The Clarendon Gallery: The Famous Collection of Lord Chancellor Clarendon

The Clarendon Gallery: The Famous Collection of Lord Chancellor Clarendon

Sotheby's upcoming sale of Old Master Paintings includes a selection of works from the Clarendon Collection
Sotheby's upcoming sale of Old Master Paintings includes a selection of works from the Clarendon Collection
“I dined with my Lord Cornbury at Clarendon House now bravely furnished, especially with the pictures of most of our ancient and modern wits, poets, philosophers, famous and learned Englishmen.”
Extract from the diary of John Evelyn, 20 December 1668

T his entry from John Evelyn’s diary for 20 December 1668 records a dinner with Henry Hyde, Viscount Cornbury (1638-1709), eldest son of the celebrated statesman and historian Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon. Clarendon was at the height of his powers following the restoration of Charles II in 1660. The King had appointed him Lord Chancellor in 1658 and made him Earl of Clarendon in 1661, and his daughter Ann had married James, Duke of York, the King’s brother. It is no exaggeration to say that in the first few years of the reign of the new monarch, Clarendon was the dominant political figure, someone to whom Charles II looked for guidance in all matters of state – rather in the same way that Henry VIII had relied on Thomas Cromwell, and Elizabeth I on William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

A significant patron of the arts, Clarendon also embarked on a number of ambitious building projects during this period. At Cornbury Park, his estate near Oxford, he commissioned Hugh May, later to become the King’s Comptroller of Works at Windsor Castle, to rebuild the house there; and in 1664 he commissioned Roger Pratt, architect of Kingston Lacey and friend of John Evelyn, to build one of the first great classical houses in London. Situated in Piccadilly, Clarendon House was one of the grandest mansions in England and housed both a celebrated library and a picture gallery. Accounts survive in the Clarendon papers at the Bodleian Library for payments ‘To Mr Streeter, Painter – 311.10.6; To Mr Cleeve and Pierce Carvers – 78.07.2; and To Mr Story and Flory, Masons – 62.00.6.’1 (Recorded in T. H. Lister, Life and Administration of Edward, First Earl of Clarendon… 1837, vol III, p. 538.)

As Evelyn recorded in his diary, the collection of portraits with which Clarendon filled this celebrated gallery was varied. Clarendon himself pointed out in his autobiographical Life that his early interests had been in "polite learning and history," and as an accomplished historian and antiquarian, he was keen to put together a collection which included portraits of both celebrated historical figures and famous contemporaries whom he had known and who had played a significant role in the turbulent years of the Civil War.

In putting together such a collection, Clarendon was following in the steps of distinguished predecessors. In the 16th century, the celebrated Italian cleric and historian Paolo Giovio had a gallery of portraits of famous men in his villa on Lake Como, and the idea had been taken up by Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, for his gallery in the Uffizi. It is perhaps significant that, in 1669, his descendent Cosimo III, visited England where he met many of the most important court artists such as Sir Peter Lely, and on his return to Italy, put together a group of pictures of illustrious men, royalty and beautiful women. It is very likely that he would have been aware of Clarendon’s gallery and others like it, such as the Windsor Beauties or the series of portraits of Admirals at Greenwich, both also by Lely, and was inspired by them to create something similar for himself. Many Elizabethan and Jacobean homes had displayed sets of portraits of early Kings and Queens in their galleries, but the idea of a gallery with paintings of notable historical figures was relatively rare in England. Perhaps the greatest example, before Clarendon’s day, was Lord Lumley’s celebrated collection at Lumley Castle, but nobody in England had attempted anything of either the scale or scope of Clarendon’s gallery before.

Many of the portraits in the collection were given to Clarendon by the sitters themselves, either as genuine acts of friendship and loyalty, or in order to curry political favour, whilst others were acquired from the various sales of dispossessed families following the political upheavals of the Civil War. What portraits Clarendon could not get hold of in the original, however, he had copied by Lely and his studio, and he also commissioned the artist for autograph portraits of his friends and contemporaries, such as Sir Heneage Finch, later 1st Earl of Nottingham, who wrote in his diary in August 1666: "I have been three times at Mr. Lilly’s to sit for my picture by my Lord Chancellor’s command" The picture is now at Kenwood House, in the collection of the National Trust (quoted in Gibson).

Clarendon also sat for Lely himself, for a three-quarter-length portrait in Chancellor’s robes with the Great Seal (the original of which was tragically lost in the fire at Petersham House); whilst his daughter Ann, Duchess of York was a regular patron of the artist. Moreover, given Clarendon’s political influence in the immediate years after the Restoration, it is almost certain that he had a hand in Lely’s appointment in 1661 as Principal Painter in Ordinary to King Charles II – the same position that Van Dyck had held under Charles’s father. That year Clarendon’s son, Viscount Cornbury, and his wife, the celebrated beauty Theodosia Capel, also sat to Lely for a double portrait that is one of the artist’s greatest masterpieces.

By the time Evelyn wrote his diary entry, Clarendon was already in exile abroad, having been faced with possible impeachment charges in 1667. He died in 1674 and the following year his great London house was sold by his heirs to Christopher Monck, 1st Earl of Albermarle for £26,000. In 1683, Albermarle in turn sold it to a consortium of investors led by Sir Thomas Bond, who demolished the house and built Mayfair’s Dover Street, Albemarle Street and Bond Street on the site. The pictures were moved to Cornbury in Oxfordshire, and it was from this period that can be dated a list of many of the paintings in the collection. This list was made by a restorer in connection with work needed on some pictures following the move, and it is not therefore complete, but it is quite comprehensive and seems more reliable than the only other early list, given by Evelyn to his friend Samuel Pepys.

The subsequent history of the collection is complex. Clarendon’s eldest son accumulated large debts and his brother, Laurence, 1st Earl of Rochester rescued Cornbury and its contents from sale. The collection remained at Cornbury (where it was seen by George Vertue in 1729) until the house was sold in 1750 by Henry, Viscount Cornbury who predeceased his father the 4th Earl. The 4th Earl’s will was contested, and the collection was split between his sister, the Duchess of Queensbury, who received half of the collection, and her two nieces who shared the remaining half.

The seven paintings offered here represent the last vestige of the paintings inherited by Lady Charlotte Villiers, one of the two nieces and the wife of Thomas Villiers, second son of the Earl of Jersey, who was created 1st Earl of Clarendon of the second creation in 1776. In 1761 Walpole visited Lady Charlotte and her husband at The Grove, their seat in Hertfordshire, and noted that she had a quarter of the collection. A manuscript list of many of the paintings she inherited exists compiled by Sir William Musgrave following his visit in 1764, whilst other paintings that originally descended to her sister re-entered the collection in later generations.

Despite sales in the early 20th century, which included notably Van Dyck’s Earl of Derby and his Family (Frick Collection, New York), the essence of the collection and the vision of its founder remained largely intact until 2010, when a large group of portraits were sold at Sotheby’s. These sales covered the two important facets of the collection, with portraits of historical figures such as Archbishop Warham and Bishop Lancelot Andrews; the great scholars Sir Henry Spelman and John Selden; and celebrated political leaders of a previous generation, such as Sir Nicholas Bacon and William Cecil, Lord Burghley; whilst Clarendon’s distinguished friends and contemporaries were represented by two exquisite portraits by Van Dyck of the Royalist commanders George, Lord Goring and Sir John Mennes; a portrait of Elizabeth of Bohemia, Charles I’s sister, to whom Clarendon had been such a faithful servant; and a beautiful portrait by Lely of Diana, Lady Newport, herself an important political hostess and the wife of Clarendon’s friend Francis Newport, together with whom he had struggled in the Royalist cause over many years of political strife, warfare and exile.

These seven portraits are all that remains of the once famous Clarendon collection. They have, until recently, all been on long-term loan to the Palace of Westminster, where they have adorned the walls of the House of Lords for the last half century. Four of them are grand full-length portraits after Van Dyck, probably painted in Lely’s studio in the early 1660s, depicting some of the leading political and cultural figures of the reign of Charles I; including the prominent statesmen and leading patrons of the arts Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel and Philip Herbert, 1st Earl of Montgomery and 4th Earl of Pembroke; as well as the leading military commanders William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, commander of the King’s armies in the north of England during the Civil War, and Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland, Lord High Admiral of England.

A further two full-lengths depict King James I’s favourite George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, who dominated political affairs in the early years of Charles I’s reign, almost certainly painted by Balthasar Gerbier and later extended to a full-length by George Knapton in the eighteenth century to fit with the decorative scheme at The Grove; and James, Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch, the illegitimate son of King Charles II who was one of England’s leading military generals, until he turned against the Crown and was executed for treason following the Monmouth Rebellion, painted by Lely’s great rival Willem Wissing.

Finally, on a more modest scale, is one of the finest portraits by Cornelius Johnson, who held the position of King’s Painter before Van Dyck came to England, depicting Thomas, 1st Baron Coventry, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal during the reign of Charles I. These were men known to Clarendon. Many of them were friends and either close political allies or adversaries (and in some cases both). Together they had a large hand in leading England through one of the most turbulent and poetically divisive periods in its long history.

See more highlights from the sale in our video below:

Old Master Paintings

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