Grant success brings 17th Century portrait to Royal College of Physicians

  • 21 November 2008

An important 17th century portrait of a physician by Cornelius Johnson has been purchased by the Royal College of Physician's Heritage Centre thanks to a successful application to three grant awarding bodies. The Art Fund, the UK's leading independent art charity, gave a grant of £19,000, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund gave £18,000 and the Beecroft Bequest helped with a grant of £5,000. These substantial grants along with the generous contributions of Fellows and Members and other donations have made this important acquisition possible.

The portrait is signed and dated 1637 by the Flemish-born artist Cornelius Johnson (1593-1661), the finest portrait painter working in England in the early 17th century, and the best portrait painter of his generation before Van Dyck. The portrait is viewed as a significant work by Johnson.

The sitter is clearly a physician of high standing as the inclusion of books by Hippocrates, Vesalius, Galen and Paracelsus indicates, with the New Testament in Greek open at a passage from the Book of Revelations.

William Schupbach, Curator of the Wellcome Collection, said of the portrait: ‘One could reasonably say that it is the finest and most programmatic picture of a seventeenth-century academic physician, proudly displaying his “knowledge-base”.’

Professor Ian Gilmore, President of the Royal College of Physicians said: “This is a magnificent addition to our collection and we are very grateful to those organisations and individuals who made this possible.”

David Barrie, Director of The Art Fund, said: “The Art Fund is delighted to help the Royal College of Physicians acquire this intriguing painting which will now go on public display for the first time in almost 400 years.  Johnson’s portrait of a learned physician illustrates the history of the profession, and we hope to learn even more when the College solves the mystery of the sitter's identity. Whoever he was, he should feel at home in the College’s collection of medical portraits!”

The identity of the young sitter has been narrowed to two candidates, Dr John Bathurst (c. 1600-1675), who has strong connections with the College, or Dr Lewin Fludd (1612-1678).*

Now that it is in the collection, the College will be carrying out further research on the portrait to confirm the identity of the sitter now that it is in its collection.

RCP Museum Opening Times

The Museum and portrait collections galleries are open to the public Mon– Fri 9-5 pm – maximum group size 5. The College is closed on bank holidays and on ceremonial occasions. Please see our website or contact us for details.

The Library and Archive are accessible by appointment only.

For further information contact Linda Cuthbertson, Press and PR Manager on 020 7935 1174 ext.254 or e-mail Linda.Cuthbertson@rcplondon.ac.uk.

or Bridget Telfer, interim Curator, on 020 7935 1174 Ext 510

www.rcplondon.ac.uk/heritage

* Dr Bathurst is the sitter identified by both Dr Karen Hearn (Curator of 16th and 17th century art at Tate Britain) and William Schupbach (Painting Librarian at the Wellcome Collection). Bathurst obtained his degree of Doctor of Medicine and was admitted to the College as a Fellow in 1637 (the date of the portrait), while the Bathurst family came from Goudhurst in Kent, and Johnson painted a number of portraits in the 1630s of the Campion family, fellow Goudhurst residents.

Dr Bathurst had a distinguished career in the College as a Censor, and in 1657 was elevated to the office of Elect. Bathurst was best known as Oliver Cromwell’s physician, and was a friend of William Harvey.

William Birken (expert on 17th Century physicians) has suggested Dr. Lewin Fludd, who was the nephew of the eminent Dr. Robert Fludd, a Fellow and Censor of the College. Robert Fludd was a philosopher and a supporter of the use of Paracelsian medicine. In 1637 he left his library of books to his nephew.  In portraying himself with his uncle’s library, Lewin would be displaying the knowledge on which Robert Fludd’s learning was based, embracing the unconventional as well as the conventional doctrines.

Other contemporary sitters of the right age have been ‘tentatively’ ruled out for a variety of reasons. Sir George Ent due to the lack of physical resemblance compared to his known portrait; Sir Thomas Sheafe due to locality; and Dr. Baldwin Hamey Jr. due to his great regard for Galen, and his dislike of the ‘vanities’ of Paracelsus, which are at odds with the painting.

Notes to editors

The Royal College of Physicians of London provides a huge range of services to our 20,000 Members and Fellows and other medical professionals. These include delivering examinations, training courses, continuous professional development and conferences; undertaking clinical audits; publishing newsletters, guidelines and books; hospital medicine, through to maintaining the College's historical collections. We also lead medical debate, and lobby and advise government and other decision-makers on behalf of our members.

The Art Fund is the UK’s leading independent charity. It offers grants to help UK museums and galleries enrich their collections; campaigns on behalf of museums and their visitors; and promotes the enjoyment of art. It is entirely funded from public donations and has 80,000 members. Since 1903 the charity has helped museums and galleries all over the UK secure 860,000 works of art for their collections. Recent achievements include: helping to secure Anthony d’Offay’s collection, ARTIST ROOMS, for Tate and National Galleries of Scotland in February 2008 with a grant of £1 million; putting together a unique funding package to ensure Dumfries House in Ayreshire and its contents were secured intact for the nation in July 2007; and running the ‘Buy a Brushstroke’ public appeal which raised over £550,000 to keep Turner’s Blue Rigi watercolour in the UK. For more information contact the Press Office on 020 7225 4888 or visit www.artfund.org.

·        The MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund is a government fund, established at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in 1881 as part of its nationwide work.

·        The annual grants budget, currently £1,000,000, is provided by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).

·        The Fund supports the acquisition of objects relating to the arts, literature and history by regional museums, record offices and specialist libraries in England and Wales.

·        Each year it considers some 300 applications and in 2007-08 awarded grants to 100 organisations, enabling acquisitions of over £4m to go ahead.

·        Visit the website at www.vam.ac.uk/purchasegrantfund.