Completed London: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 16th and 17th C 34 Could this portrait be the work of John Michael Wright (1617–1694)?

Topic: Subject or sitter

This portrait actually represents Sir Robert Vyner, Lord Mayor of London 1674–1675. It does not resemble other portraits of Browne but is closely copied from the portrait of Vyner by John Michael Wright in the National Portrait Gallery. The association with Kneller is also unlikely as he did not arrive in England until 1676, long after Browne and some time after Vyner had been Lord Mayor.

Dr Catherine McLeod at the NPG agrees with my attribution of the sitter as Robert Vyner and suggests that the style of drapery is consistent with the work of John Michael Wright (1617–1694).

Collection note: We agree the sitter is Sir Robert Vyner (1631–1688), Lord Mayor of London (1674–1675), but further discussion about the artist of this portrait could be helpful.

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. Art UK has updated its record from ‘school of Godfrey Kneller’ to 'studio of John Michael Wright'.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Martin Hopkinson,

Is the sitter a relative of Sir Thomas Vyner, of whom there is a portrait at Christ's Hospital? It looks as if cleaning might improve its appearance, which might clarify whether this a studio production, or even a copy. The association of the conception with J M Wright certainly seems to be correct.

R. Stephens,

The photo here is too poor to attempt any judgment about this painting, beyond agreeing that the head is based on the Vyner family picture. Would it be possible to post crisp details of the face, collar, chain and fur, even if in black and white? Thanks very much.

Timothy Noad,

Sir Robert was the nephew of Sir Thomas Vyner. A slightly better image is available on BBC Your Paintings under Wycombe Museum, listed as Sir Richard Browne by School of Kneller. The fact that the head is copied from the earlier family portrait might imply that it is 'studio of' rather than the work of Wright himself.

R. Stephens,

Thank you for posting these images, I tried to reply a while ago but couldn't remember my password.

The strange thing is that the head is the least convincing part of this painting. The clothing - its volume, detail and textures - are all reasonably good (though not uniformly so, the red area on the sitter's left shoulder is pretty poor). The head sits uncomfortably above the ornate collar, though, and the lighting of the head is lighter than on the body (the shading below the chin and at the margins of the cheeks, so that the face/head doesn't join very convincingly to the collar and the man's hair). That could be partially a result of the fact that the head has been copied from the family portrait of Vyner, in which Vyner is wearing a low collar that reveals a bit of the top of his neck. But in the Wycombe painting, Vyner's head is fitted onto quite different clothing, within which his jowls would have sat somewhat differently.

It looks like there is something going on behind and above the sitter's head, on the opposite side to the inscription. Can the museum suggest what this might be? The shapes beside his right elbow look like they could be part of a chair, although equally it could be a chariot wheel or something of that sort (and as the sitter is standing he would have no need of a chair). But why is the lower part of it cut off I wonder? It looks like there is some form of drapery which is gathered in the top left corner of the picture, and come from behind his head and right shoulder. Perhaps, then, the lower part of the chair/wheel is obscured by drapery.

My tuppence on whether this is by Wright, is: not exactly. I'd say 'circle of' which is an admittedly lame way of acknowledging the link with the Vyner head, and the quality of the costume. It could have started life as a copy that Wright did of another man's portrait, which he would not have taken so much trouble with as with the original (this would account for the quite good but not brilliant clothing). Perhaps that order fell through, and a different painter added the head, in unknown circumstances but clearly with a close knowledge of Wright's portrait of Vyner (whether from the original or a copy of it that Wright doubtless had in his studio). I don't especially recommend this scenario as being true, but I mention it to indicate the kinds of twists and turns that this painting did surely experience.

For what it is worth, I also think it is not as easy as saying that, because the museum's painting shows Vyner's head, then it should no longer be considered a portrait of Browne.

Timothy Noad,

Thank you Richard for the considered contribution. It would be very interesting to see an x-ray to know whether the portrait was ever altered.

My suggestion would be that a portrait was required of Vyner as Lord Mayor and that he lent his family portrait back to Wright, or another painter, to have the head copied with the addition of the Lord Mayor's robes. As you suggest, Richard, they could have put it together using an existing painting of the robes. Then some time later the portrait's identity was forgotten, Wright's family portrait not being available for comparison, and it was assumed to be Browne because he was also Lord Mayor at about the right time, when the inscription was added. I still think it should be renamed as Vyner!

Timothy Noad,

I also have suspicions that the inscription doesn't ring true as a near-contemporary account of Browne and may not be as old as it appears. There seems to be a desire to cram in rather a lot of historical information.

R. Stephens,

Your suggestion about how the picture came about is very reasonable, although i think the identification with Browne could have arisen as much because it suited someone (eg to facilitate its sale or to fit it into a collection) as the result of a genuine case of mistaken identity. The inscription, I also agree, is nowhere near contemporary with the painting, but was added long enough after Browne's death for the study of his activities and achivements to have become quite highly developed. For presumably the author was relying on some published work of 17th century history. It seems from the summary of Browne's career that the person who chose this wording was less interested in Browne's mayoral role than in his career in high politics. I have no idea what that book might be, whether Clarendon or some county or family history, but it could add some useful knowledge about the painting to find out.

Could anyone add more to this discussion about whether this could be by John Michael Wright (1617–1694), following Dr Catherine McLeod's view that the style of drapery is consistent with his work? Timothy Noad noted (22/12/2014) that the head copied from the family portrait of Vyner might imply that it is 'studio of', rather than the work of Wright himself. R. Stephens suggested ‘circle of’, acknowledging the link with the Vyner head and the quality of the costume.

The collection hopes to begin an audit of the art collection in the near future, so if this does go ahead the curator could take photographs of the back of this picture. It is not easily accessible at present and is well wrapped due to poor conditions in the store. Should anyone be happy to visit to look at the painting, please let the curator know.

Martin Hopkinson,

A portrait of this sitter attributed to John Riley was in the E Colville of Charllotte Street sale , Christie's, 20-21 January 1815 lot 16 bought by Adams

As I have been emailing a summary of submissions to the Collection today, I have asked the Collection if the audit of the art collection (see Dr Marion Richards, 17/10/2019) took place and if photographs of the back of the picture could now be taken.

Martin Hopkinson,

could this be by Riley, whose work is far from fully established?

Marcie Doran,

Richard’s comment dated 09/01/2015 was very interesting. I think the wooden ‘chariot wheel’ on the left was added when the (false) inscription was added. It is likely meant to represent the Worshipful Company of Woodmongers since the inscription notes that Browne was a member of the “Woodmongers’ Co.”. Here is a link to the arms of that organization from the Grosvenor Prints website The arms include a wheel.

Osmund Bullock,

I don't think it can be that, I'm afraid. The person who added the (wrong and yes, much later) inscription clearly knew Browne's history in some detail, including his transfer from the Company of Woodmongers to the far more prestigious Merchant Taylors, which happened well before he became Lord Mayor; I hardly think the inscriber/artist would have alluded to his previous membership of the much lesser (and distinctly dodgy) Company unless he was trying to belittle him - and there's no sign of that in the wording. I suppose he might have been unaware of their reputation...but even so I don't buy it as a symbol of the Woodmongers.

First and foremost, it doesn't look like a wheel to me at all - the shape is too irregular, with no square edge to it, and with the brightness upped a bit (attached) seems to my eye to be part of the same shape that extends below it. And besides, the (spiked) wheel in the arms of the Woodmongers is just the attribute of St Catherine, who is the female supporter on the right - the male supporter on the left is St John the Baptist with his attributes (see I very much doubt anyone would have extracted such an emotionally and religiously-charged object to symbolize dealing in fuel wood (albeit carried in carts) - you can see the two bunches of faggots in the escutcheon that do that.

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Scott Thomas Buckle,

I photocopied the record of this portrait from the file at the Witt Library back in the early 1990s. Someone had inscribed the mount "? J.M.WRIGHT", and it had been duly filed in the box for that artist. I had recognised the sitter as Sir Robert Vyner, having just been to a talk on him at the NPG. It is strange that someone back then had tentatively attributed the portrait to Wright, but hadn't recognised the sitter. It undoubtedly derives from Wright's portrait of Vyner and his family in the NPG, but could be by another artist.

I think that it is worth noting that Wright painted a portrait of George Jeffreys in 1875 (NPG), and painted another portrait of the same sitter a few years later (Philip Mould Ltd) in which the sitter adopts the same pose and is seated in the same chair, but the head and costume are very different from the earlier portrait. Another copy of the later variant (also NPG) is sometimes attributed to the copyist, William Wolfgang Claret (d.1706).

This demonstrates that Wright is known to have revisited an earlier portrait to paint the sitter in different attire, but also that copies of such works were made by other artists at around the same time.

Jacob Simon,

Doesn't the poor quality of the head mean that we should close this seven-year old discussion along the lines of "Circle of John Michael Wright"? We are unlikely to make further progress, I suggest.

Marcie Doran,

According to an article (attached) in the 'Leamington Spa Courier' of February 22, 1890, the late Colonel Henry William Vyner bequeathed his portrait of Sir Robert Vyner to the Goldsmiths' Company.

Late last month, a kind librarian at the Goldsmiths' Company sent me an image of the portrait and the following information about the portrait:
"Our description of it is as follows: Late 19th Century English School, after John Riley PORTRAIT OF SIR ROBERT VYNER, CIRCA 1688 Oil on canvas."

I have been given permission by the Goldsmiths' Company to post the attached image of the portrait.

Yesterday, I received some additional information about the portrait:
“I have looked in our archive and found a letter from the executor of Colonel Henry William Vyner’s will, dated 11 February 1890, informing the Wardens of the Company of the bequest of the picture. It describes it as a copy of ‘a painting by John Riley […] I believe the copy was painted by Holder of 33 Brewer Street.’

My colleague has found a PDF document online with more information about William Holder (attached)[link #1 and extract attached] and a reference to Holder in a National Trust record (see link below) [link #2 - see Marks and inscriptions].”

The fact that the Goldsmiths' Company portrait is a "copy" of a painting by John Riley piqued my interest in light of Martin Hopkinson's comment about a portrait of Sir Robert Vyner attributed to Riley (09/06/2020 16:58).

Unfortunately, the man in the image does not match the man in the portrait by Wright at the NPG that was discussed in the opening of this discussion.

Many thanks to the librarians at the Goldsmiths' Company as well as to Marion Richards for assisting me with this research.

Jacinto Regalado,

Marcie, the portrait you link is evidently 18th century based on dress and especially the wig, which means it cannot be after Riley (d. 1691) and cannot be our Robert Vyner (d. 1688).

Osmund Bullock,

I'm afraid the portrait left to the Goldsmith's Company by Col. Vyner - or at least the one passed to them by his executors in 1890, assuming it's the one in the photograph - cannot be of Sir Robert Vyner. Sir Robert died in 1688, while this is an earlyish 18th Century portrait (c.1720-30), or rather a copy of one of that date - and likely provincial to boot. It also, of course, looks nothing like him - as well as the family group portrait of 1673 at the NPG (and a copy at Newby Hall, N. Yorks), there is an entirely consistent engraving by Faithorne of c.1665.

Jacinto Regalado,

It is a moot point, but the Goldsmiths' picture does not look like a late 19th C copy to me; it could be an original of its period.

Jacinto Regalado,

This reminds me of a supposed portrait (on Art UK) of the Duke of Monmouth wearing a clearly 18th century wig of the sort Monmouth never wore or even saw. Apparently, it is not a rare mistake.

Osmund Bullock,

Here's another portrait of Sir Robert of a different type, though of much the same period: Despite the auctioneers' caution, I feel sure it's him.

Jacob Simon,

From this seven-year old discussion it is reasonably clear that this portrait can be associated with the artist, John Michael Wright. It is difficult to be sure of its precise status in its current condition. Perhaps "studio" would be the best label. I suspect that we are unlikely to make further progress.

Might Thomas Ardill as one of the group leaders associated with this discussion bring it to a close as he sees fit?

Given that we do not know if the painter of this portrait worked in Wright's studio, perhaps 'school of John Michael Wright' would be a safer option. It is also consistent with Wycombe Museum's current manner of attribution to school of Kneller. But as Jacob is more familiar with how to attribute portraits than me, perhaps he should have the final say. Then I will make the group recommendation to Art UK.

Jacob Simon,

I think "studio" is probably the most appropriate term. Neither "school" nor "circle" reflect how close this is to Wright's work. It is even possible that it is a partly autograph work masked by varnish and past history.

Given Jacob's recommendation, I recommend that Art UK change the artist to 'studio of John Michael Wright'. Thanks everyone for their thoughtful and knowledgeable contributions.

Jacob Simon,

Subject to contacting the collection, can Art UK now close this discussion?

Sorry, Thomas. I have written to the collection, where the curator works part time. I had been hanging on in the hope of some development on the planned check on the collection. In September last year I asked again about that, but had no reply. Yes, let's close it. I hope to have a reply by Monday.

Jacob Simon,

A discussion now in its tenth year. Do we wait yet further on the collection? It is a year to the day since Marion's post.