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William Dobson: A Portrait Revealed

William Dobson (1611-1646). Portrait of an Old and a Younger Man (John Taylor and John Denham), 1643. Oil on canvas, 110.2 x 118.6 cm. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

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A NEWLY identified double portrait of John Taylor and Sir John Denham will be on display at The Courtauld Gallery from September 12 to December 11, 2011.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of William Dobson (1611 – 1646), a little known artist who is considered one of Britain’s finest portraitists. The Courtauld Gallery is one of several prestigious art institutions collaborating with Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak and ZCZ Films on a timely celebration of Dobson’s life and work.

Dobson was described by the 17th-century antiquary and writer John Aubrey as ‘the most excellent painter that England hath yet bred’. Born in London in 1611, Dobson became principal painter to Charles I on the death of Van Dyck in 1641. A year later, at the outbreak of the English Civil War, Dobson accompanied the King to Oxford where he painted spectacular portraits of the Royal Family and the leading Royalist supporters.

Following the King’s defeat in 1646, Dobson returned to London where he died in poverty, aged just 35. Although tragically short, Dobson’s career was hugely significant as witness to one of the most tumultuous epochs in British history.

The Courtauld possesses one of Dobson’s most accomplished and intriguing pictures, Portrait of an Old and a Younger Man. A richly dressed young man grasps the hand of an older companion. Their pensive expressions have been taken to represent a father and son lost in private grief, perhaps at the death of a wife or mother.

However, Januszczak’s research identified them as two poets exiled in Oxford with Charles I during the English Civil War. The older man is John Taylor (1578 – 1653), a notorious London figure, nicknamed the Water-Poet. Fiercely loyal to the King, Taylor began his career ferrying people across the Thames at Southwark before developing his literary ambitions. During the English Civil War, he joined the King in Oxford where he was made the official Water Bailiff.

The younger man is Sir John Denham (1614/5 – 1669), a more typical gentleman poet of the times, and author of the first great topographic poem in the English language, Cooper’s Hill. Centred on a description of the Thames, Cooper’s Hill is actually a poetic rumination upon British history from a Royalist perspective. Having been governor of Farnham Castle, Denham also joined the King in Oxford in 1643.

Waldemar Januszczak will discuss The Courtauld Gallery’s painting in a special free talk at The Courtauld on October 19 at 7.30pm (doors open at 7pm). To book, please e-mail

Januszczak’s film The Lost Genius of British Art: William Dobson is scheduled for broadcast on BBC4 on September 22, 2011 and a second, shorter film revealing his research into the true identity of the sitters in The Courtauld’s painting An Old and a Younger Man will also be planned for broadcast on BBC4 later this year.

September will also see the launch of a special Dobson Art Trail, highlighting Dobson paintings in public collections across the country, with a designated website ( going live on September 12.

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN