An Unknown Officer > William Cavendish (?)
This painting at Knole House may represent William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle. Cavendish was a fascinating character and a man of many talents. He was a polymath, aristocrat, poet, equestrian, playwright, swordsman, politician, architect, diplomat and soldier. He was also a courtier of James I, and later became good friends with Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria, for whom he hosted lavish banquets. A fierce Royalist, he was made a general during the Civil War.
The symbolism in An Unknown Officer is not particularly obvious, but the column wrapped with vine may be a visual representation of “Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue”, a concept linked to Cavendish through the decoration of his retreat Bolsover Castle, and the title of a masque, written by Ben Jonson and performed in the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace to James I, featuring the young Prince Charles. It is a play on a Herculanean myth where the hero is forced to choose between Pleasure or Virtue, a theme Dobson used in his self-portrait at Alnwick Castle.
In this reading of An Unknown Officer, the vine represents Bacchanalian wine and by extension Pleasure, whilst the column is steadfastness or Virtue. They are intertwined so as to be reconciled, reflecting lines from Jonson’s masque:
Come on, come on! and where you go,
So interweave the curious knot
As ev’n th’ observer scarce may know
Which lines are Pleasure’s and which not.
Visually, the sitter bears a strong resemblance to a painting of Cavendish by Van Dyck. But typical for Dobson, the artist has added quite a few pounds in weight to his sitter, and this is the case for most of his Civil War portraits. He presents strong, robust characters in the presence of turmoil.
However, one clear problem is Dobson’s depiction of the eyes. There is a notable difference between Van Dyck’s depiction of the man’s face and Dobson’s. The details are minor, but Van Dyck shows Cavendish as having ‘covered’ eyelids, whilst Dobson presents a man with ‘hooded’ and prominent eyelids. For this reason, we cannot be certain that An Unknown Officer represents William Cavendish.
There are still more Dobson paintings to be identified. If you fancy some art historical detective work, why not try investigating the sitters in these paintings?
An Unknown Man at Corsham Court
An Unknown Naval Commander at the National Maritime Museum
An Unknown Officer at the Victoria and Albert Museum
An Unknown Woman at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery