The Art Fund helps National Portrait Gallery acquire newly discovered portrait of first poet laureate

  • 15 April 2009

As the new Poet Laureate is due to be announced the National Portrait Gallery displays for the first time a newly discovered portrait of John Dryden in his role as first Poet Laureate. Independent charity The Art Fund contributed £45,000 towards the acquisition of the work.

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired an oil portrait of the British seventeenth-century poet John Dryden, by the court artist John Michael Wright, believed to have been painted at the time he was appointed first official Poet Laureate in 1668. With its wreath and Latin inscriptions, the painting is a celebration of the newly created office of Poet Laureate and is the first portrait of a writer appointed to the role.

The outstanding painting - on public display today for the first time at the National Portrait Gallery - has been secured for the Gallery for £225,000, thanks to a £45,000 grant from The Art Fund and additional support from the Lerner Gift and other Gallery patrons.

David Barrie, Director of The Art Fund, said: "John Dryden is a significant figure in the country’s literary history. This painting is a valuable acquisition for the National Portrait Gallery, featuring the poet at the pinnacle of his career."

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, said: "This is a very fine portrait of Dryden, one which celebrates the man and also the Poet Laureateship itself. I am most grateful for the support that has made this acquisition possible."

The fine and sensitive portrait shows a prosperous and confident man in his mid-thirties, with a slight smile, wearing a wig in keeping with the style of the period. He is encased in an oval decorative surround or cartouche, an illusionistic frame within a frame. The sitter’s appearance, the wreath around the cartouche and the inscriptions, support its identification as a depiction of Dryden at this time.

The Latin inscriptions on the lower part of the cartouche are short quotations from six Latin poets, Virgil, Horace, Martial, Juvenal, Ovid and Statius. All refer to the wreathing of poets with laurels, ivy, oak or olive. The main inscription, ‘Par omnibus Unus’, translates as ‘one [poet] a match for [them] all’. The classical allusions, as well as highlighting Dryden’s new office, are appropriate for a man so famously steeped in classical scholarship.

All three of the Gallery’s existing oil portraits of Dryden date from the 1690s, when he was effectively in retirement from court life. The present portrait is especially important as it shows him at the height of his career, during the reign of Charles II, with whose court his poetry is most closely associated. The earliest certain reference to this painting, is in Edward Brayley’s History of Surrey, 1850, in which it is recorded at West Horsley Place, the historic home of Sir Edward Nicholas, Secretary of State to Charles I and Charles II. Previously unknown either in the iconography of Dryden or in the oeuvre of John Michael Wright, it fills a gap in Dryden’s portraiture between the early portrait of c.1664 at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and that by John Riley of 1683 (in a private collection).

John Dryden (1631–1700) was made first official poet laureate in 1668, and historiographer royal in 1670. He converted to Roman Catholicism c 1685 and lost his royal appointments following the accession of William and Mary. During a long career he tried his hand at most of the poetic idioms of his day. Well known by his contemporaries as a dramatist, it is for his topical satirical poetry, such as Absalom and Achitophel, and his translations of classical texts that he is now most admired.

After training in Scotland and travels in Europe, John Michael Wright (1617-94) settled in London in 1656. Following the accession of Charles II, Wright was appointed ‘Picture Drawer in Ordinary’ in 1673. He was a distinctive artist at a time when most portraiture was under the influence of Peter Lely. Wright’s sympathetic depictions resisted a tendency in portraits at this time to make men and women conform to a fashionable ideal; his sitters appear as individuals rather than types.

John Dryden by John Michael Wright is on display in the National Portrait Gallery’s Seventeenth Century Collections in Room 7, Second Floor, from 15 April.

For further press information please contact: Neil Evans, Senior Press Officer, National Portrait Gallery. Tel: 020 7312 2452 (not for publication)


Notes to Editors

NPG 6854: John Dryden (1631-1700), Dramatist and Poet Laureate, by John Michael Wright (1617-1694), circa 1668, Head and shoulders, slightly to left; Oil on canvas, 30 1/4 in. x 25 in. (768 mm x 635 mm), inscribed, Purchased with help from L.L. Brownrigg, The Art Fund, the Lerner Gift and Lewis Golden, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Art Fund is the UK’s leading independent art 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 secure Titian’s Diana and Actaeon for the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery, London in February 2009 with a grant of £1 million; helping secure Anthony d’Offay’s collection, ARTIST ROOMS, for Tate and National Galleries of Scotland in February 2008 with a grant of £1million; 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 .

The Art Fund is a Registered Charity No. 209174

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