John Michael Wright and John Evelyn: Part 2

“3rd October 1662: Thence went to visite one Mr. Wright, a Scots-man, who had lived long at Rome was esteemed a good Painter. The Pictures of the Judges at Guild-hall are of his hand, and so are some pieces in Whitehall, as the roofe in his Majesties old bedchamber, being Astræa, the St. Catherine, and a Chimney piece in the Queenes privy chamber; but his best, in my opinion, is Lacy, the famous Rossius or comedian, whom he has painted in three dresses, as a gallant, a Presbyterian painter, and a Scotch highlander in his plaid. It is in his Majesties dining room at Windsor: yet (was) this man no good painter; but had at his house an excellent collection, especially that small piece of Correggio, Scotus of de la Marca, a Designe of Paulo; and, above all, those ruines of Polydore, with some good agates and medals, especially a Scipio, and a Cæsar’s head of gold; I return’d this Evening”

This is the second and most detailed entry about Wright in John Evelyn’s diary.  It is three and a half years since the first diary reference (see Part 1) and the world has changed.  Charles II has returned to the throne, making life easier for the catholic Wright who has been hard at work on a number of commissions including some Royal ones.  And now he is about to receive a visit from John Evelyn.

“went to visite one Mr. Wright…”

This time it is Evelyn who visits Wright, which raises the first question. Where did Wright live? Whilst Wright appears to have worked in Whitehall Palace from time to time, having secured a number of Royal Commissions including his striking portrait of the King soon after his coronation, it is unlikely that Evelyn visited him there.  It isn’t clear (to me at least) exactly where Wright was living in 1662.  When Wright returned to England in 1656 we know he gave his accommodation address as with “Mrs Johnston in Weldstreet in the parish of Gyles” and we know that when he died, in 1694, he was living in James Street, Covent Garden so it my be reasonable to suggest he continued to live, like other artists of the time, in the Covent Garden area.  

We do know his address in 1676.  Writing to Lady Gerard about a painting of her grandchild and some missing correspondence he signs off with the following:

“yor hors most obedient                                                                                              and most devoted humble servant                                                           Michaell Wright                                                                                                         Great Queenes Street                                                                                              foure doores from the Lord Chancellor’s”

These details, almost directions for the postman, tell us that Wright was living just north of Covent Garden and close to the Lord Chancellor who at the time was Heneage Finch, 1st Earl of Nottingham (Wright also painted his portrait).  We know that the Lord Chancellor lived at Conway House on Great Queen Street. This House is long demolished but stood near to where the current Freemasons Hall is now.  Hollar’s map of London in 1660 covers this area so we can  surmise that Wright could have been visited by Evelyn when he lived in a house in the south east part of Great Queen Street, somewhere in the area circled below.

Wenceslaus Holler Bird's Eye view of London, detail, 1660

Wenceslaus Hollar Bird’s Eye view of London, detail, 1660

 “a Scots-man…”

Evelyn’s description of Wright as a Scots-man has raised a lot of speculation about his origins.  The Evelyn description is subsequently repeated by other writers although contradictory accounts also exist.  Wright adds to the confusion by referring to himself in different places as “Anglus” or “Scotus”.

We do know that Wright, aged 19,  was apprenticed to the Scottish painter George Jamesone, in Edinburgh, on 6 April 1636.   Wright’s life before 1636 is much less clear.  In the 1950s the author E.K. Waterhouse discovered a baptismal record for Wright.  It describes the baptism of “Mighell Wryghtt” in St Bride’s Fleet Street, London on 25 May 1617.  His father is described as James Wright, tailor.   This does seem to fit with the Edinburgh Register of Apprentices which describe Wright as, “Michaell, son to James W(right), tailor, citizen of London”.

What we don’t know is when and why Wright went to Scotland.  There are a number of theories: his parents were London Scots and returned home;  Wright or his family were escaping plague in London and there is even a suggestion that a priest converted Wright to Catholicism and essentially kidnapped him.

I suspect the answer is the simpler version and that he had Scottish connections, even if he was born in London.  As an exiled Scot living in London I understand why he would refer to himself in different ways depending on the context.  I also suspect that despite his time abroad he may well have been identified by Evelyn and others as a Scot because he had a distinct accent, he sounded like a Scot.

There are two other things worth mentioning in regard to Wright and Scotland.  The first is the suggestion that he returned to Scotland in 1662 (presumably after this diary entry in October) and stayed until 1665.  This theory is based on the fact that his sitters between these dates are Scottish.  I think it is possible he did make this trip although there is no real evidence to support that view.  The theory may also be reinforced by a painting sold recently at auction from this time, attributed to Wright, of a “gentleman” but actually showing a judge of the Court of Session in Edinburgh.  I doubt such a painting would have been done in London.

The second Scottish connection is Wright’s wife.  His wife is perhaps more of a mystery than Wright’s origins.  We don’t even know her name.  She is mentioned once as “related to the most noble and distinguished families in Scotland”.   It has been claimed these aristocratic connections are the reason Wright came to Scotland; how he obtained portrait commissions; why he converted to Catholicism; why he returned to England; why he returned again to Scotland and a host of other things.  Further details of Mrs Wright may emerge in the future but at present she remains a frustratingly elusive figure.

Detail of portrait of Lord Mungo Murray, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Detail of portrait of Lord Mungo Murray, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

“who lived long at Rome…”

Wright’s residence in Rome seems to be well known, enough for Evelyn to know about and comment on it.   Wright appears to have spent a decade or so in Rome.  He arrives some time between 1642 and 1644.  There is a portrait, the earliest known by Wright, of Robert Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury which is inscribed as painted in Rome probably around this time.  He then seems to disappear from the records presumably developing his skills although it is surprising that there are not more known paintings from this period.

His studies must have paid off because when he does appear again on the record it is as a newly inducted member of the Academy of St Luke in Rome in 1648.   To put this in context (and to explain why this is surprising) he is the only British painter in the 17th century to achieve this honour and the other foreign painters on the Academy’s roll at the time include Poussin and Velasquez.  Following his membership he appears from time to time in the Academy’s records from 1648 to 1653.

One thing is clear from the Roman years and the membership of the Academy – if Wright hadn’t adopted catholicism before he arrived in Rome by the time he left he had converted.

“was esteemed a good painter…”

This is an interesting reference. Evelyn doesn’t say Wright is a good painter or a bad one but that he – was – esteemed a good painter.  This might simply be a reference to his time abroad or specifically his membership of the Academy of St Luke.  In a later diary entry Evelyn will make a judgment on Wright as a painter but for the time being he is being equivocal.  We don’t know the what paintings of Wright that Evelyn has seen to make his assessment, other than the few he is about to mention…

“The Pictures of the Judges at Guild-hall are of his hand…”

I’m going to return to Wright and the judges in the next post (Part 3).  It is perhaps worth saying now that this line has caused confusion.  The judges in the Guildhall is usually taken to mean the “fire judges” a series of portraits commissioned after the Great Fire of London. But the fire is, of course in 1666, four years after this entry…

“as the roofe in his Majesties old bedchamber, being Astræa…”

This is an unusual painting for Wright and it may be one of the few that have survived other than portraits that give an idea of the possible range of his work.  As Evelyn says, it is painting for a ceiling; an oval on canvas; dating from around 1660 designed for the King’s bedroom at Whitehall.  The scene depicted is Astraea returning to earth.

Astraea returning to earth, oil on canvas. Nottingham City Museums and  Galleries. Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Astraea returning to earth, oil on canvas. Nottingham City Museums and Galleries. Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The subject matter comes from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (a book that Wright seems to have a particular fondness for, owning 4 copies).  In short, Astraea the embodiment of Justice, is the last immortal to leave the earth before it descends into chaos. The return of Astraea is therefore a symbol of a new age.  The scroll in the painting gives us a literal description “Terras Astrea Revisit” .  It is pretty obvious this is a reference to the new golden age brought about by the return of the monarchy.  There are a number of more obscure references especially to the constellations of Virgo, Libra, and for Charles,  Leo.

Detail of Return of Astraea showing portrait of Charles II

Detail of Return of Astraea showing portrait of Charles II

There is also a rather surreal floating tree which is a less mystical reference to the Boscobel oak in which Charles had hidden in after the battle of Worcester.

The most striking thing about the painting is just how influenced it is by the Italian Baroque.  There are of course some Italian influences in the portraits but nowhere as obvious as here.  It has  been pointed out that this shows some similarities to Pietro da Cortona’s ceiling in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome which we know that Wright was familiar with and admired.

The other remarkable thing about this painting is that it has survived at all.  It was, as Evelyn says, in the King’s bedchamber in Whitehall where somehow it avoided the serious fire of 1698, it then goes to Windsor, then to Somerset House then to Radford House in Nottingham.  It is now in Nottingham City Museum and Art Gallery

“the St. Catherine, and a Chimney piece in the Queenes privy chamber…”

The works for the Queen’s privy chamber do not appear to have survived.  St Catherine would have been an attractive subject for Wright since it is associated with his catholic beliefs and of course because of the connection to the Queen’s name, Catherine of Braganza.  Jacob Huysmans, a Dutch catholic, also paints the Queen as Saint Catherine.

“but his best, in my opinion, is Lacy…”

This is a reference to Wright’s multiple portrait of John Lacy the actor.   Lacy is seen in three roles.

John Lacy, actor, by John Michael Wright, The Royal Collection Trust

John Lacy, actor, by John Michael Wright, The Royal Collection Trust

From left to right the roles depicted are: Sauny the Scot (Lacy’s adapted version of The Taming of The Shrew)  Monsieur Device from The Country Chaplain by the Duke of Newcastle and Scruple from The Cheats by John Wilson.

Lacy seems to have specialised in and had considerable success with comic roles. He was a favourite of Pepys, who mentions him in his diary, and with Charles II despite the fact he was also rumoured to have had an affair with Nell Gwyn.

It is, I think, a remarkable painting for the time.  It is an attempt to demonstrate an actor adopting different characters, almost physically changing, but still recognisably the same person.  There are few contemporary works like it and, apart from another single portrait by Wright of the actor Thomas Sydserff, few works by Wright that are quite so informal and insightful.

I agree therefore with Evelyn about the merits of the Lacy portrait. It seems however that Evelyn may have added this opinion later than suggested here.  As mentioned above in regard to the judges, the dates don’t add up.  The diary entry is for 1662 but the role of Sauny the Scot (which may have attracted Wright to the subject) was not performed at the Theatre Royal until 1667.   This looks like another case of Evelyn being smart after the event by adding to his diary years later.

“but had at his house an excellent collection, especially that small piece of Correggio, Scotus of de la Marca, a Designe of Paulo…”

This brings us to another aspect of Wright, his role as a collector and dealer in art and antiquities.  Wright’s interest in dealing and collecting emerges as early as his time in Rome in the 1640s.  Hearne says, “He made himself known to the most celebrated Antiquaries in Rome, who had a respect for him and were very ready and willing to communicate their knowledge to him.”

Richard Symonds, an English amateur painter met Wright in Rome where they talked about painting techniques.  Symonds also listed some of Wright’s collection. The list includes works by Titian, Corriggio, Raphael and Caraccio.

When Wright left Rome he went to work for the Archduke Leopold, governor of the Spanish Netherlands.  What is surprising is that he doesn’t appear to have been engaged as  a painter but as an antiquary; although there is no real documentary evidence about his time in Flanders.  When he leaves Flanders to visit England he may have come to purchase some of Charles I’s pictures being sold by Cromwell.

After the restoration and back in England, he secures the King’s permission to hold a lottery to raise funds.  The lottery takes place some time after 1662 because Evelyn refers to a painting of Duns Scotus in Wright’s collection but we know this was part of the lottery and won by the King himself.  It seems the King secured some 14 paintings from Wright’s collection in the lottery including works attributed to Tinteretto and Caravaggio.

Some twenty years later Wright holds a sale to pay for a diplomatic trip he is going to make as part of the delegation led by the Earl of Castlemaine to the Pope.  The advert for the sale suggests that Wright had continued to collect and trade in art:

‘his Collections of Paintings, and Pictures both Ancient and Modern. With several Drawings, or Designs of the most Famous Italian Masters; Prints, Plaisters, & Wax-Figures; Books of Painting, Architecture, Perspective, Opticks, &c. Antick-Seals, and Choice Colours, as Ultra-marine, Lake, &c.’

“…with some good agates and medals, especially a Scipio, and a Cæsar’s head of gold”

Wright’s collecting and dealing didn’t stop at paintings.  He seems to have also collected, gems and minerals, shells, coins, medals and other antiquities.  He also had a substantial collection of books.   Vertue tells us that: “Wright’s gems and coins were later bought by Sir Hans Sloane.”

At the end of this entry in Evelyn’s diary out is worth briefly mentioning the next entry the mentions Wright since it concerns the same subject.

“6 May 1664: Went to see Mr Write the Painters Collection of rare shells etc: returned.”

Evelyn given his interest in natural history would perhaps be more interested in shells than in paintings which this time he doesn’t mention at all.

When Wright died in 1694 a sale was held of his possessions and studio contents.  The newspaper advert in the London Gazette of 28 May 1694 perhaps best sums up his years of collecting:

“Mr. Wright’s Curious Collection of Books of Medals[,] Architecture and Antiquities, &c. in Lat. Ital. Fr. and English, and his fine Collection of Gemmae Basildianae[,] Gemmae Gladiatorae, and Antique Seals Collected by him in his several years Travels: Also a valuable Collection of Prints and Drawings, by the best Italian[,] Fr[ench]. And Flemish Masters, will be sold by Auction at the said Mr. Wrights House next the Blew Ball in James-street, Covent-Garden, June the 4th, at 3 in the afternoon. Catalogues may be had at Mr. Notts in the Pall-Mall, Toms Coffee-House near Ludgate, Batsons at the Royal Exchange, and at the place of Sale.”


This post was informed by a number of articles and websites but primarily by the incredibly helpful and still only comprehensive publication on Wright: “John Michael Wright: The King’s Painter” a catalogue of the exhibition in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1982 by Sara Stevenson and Duncan Thomson.

I’m also grateful to Nick Poyntz, a real historian of 17th Century England, for pointing out that Wright’s house would appear in Hollar’s map of London.  His excellent  blog is called “Mercurius Politicus“.


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