Topic: Artist

This is a painting clearly more associable with the seventeenth-century William Dobson (1611–1646) and not the nineteenth-century one – but is it British at all? Is it not Flemish?

Martin Hopkinson, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The title has been adjusted to ‘Unknown Man in Armour, Formerly Called General Fairfax (1612–1671)’ and ‘William Dobson (style of)’ has been replaced by ‘European School (possibly)’.

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.


The Collection have agreed that the style is more seventeenth-century and does fit with the seventeenth-century William Dobson style rather than nineteenth-century Dobson, but welcomes a discussion. Alistair Brown, Art UK Volunteer, has suggested that the sitter seems to bear little resemblance to known images of General Thomas Fairfax (1612–1671) and that the armour looks late sixteenth-century.

M M Gilchrist,

Late 16-early 17C armour and collar style; also short hair and beard-style are late 16-early 17C so sitter is too early in date. He is also too blond to be "Black Tom"!

M M Gilchrist,

What is his provenance? Is there any connection with the Fairfax family at all (which might suggest a member of an earlier generation, either maternally or paternally)?

Miles Barton,

It certainly doesn't resemble Fairfax and I would definately count that out. The armour is all wrong for that period and facially there is no comparison to the other iconography known.
I would definately say that it is of an individual dressed in 16th century armour and seems in many ways to look Spanish/Italian. My knowledge of armour is not extensive but it certainly appears continental.
I don't believe that this has much to do with William Dobson of the 17th century. The style and manner looks and feels like a 19th century picture, particularly the head, but I'm not sure it is the work of that Dobson either. I would definately lean towards a mid 19th century history painter, perhaps.

M M Gilchrist,

Flemish is a good suggestion re: artist's origins, too – there's a Rubens-like freshness to the colour and vigour to the handling on head. Armour not quite as convincing. Is this reflecting common studio work practice – head by a master, body by assistants? Or is the armour overpainting? Has he been x-rayed?

M M Gilchrist, I have asked the collection if they have any other provenance information, or anything that links the bequest to the Fairfax family. Regards, David

Peter Nahum,

It is not by William Dobson and there is something strange about the relationship of the head to the body - perhaps over-restoration. It makes it look 19th century.

M M Gilchrist,

Even allowing for the distortion of shape with 'peascod belly' breastplate, the proportions of the body don't look right with the head. Torso is too short. Was this a portrait in civilian dress that has been overpainted with armour, or has the head been repainted (proportionally too large)?
Definitely needs an x-ray.

M M Gilchrist,

@Peter Nahum, yes, the proportions are wrong. From on-screen image, though, I can't tell whether head or body is what's amiss – whether head has been repainted, or whether armour has been overpainted to make a civilian portrait look military.

Jacinto Regalado,

The 19th C Dobson was primarily a painter of religious and genre subjects and some portraits. This picture does not fit well into his oeuvre. There is another quite questionable attribution to him of a 17th C portrait (or a copy thereof) below:


The Collections Curator has added: 'The painting came to Cliffe Castle Museum in 1968 as part of a large bequest from Mrs DU McGrigor Phillips. She is better known as Dorothy Unu Ratcliffe, and this work is part of the Ratcliffe Collection. This also includes a work ‘Portrait of a young Man’ attributed to T. Gainsborough and our records record it as ‘in the manner of’. Perhaps she or one of her husbands collected artworks but were not 100% sure of the authenticity of the artists.' The Collection certainly have doubts about both sitter and artist attribution.

M M Gilchrist,

@Jacinto Regalado – I think that is simply a confusion with the 17C Dobson – may even be just a database entry error on here.

Jacinto Regalado,

For what it's worth, the right hand looks Mannerist to me, which would go with late 16th C.

A plumed close-helmet and (probably) full armour with a lance rest - which is what the attachment on the breastplate is (though usually steel like the rest) - suggest this is a figure armed for the tilt, not field action. Not the sort of thing Parliamentary generals indulged in in the 1640s, quite apart from normally being shown in half-armour and buff.

Is the collection sure its even as old as the mid 17th century? The head doesn't look it and anyone competent could have done the armour copying something else.

A further random thought (or red herring) is that if this was 19th-century, there might be a connection with the Eglinton Tournament of 1839 -an occasion of fairly spectacular aristocratic expense and self-commemoration.

Jacinto Regalado,

How did this picture get connected to the 19th C Dobson? In other words, what was the basis for that, unless it was an inadvertent taking of one Dobson for anther?

Jacob Simon,

I suspect that neither portrait in the above composite depicts Fairfax.

Jacob Simon,

This discussion poses two questions: (1) Who painted this portrait, and (2) Is it of Thomas Fairfax? We have answered the second question in the negative.

To answer the first question, we need to decide whether this is an original 17th-century portrait or a copy painted in the 19th century. To my mind this decision as to dating hinges on a physical examination of the portrait. It would be good to see an image of the whole of the back of the painting together with its frame. Otherwise, short of a lucky break through, I think it will be difficult to make further progress.

Jacob, I have asked the Curator if it might be possible to take a picture of the whole of the back and the frame, if no photographic records already exist. Regards, David

Marcie Doran,

For a modest fee, a kind archivist at Hull History Centre provided me with the 1856 inventory of the pictures in Sewerby House that was in an online listing of material related to Sewerby House in Bridlington. https://tinyurl.com/4a389nk5.

The inventory lists 431 paintings. The compiler Gerard [Lanefre?] started out strong - including titles and names of artists (“St John the Baptist, by Guercino”) - but he had dropped the detail by the second page and there are many works with the title “Fruit”.

I believe that the portrait “by Dobson” that was sold at the “Old Masters Sale” at Sewerby House in July 1934 was the item listed on the page headed “Lobby continued” as no. 298, ‘Man armour of the 17th century’. Hull History Centre provided the attached page from the inventory and gave me permission to post it here. The reference is “U DDLG/30/364 - Papers of the Lloyd-Greame Family of Sewerby”.

I have discovered that the 1856 inventory was also discussed in the reference to a painting online in ‘Acquisitions Paintings’, March 2015, ‘Rijksmuseum Bulletin‘ 63(1):93-109 https://tinyurl.com/2p8292fv

On the page numbered 101, the note for the discussion of a painting by Jacubus Buys (1724-1801) reads in part:
“… inventory, Yarburgh Greame (c. 1782-1856), Sewerby, Bridlington, Yorkshire, 1856, no. 91 ('Dutchwomen') or no. 291 ('Lady leaning on her elbow') [Hull History Centre, ddlg Papers of the Lloyd-Graeme Family of Sewerby, u ddlg/30/364 Inventory of Pictures in Sewerby House]; sale, Yarburgh George Lloyd Greame (1840-1924m), Sewerby House, sold on the premises (Mr M.L. Bernasconi), 17 July 1934 sqq., no. 217, 10 gns., to William J. Stewart, Bridlington [Francis Johnson's notes, collection Malcolm McKie, Bridlington and 'Old masters under the hammer', Hull Daily Mail, 17 July 1934]; his sister [Francis Johnson's notes];”

Hoping to find the name of the purchaser of the painting “by Dobson”, I contacted the Hull History Centre with what I believe is a reference number for the notes of Francis Johnson. I was contacted today with the disappointing news that the archivist had “checked the catalogue for U DFJR” and “it looks like these notes are held privately. Malcolm McKie was Francis Johnson’s business partner and executor …” Does anyone have a contact at the Rijksmuseum?

Finally, a short article (attached) in the ‘Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer’ of April 21, 1934, shows that Una McGrigor-Phillips, would have been back in Leeds in time to attend the auction in June 1934.

Jacob Simon,

This discussion attracted 25 contributions in November December 2021 and then came to a halt.

I refer back to my contribution of 18/11/2021:

This discussion poses two questions: (1) Who painted this portrait, and (2) Is it of Thomas Fairfax? We have answered the second question in the negative.

To answer the first question, we need to decide whether this is an original 17th-century portrait or a copy painted in the 19th century. To my mind this decision as to dating hinges on a physical examination of the portrait. It would be good to see an image of the whole of the back of the painting together with its frame. Otherwise, short of a lucky break through, I think it will be difficult to make further progress. I fear that the discussion on provenance in the previous post is too uncertain for our purpose.

Since we have been unable to make further progress, I suspect that we are moving towards: Unknown sitter by Unknown artist. Further thoughts?

Marcie Doran,

The ‘Morning Leader’ of the 23rd April 1902 mentions a portrait with the title ‘General Fairfax’ at an exhibition at “Messrs. Shepherd’s, in King-st. [London]”. “Among earlier portraits there is a ‘General Fairfax’, which is ascribed to Dobson, but which seems to me to betray the gentler hand of Walker”.

Osmund Bullock,

Not remotely like Fairfax; and whatever lies beneath, even at this resolution it's clear the head (amongst other things) has been seriously messed about with. Looked at in isolation - see blown-up image attached (if it works) - it shouts C19th or even later at me. And the eyes make no sense at all, they're completely different. In my view a work not worth further time or effort - there is so much else to do.

EDIT: To be honest, the main purpose of my post was to see if attachments were now working. They're not.

Pamela Keeton, Registrar, Bradford District Museums and Galleries has kindly provided the attached photographs of the painting front and back, which show labels on the frame 'General Fairfax' and 'W Dobson'.

Pamela has added, 'There is a note on the object record that the painting received conservation in the 1990’s. If there was a conservation report, I’m afraid it wasn’t filed at the time. It looks like it was relined - the reverse of the painting has a very clean smooth surface and the keys are secured to the frame with thread.'

2 attachments

Very odd - assuming it is not 17th c. - that we have not yet seen a likely prototype/exemplar for the armour, which (merely repeating my earlier comment) looks like 'parade' or 'tilt' armour and at a guess likely to be continental European. Ideally any new title /descriptionwould include as much term-searchable as possible

Jacob Simon,

Many thanks to the Collection for posting images of the front and back of the picture. What an extraordinary contrast between the image of the front and that posted on ArtUK.

THE CANVAS. As the Collection points out, it is likely that the picture has been treated comparatively recently. The stretcher suggests to me that the picture was lined in the 19th century, possibly in Britain. Turning to the front, the head is particularly dominant. I wonder if the picture has been selectively cleaned in the past.

THE FRAME. Always difficult judging from photos but it may be that the frame was made for the picture. It is particularly rich. Styles were sometimes revived in the 19th century but I suppose that I would date the frame to the 1730s. Possibly Continental rather than British.

THE PICTURE. I don’t believe that this is a 19th century picture, looking at it compositionaly and at the handling of the paint. Nor do I believe it is British. Martin asked at the outset of this discussion, is it not Flemish, which is possible but evidence is not forthcoming. It is disturbing that the picture is so difficult to date. The beard style reminds me of the late 16th century. But the use of canvas is later. A puzzle.

This discussion poses two questions: (1) Who painted this portrait, and (2) Is it of Thomas Fairfax? We have answered the second question in the negative and I would be very cautious about the first. So, Unknown sitter in armour, formerly called General Fairfax (1612–1671), by Unknown continental artist. On this basis, as one of the Group Leaders, subject to the Collection, I recommend the discussion be closed.

Thank you, Jacob. I have emailed Pamela Keeton (Registrar) about the proposed changes and Art UK Images about using the new one provided here, or acquiring a better one.