John Michael Wright and John Evelyn: Part 1


(Evelyn’s manuscript diary, image (c) British Library)

John Evelyn mentions the painter John Michael Wright just 4 times in his voluminous diaries but these short references remain an important source of information on the painter. The next few posts are meant to annotate the entries and illustrate some of the strange details of the painter’s life…

“5th April 1659: Came the Earle of Northampton and the famous Painter, Mr. Write, to visit me.”

Wright had returned to England three years earlier, in 1656, after more than a decade on the continent, mainly in Rome and the Netherlands.  It isn’t clear why the Earl of Northampton (James Compton, the 3rd Earl) is visiting Evelyn. There are no other clues in the diary since the Earl gets just one more passing and minor reference.  It is even more intriguing to know why the Earl is in the company of Wright.  There is, as far as I know, no identified portrait of James Compton by Wright; although there is one by William Dobson.

It is also worth noting that Evelyn calls Wright the “famous” painter.  That is surprising given that we now associate Wright with his work in the court of Charles II and the restoration is still a year away.  Evelyn may of course have known Wright from his own travels to Italy and France and particularly from his time in Rome.  There is however no mention of Wright in the diary from that time.

This “fame” may be a reference to the work Wright had completed on his return to England.  A year earlier from the diary entry, in 1658, Wright had painted a portrait of Elizabeth Claypole, Oliver Cromwell’s daughter (now in NPG).  This is also surprising since Wright is a Roman Catholic and no fan of the Protectorate.   Wright however is a canny operator and in the year of this entry, he also paints Colonel John Russell (now in Ham House) a Royalist who is conspiring to restore Charles to the throne.

Finally, on this one line entry, a brief mention of the spelling of the painter’s name.  Evelyn uses Write rather than Wright but spelling is of course inconsistent generally at this time and Wright himself using different spellings of his name as well as  throwing in versions in Latin and Italian.  The most bizarre is the one used in (what may be) his baptismal record, dated May 25, 1617 where the name is “Mighell Wryghtt” but we will come back to his origins and nationality in another post…

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