Portrait of King Charles I
By William Dobson
This important portrait of Charles I derives from sittings granted by the King while at Oxford during the Civil War. The sittings are recorded by Dobson’s first biographer, Richard Graham, who states that the King “sat several times to him for his picture” after the Court had been forced to leave London in 1642. Dobson was then, after the death of Van Dyck in 1641, the pre-eminent artist in England, and almost certainly held the post of Serjeant Painter until the King’s defeat in 1646. It is principally through Dobson’s eyes that we see the fading grandeur and increasing melancholy of the Royalist court, in stark contrast to Van Dyck’s presentation of the Caroline regime in all its swaggering glory.
Dobson’s likeness is the only depiction of Charles in oil during his campaign against Parliamentary forces in the Civil War. Lely’s portrait of Charles with his son James, by Lely (Northumberland Collection) was painted in 1647 while he was held at Hampton Court after his surrender at Newark in 1646, while Edmund Bower’s portrait of Charles at his Trial (Royal Collection), the final likeness of the King, was painted in 1649. At first glance Dobson’s portrait appears to be based on Van Dyck’s earlier likenesses. But Dobson’s careful study of Charles’ face captures perfectly the marked change in the King’s circumstances. The portrait betrays a sense of distraction not seen in the confident, flamboyant images of the 1630s. Here, Charles is portrayed in simple armour with a plain white collar against a grey background. Only the gold chain of the Garter gives any allusion to his position. The picture clearly reflects the martial atmosphere at Oxford, for, before the war, Charles had normally reserved armour for Van Dyck’s life-seized mounted portraits.