excite the wonder of all present, including the king and Lely himself. Being still young and good-looking, with a graceful figure and confident manner, Kneller's success was from that date assured. Commissions poured in upon him, and he soon had to remove to a larger house in the Piazza at Covent Garden, where he continued to reside for twenty-one years. He painted Charles II more than once (one portrait, 1685, seated, being in the royal collection), and his queen, Catherine of Braganza. Not long before his death Charles sent Kneller to Paris to paint the French king, Louis XIV, and when, after the work was done, Louis offered him some mark of esteem, Kneller, at his own request, received permission to make a drawing of Louis for himself. He kept the drawing all his life. James II was as generous as his brother in the patronage which he bestowed on Kneller. Kneller painted so many portraits of the king, of his queen, Mary Beatrix, and of other members of the family, that he subsequently claimed to be a competent authority on the question of Prince James Edward's legitimacy, because of his exceptionally close acquaintance with the features and peculiarities of the royal family. It was while sitting to Kneller for a portrait, commissioned by Samuel Pepys, that James heard the news of the landing of the Prince of Orange at Torbay. An engraving of this portrait by George Vertue adorns the folio edition of Rapin's ‘History of England.’ Kneller received further marks of favour from William III and Queen Anne. He was made principal painter to the king, and was knighted at Kensington on 3 March 1691, when the king presented him with a gold chain and medal worth three hundred guineas. On 7 June 1695 William granted him an annuity of 200l. (Addit. MS. 5763, f. 31). During the reign Kneller went to Brussels to paint the Duke of Bavaria (life-size, on horseback), and also painted the Czar, Peter the Great, of Russia during his visit to England. This portrait is now at Hampton Court.
Kneller's equestrian portrait of William III with allegorical figures, now at Hampton Court, is one of his best-known performances; it was painted in 1697 to celebrate the signing of the peace of Ryswyk. At Hampton Court there are also eight of the twelve portraits of ‘Beauties,’ painted by Kneller for Queen Mary in imitation of Lely's series of similar portraits at Windsor Castle; and the series of ‘Admirals,’ painted for the king, to which Kneller contributed some of his best work. Kneller retained all his dignities under Anne; the queen sat to him several times, as well as Prince George of Denmark and the youthful Duke of Gloucester. In 1703 Kneller painted the Archduke Charles, titular king of Spain, afterwards the Emperor Charles VI (now at Hampton Court), and was rewarded with the patent of a knight of the Roman empire by the Emperor Leopold I. Under Queen Anne he was paid 50l. for each portrait, ‘besides fees’ (Cal. Treas. Papers, 1710, cxxi. 23). George I treated Kneller with even greater favour than his predecessors. He was continued in his office of principal painter, and was created a baronet on 24 May 1715. Portraits of George I and his son, as Prince of Wales, are also at Hampton Court. In 1711, when the first academy of painting was founded in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, Kneller was unanimously elected the first governor, and continued so for some years. Many artists subsequently bore testimony to the great advantages which they derived from his advice and supervision, and to the care and interest which he bestowed on the institution.
Kneller enjoyed continuous good health, and was thus able to accomplish an enormous amount of work up to the last year of his life. He amassed great wealth, and though he lost heavily in the speculations of the South Sea Bubble, he left a large fortune. About 1703 he purchased a house in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, where he resided until his death, and he invested money in other property in London. He purchased an estate at Whitton, near Hounslow, where he built himself a magnificent house, decorated with mural paintings by Laguerre and with many of his own works. Here he resided some months of the year, and received visits from royalty and the nobility. The adulation paid him made him extremely vain, and there are many anecdotes of his eccentric displays of arrogance. He possessed, however, a shrewd wit and sound judgment, and as a justice of the peace for the county of Middlesex exercised a rough-and-ready sort of equity which commanded respect. Pope alludes to his methods of dispensing justice in the lines,
I think Sir Godfrey should decide the suit,
Who sent the thief that stole the cash away,
And punished him that put it in his way
(Pope, ed. Elwin, iii. 380; Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting). He was churchwarden of Twickenham Church, and took an active part in its restoration in 1713. He was taken ill in London with a fever in May 1722, which an excellent constitution and the care of Dr. Richard Mead [q. v.] enabled him to partially conquer. But he never wholly recovered from its effect; and after being moved to Whitton in November was soon brought back to Great Queen Street, where he slowly sank, preserving his faculties to the last. He died during the night of 19 Oct. 1723 (Hist. Register, Chron. Diary, p. 50). On 7 Nov. he was carried in state to Whitton, and was buried in his garden. The register of the church at Twickenham records his burial. For some time before his death he was engaged in arranging his own monument, having models made by Francis Bird and Rysbrack. He intended it to be placed in Twickenham Church, but, being unable to obtain the particular spot in the church which he desired, he left money and directions in his will for Rysbrack's design to be carried out in Westminster Abbey. The monument was placed there in 1729, with an epitaph by Pope, imitated from the epitaph on Raffaelle.
Kneller married Susannah, daughter of the Rev. John Cawley, archdeacon of Lincoln and rector of Henley-on-Thames, and son of William Cawley [q. v.] the regicide. She survived him, without issue. She died at Bath on 24 Nov. 1729, and was buried on 11 Dec. with her husband. Early in life, according to some accounts, before he left his native country, he had a mistress, a Mrs. Vos, who is stated elsewhere to have been the wife of a quaker in Austinfriars, and to have served him as a model. By her Kneller had an illegitimate daughter, Agnes, whom he educated, and painted several times as St. Agnes, St. Catherine, &c. She married a Mr. Huckle, and had a son, Godfrey Kneller Huckle, to whom Kneller stood godfather. The son was Kneller's ultimate heir and assumed the name. By his marriage with Mary, daughter and heiress of Luke Weeks, Huckle became possessed of property at Donhead, Wiltshire. Kneller's will is dated 27 April 1723, with a codicil of 24 Oct. (printed at length in German in Heineken's ‘Nachrichten von Künstlern und Kunstsachen,’ Leipzig, 1768, p. 253). He left numerous legacies, including some to the six daughters of his brother Andreas at Hamburg. Upwards of five hundred portraits remained unfinished, to be completed by Edward Byng, who, with his brother, had been his regular assistant for many years. Mathias Oesterreich, afterwards director of the royal picture gallery at Dresden, is usually stated to have been Kneller's grandson; he was more probably his great-nephew. Kneller's house at Whitton still exists, though much altered; it is known as Kneller Hall, and is now used as the School of Military Music.
Ten reigning sovereigns in all sat to Kneller for their portraits. His sitters included almost all persons of rank, wealth, or eminence in his day, and examples of his brush may be found in nearly every historic mansion or palace in the kingdom. He kept a great number of assistants, to whom he delegated the less material portions of the painting, such as the draperies and accessories; latterly he seldom painted more than the face, and sometimes the hands, himself. His praises were sung by Dryden, Prior, Addison, Steele, and Tickell. Dryden addressed to him one of his best poems on receiving a copy of the ‘Chandos’ portrait of Shakespeare, done by Kneller as a present to the poet. The engravings from his works by his friend John Smith (whose portrait by Kneller is in the National Gallery), John Faber, and others form quite a school of mezzotint-engraving in themselves. Kneller is said to have tried his hand himself, and engraved his own portrait and a portrait of the Earl of Tweeddale, which, if really the work of Kneller and not of Smith, is an excellent performance. His paintings vary in excellence, the best being of the highest order, while others, even when authenticated, seem unworthy of a great reputation. He was always a student of the works of other great portrait-painters, and at one time quite changed his style of colouring, owing to his admiration for certain portraits by Rubens. The monotony of dress and attitude in Kneller's portraits is due much more to the compulsion of fashion and the imitative tendency in the English character than to the painter himself. His sitters themselves demanded that he should depict them in the one familiar attitude. Posterity has not endorsed the extravagantly high opinion in which Kneller's talents were held by his contemporaries.
Kneller can best be studied at Hampton Court. In his own opinion his finest portrait was the full-length portrait of Francis Couplet, a Chinese convert and jesuit missionary, now in the royal collection at Windsor Castle (engraved in mezzotint by John Faber, jun.) Among the most remarkable of his performances was the series of portraits of forty-eight members, including himself, of the Kit-Cat Club [see Cat, Christopher], painted for Jacob Tonson [q. v.], the publisher, engraved in mezzotint by John Faber, jun., and published as a series in 1735, and now in the possession of Mr. Baker at Bayfordbury in Hertfordshire. Other of his best-known portraits are those of the Countess of Ranelagh at Cassiobury, the full-length of Queen Anne, and the Duchess of Marlborough at Grove Park, Lord-chancellor Cowper at Panshanger, the Grimston portraits at Gorhambury, and Sir Isaac Newton at Kade. He frequently painted his own portrait, and was specially invited by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to contribute his portrait to the gallery of artists' portraits, which still remain in the Uffizi at Florence. One of his own portraits of himself was engraved by T. Beckett in 1685, and another by John Smith in 1694. A portrait of him by David van der Plaes was engraved by P. Schenck. Kneller's drawings, of which there are some fair examples in the print-room at the British Museum, display more effectively his great artistic genius than many of the pictures finished by others and merely begun by him.
Kneller or Kniller, John Zacharias (1644–1702), painter, elder brother of Sir Godfrey Kneller, born at Lübeck on 6 Oct. 1644, accompanied his brother in all his travels on the continent in early life, and settled with him in England. Though he also practised as a portrait-painter, he never attained the same excellence. He is better known as a painter of architecture and ruins, and especially of still life, and in the last-named subject did some meritorious work. He died in London in 1702, and was buried in St. Paul's, Covent Garden. His brother painted a good portrait of him, which has been engraved.
[Vertue's Diaries (Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. 23068–78); Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting, ed. Wornum; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iv. 77, vi. 176, 262, 376, x. 328, 379; Sandrart's Teutsch Akademie, 1675; Houbraken's Grosse Schouburgh, ed. von Wurzbach; W. Ackermann's Der Portraitmaler Sir Godfrey Kniller im Verhältniss zur Kunstbildung seiner Zeit, Lübeck, 1845; Heineken's Nachrichten von Künstlern und Kunstsachen; Chaloner Smith's British Mezzotinto Portraits; De Piles's Lives of the Painters; Le Neve's Pedigrees of Knights (Harl. Soc.); Burke's Extinct Baronetage; Hoare's Modern Wiltshire, iv. 31; R. S. Cobbett's Memorials of Twickenham; Miss Bradley's Popular Guide to Westminster Abbey.]