Verrio, Antonio (DNB00)

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VERRIO, ANTONIO (1639?–1707), decorative painter, was born at Lecce, near Otranto in South Italy, and studied painting at Naples. He settled for a time in France as a history-painter, and among other works painted the altar-piece for the church of the Carmelites at Toulouse. After the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England the king desired to re-establish the tapestry works at Mortlake, which had been suspended during the civil wars. He therefore sent over to France for Verrio to take charge of this work. The works, however, were never re-established. According to John Evelyn [q. v.], in his ‘Diary’ for October 1671, the first decorative works executed by Verrio in England were done for the Earl of Arlington at Euston in Suffolk. Verrio was employed by Charles II to paint the ceilings in Windsor Castle, which was being transformed into a royal residence after the manner of Versailles. Verrio, who in 1675 resided in Piccadilly, also had a residence in Windsor Castle for some years. On 23 July 1679 he was visited there by Evelyn, who says that Verrio ‘shew'd us his pretty garden, choice flowers, and curiosities, he himself being a skilfull gardener.’ The king was much pleased with Verrio's work in spite of the painter's extravagant pretensions, and, besides paying him handsomely, gave him the post of master gardener and a house in the Mall, near St. James's Palace. Little remains of Verrio's work at Windsor owing to the subsequent alterations in the nineteenth century. St. George's Hall was at one time entirely decorated by him with the legend of St. George and the triumph of the Black Prince, and at the end of the hall there was a Latin inscription commemorating his completion of the work, in which he was described as ‘non ignobili stirpe natus.’ In 1683 Evelyn records meeting at the house of Sir Stephen Fox at Chiswick ‘Signor Verrio, who brought his draught and designs for the painting of the staircase of Sir Stephen's new house,’ and proceeds to extol Verrio's works in fresco at Windsor. Verrio was employed by the Earl of Essex at Cassiobury, and by Lord Montagu at Montagu House, Bloomsbury; but his frescoes in the latter were destroyed by fire a few years after they were painted. Verrio designed the large equestrian portrait of Charles II for Chelsea Hospital, which was executed by Henry Cooke [q. v.]

After the death of Charles II Verrio's services were retained and his appointments continued by James II, but on the accession of William III Verrio declined all court appointments. He found, however, ready patrons in the Duke of Devonshire, who employed him at Chatsworth; and the Earl of Exeter, who employed him on extensive decorative paintings at Burghley House; and other noblemen (Peck, Desiderata Curiosa, 1732, bk. vi. pp. 27, 43). Peck mentions Verrio as one of the ‘persons who made up the great Earl of Exeter's family as it stood April 25, 1694.’ At last, however, Verrio was induced by his patron, the Earl of Exeter, to accept an important commission from William III for a series of decorative paintings at Hampton Court. Verrio therefore took up his residence at Hampton Court for this purpose. The royal favour was continued to him by Queen Anne, and his talents further employed at Hampton Court; but shortly after her accession his eyesight began to fail him, and he was obliged to relinquish work. His health quickly became impaired, and he died at Hampton Court in 1707. Had he lived he would have been employed upon the decorations of Blenheim Palace for the victorious Duke of Marlborough.

The satire of Pope, ‘where sprawl the saints of Verrio and Laguerre,’ has done much to lower the reputation of Verrio in the history of art. In reality the faults of taste in his decorative paintings are characteristic of the age in which he lived rather than of the artist himself. He was employed by Charles II to graft into England upon the new italianised architecture of Wren, Vanbrugh, and other architects, the gaudy decorations which had been brought into such prominence and fashion in France, especially at Versailles. In his earlier paintings at Windsor Verrio's designs were infinitely superior to those at Hampton Court, by which in this day he is principally known. The paintings at Hampton Court show a tasteless exuberance and confused medley of subject. On the other hand Verrio was a master of his art, and his decorative paintings, like those of his successors, Laguerre, Streater, and Thornhill, have remained in a fair state of preservation when more modern works of a similarly ambitious nature have entirely perished. He frequently introduced portraits into his paintings, sometimes with a satirical intent (cf. PECK, bk. vi. p. 41). His own portrait is at Althorp.

[Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting, ed. Wornum; Law's History of Hampton Court Palace; Evelyn's Diary; Bryan's Dict. of Painters, ed. Graves and Armstrong; Pyne's Royal Residences; Cunningham's History of London, ed. Wheatley.]

L. C.