Lot 42
  • 42

Jacob Huysmans

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
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  • Jacob Huysmans
  • Portrait of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647–1680)
  • inscribed on the verso of the canvas: John Wilmot / Earl of Rochester

    inventory number 101 etched into the reverse

  • oil on canvas, unlined


Bequeathed by the sitter's mother, Anne St John, Countess of Rochester (1614–95), to her granddaughter, the sitter's daughter, Lady Anne Wilmot, who married, as her second husband, the Hon. Francis Greville (d. 1710), in 1683;

By descent to their second son, William Greville, 7th Baron Brooke (c.1694–1727);

By descent to his eldest son, Francis Greville, 1st Earl of Warwick (1719–1773);

Thence by descent.


Manchester, Art Treasures, 1857;

Leamington Spa, Art Gallery, Art Treasures of Warwickshire Exhibition, 29 May – 3 July 1948;

London, Royal Academy, The Age of Charles II, 10 December 1960 – 26 February 1961, no. 175 (as Unknown Artist);

Milan, Palazzo Reale, The British Council, British Painting 1660–1840, 1975;

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, on long term loan.


T. Pennant, List of Paintings at Warwick Castle, Ms., 1776 (Warwickshire Record Office CR2017/TP10), n.p.;

W. Kendall, Inventory of Warwick Castle, Ms., 1853, in the Passage and Staircase Landing, as Portrait of the Earl of Rochester with a Monkey;

Anon., Inventory of Warwick Castle, Ms., circa 1860, in the Passage and Staircase Landing;

F. E. Warwick, ‘Warwick Castle’, in The Pall Mall Magazine, vol. XI, January–April 1897, p. 40 (‘John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester’), in the Corridor;

C. H. Collins Baker, Lely and the Stuart Portrait Painters, London 1912, vol. I, pp. 212–213 and vol. II, p. 154;

D. Piper, Catalogue of Seventeenth Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery 1625–1716, Cambridge 1963, p. 298;

G. Greene, Lord Rochester's Monkey. The Life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, London 1989, reproduced on the front cover;

K. Walker, 'Lord Rochester's Monkey (again)', in N. Fisher (ed.), That Second Bottle. Essays on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Manchester 2000, pp. 83–87.

By W.N. Gardner, 1794.


The following condition report is provided by Hamish Dewar who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: Structural Condition The canvas is unlined with an inscription on the reverse. There are two very small repairs on the reverse of the canvas in the upper left and the upper right quadrants. It is obviously most encouraging to find the canvas in it's original unlined state and inevitably there are areas of slightly raised craquelure and visible stretcher-bar lines. The structural condition is however very good and I would be confident that localised structural consolidation would ensure overall stability and that lining should not be required for the foreseeable future. The rather raised and brittle craquelure is most pronounced on the sitter's right sleeve in the upper left of the composition. Paint Surface The paint surface has a discoloured varnish layer and should respond very well to cleaning. Inspection under ultraviolet light shows very small scattered retouchings including two small spots on the monkey's face and also confirms how well the painting should respond to cleaning. Summary The painting would therefore appear to be in exceptionally good condition with minimal intervention in the past and it is obviously rare to find an unlined canvas of this period. The painting should respond very well to localised structural conservation, cleaning, restoration and revarnishing.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

This famous painting is the best known portrait of the great Restoration wit, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647–80); a man who might be considered the English Marquis de Sade. A notorious libertine, poet and favoured courtier of Charles II, Rochester was the wildest and most notorious of a group of young men who flourished at court for about fifteen years after 1665; the ‘merry gang’, ‘ballers’, or ‘rake-hells’ as they were alternatively and colourfully known. A onetime lover of Nell Gwyn, before she became the King's principal mistress, Rochester was the embodiment of the riotous immorality so characteristic of the Restoration Court. He was also possibly the finest satirist of his generation and a poet of startling originality and introspection whose work, having been supressed and censored by subsequent generations, has only been recognised for its true genius in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Born in April 1647, at Ditchley in Oxfordshire, Rochester was the son of Henry Wilmot, 1st Earl of Rochester and his second wife Anne, daughter of Sir John St John, 1st Bt., and the widow of Sir Francis Henry Lee. His father was the legendary cavalier and royalist officer who had commanded Charles I’s cavalry at Edgehill, and later rescued Charles II after his disastrous defeat at Worcester in 1651. Rochester's father died when he was just ten years old, and his upbringing and precarious inheritance were closely supervised by his mother at Ditchley, his early education being conducted through a series of private tutors. In 1660, just before the Restoration, he was admitted as a fellow-commoner to Wadham College, Oxford, where his mind was first opened to the experimental philosophy of John Wilkins, warden of Wadham. It was also at Oxford that Rochester first met the poet Robert Whitehall, a fellow of Merton College. A ‘bumptious, redfaced, rhyming Falstaff’, Whitehall ‘devoted himself to drinking’ and is credited with initiating Rochester’s introduction to debauchery.1 Graduating MA in 1661, Rochester embarked on a three year period of travel in Italy with a governor, Dr Andrew Balfour, all expenses of which were paid by the crown. Returning to England via Paris in 1664, Rochester served with distinction in the fleet commanded by the Earl of Sandwich during the Second Dutch War, though his bloody experience at sea would shake many of the religious convictions that had been instilled in him as a child. His conduct, however, fulfilled the desire he had expressed to the King ‘to be known By daring loyalty your Wilmot’s son’.2

In 1666 Charles II appointed Rochester a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, with lodgings at Whitehall and an annual salary of £1000 for life. At court Rochester quickly established himself as a leading figure among a group of young rakes, including George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, Sir Henry Savile, and Sir Charles Sedley, renowned for their vivacious conversation, extravagant frolics, and licentious lifestyle. The King appears to have taken a paternal role in Rochester's life out of respect for the memory of his father. With his ready wit and extravagant behaviour Rochester alternately enthralled and enraged Charles II, who regularly banished him from court, only to recall him shortly afterwards. In one such incident, related by Samuel Pepys in his diary, the eighteen year old Rochester induced the King's rage when he kidnapped a great court beauty and heiress, Elizabeth Mallett, from her grandfather’s coach whilst she was returning from a dinner in London, with the intention of forcing her to marry him. Charles had Rochester locked in the Tower, only to release him when he received a grovelling, comically pathetic petition for mercy. Following his return from sea service Rochester renewed his courtship of Elizabeth and, defying her family’s wishes, the couple eloped again and were married in 1667. When she became pregnant in 1668 Lady Rochester retired to Adderbury, the Wilmot family estate in Oxfordshire. For the next twelve years Rochester’s life was divided between his wife in the country and the court in London, and he was often ‘wont to say that when he came to Brentford [on the road to London] the devil entered into him and never left him till he came into the country again’.3

In London Rochester had a number of high profile mistresses, including the actresses Nell Gywn, Sarah Cooke and Elizabeth Barry, by whom he has a daughter called Elizabeth Clerke born in 1677. Describing these years in his own words Rochester declared that ‘for five years together he was continually Drunk… [and] not … perfect Master of himself… [which] led him to… do many wild and unaccountable things’4, and his numerous indiscretions included fighting, duelling, cavorting nude in public, and libelling the King. After wine and women Rochester’s main interest was the theatre, and he patronised a number of playwrights, including John Dryden, Elkanah Settle, Nathaniel Lee, John Crowne, Sir Francis Fane and Thomas Otway. He wrote prologues and epilogues, as well as a comedy and a tragedy, and was represented on stage in numerous productions. As a poet he expressed a liberalism unmatched by his fellow Restoration wits. Heavily influenced by Hobbesian materialism he wrote bluntly about body parts, flirted with atheism and attacked monarchs and monarchy in a monarchical age. His most famous poem, A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind, written in 1675 and one of the few poems he published, is a scathing denunciation of rationalism and optimism that contrasts human perfidy with animal wisdom. In 1676 Rochester fell from favour a final time, following a late night scuffle with the night watch in which one of his companions was killed by a pike thrust. Banished from court, he died four years later, in 1680, at the age of just 33, from suspected venereal disease and alcoholism.

The composition of this portrait, almost certainly of Rochester's own devising, reflects a typical conceit found in his writing. A light-hearted quip suggestive of the self-depreciation of the man himself, it also carries a deeper message, serving to highlight the perfidy and vanity of man. It portrays Rochester, manuscript in hand and resplendent in silk, bestowing the poet's laurels on a jabbering monkey which tears the pages from a book and hands them back, crumpled, to the poet. Monkeys feature prominently in Rochester's writing, along with other animal metaphors, serving to point up the folly and presumption of man. The imagery in the picture echoes the opening lines of Rochester’s A Satyr against Reason and Mankind: ‘Were I (who to my cost already am / One of these strange, prodigious creatures, man) / A spirit free to choose, for my own share / What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear, / I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear, / or anything but that vain animal, / Who is so proud of being rational.’ Like many noblemen of his time Rochester also kept a pet monkey, who probably served as the model for this painting, which he allegedly trained to defecate on people. 

One of the great images of seventeenth-century British painting, this spectacular portrait has never been on the market in the three hundred and fifty years since it was painted. Remaining in the hands of the sitter’s descendants it was part of the famous collection of portraits formed by the 2nd Earl of Warwick, at Warwick Castle in the late eighteenth century. For many years, however, it has been one of the star attractions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it has been on loan since the late 1970s. A copy of this portrait, by an unknown hand, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.  

The Artist

A Flemish born painter, probably from Antwerp, Huysmans is reputed to have been a pupil of Gilles Backereel, and may be associated with the Jacques Huysman listed in the registers of the Academy of St Luke as an apprentice in the workshop of Frans Wouters in 1649-50. Attracted by the rich seam of patronage on offer for portrait painters in England, he came to London shortly before the Restoration in 1660, and swiftly emerged as one of the leading portrait painters at the court of Charles II. A Catholic, he was a particular favourite of Queen Catherine of Braganza, Charles’s wife. In 1664 the diarist Samuel Pepys noted seeing two full length portraits of the Queen in Huysmans studio, one of the Queen as a shepherdess (Royal Collection, London) and another of the Queen as St Catherine of Alexandria (of which there are two versions, both in private collections), which he though ‘exceed Lilly’ and were ‘as good pictures I think a I ever saw’.5 Indeed the number of portraits Huysmans painted of the Queen and her maids of honour, as well as their quality, suggest that that he worked as her principal painter.  Huysmans portraits demonstrate an affinity with the Baroque style practised by contemporary continental painters, and unlike the more simplified treatment of his principal rival Sir Peter Lely, his more elaborate compositions from the 1670s and 1680s often feature his sitters in fantastical guises, be they allegorical or mythological. The highly sophisticated composition of this painting, so personal to the sitter, is one of the finest examples of such work. Wonderfully preserved, with its reddish lights in the flesh tones and the highly keyed colours of the shimmering silks so typical of the artist’s unique approach to painting, Huysmans’ enigmatic portrayal of the brightest flame of the Restoration court is surely one of his greatest portraits.     

1. J. W. Johnson, A Profane Wit. The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Rochester 2004, p. 33.

2. F. H. Ellis, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: The Complete Works, 1994 p. 1.

3. Quoted in F. H. Ellis, ‘Wilmot, John, second earl of Rochester (1647–1680), poet and courtier’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition.

4. Quoted in F. H. Ellis, ibid., online edition

5. Pepys Diary, 5.254, p. 276, no. 30.