Thursday, February 12, 2015

Painting of the Day: Matthew Prior, c. 1700

Matthew Prior
Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1700
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Well, well, here’s a fella who looks like he’s trouble. He also looks like he’d benefit from a good sandwich. Mmmm…sandwich. But, I digress. Who is this impish bloke?

He’s Matthew Prior (1664-1721). You’ve heard the name, I’m sure. Or, not.  I don't know what you have heard and haven't.  Prior was a celebrated poet, diplomat and politician, as well as a fellow of St. John’s College Cambridge. Most likely, you know his name from reading his translations from Horace and Ovid, or, perhaps you’re familiar with his poetry. Prior is also known to museum-types like me for his collection of important paintings and prints.

A chum of King William and Queen Mary, Prior was considered a superb diplomat. He’s buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. I remember seeing his monument which features a rather startlingly descriptive inscription:

"Matthew Prior Esq. A fever, gradually creeping up on him, as he meditated upon the history of his times, broke together the thread of his life and of his labours on Sept.18th A.D.1721 in the 57th year of his age.”

This painting was executed in 1700 by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) during a time when portraits of literary types were quite popular.

The painter, Sir Godfrey, was born in Germany where he studied mathematics and military fortification (yawn), and, then, at some point, for some unknown reason, he was apprenticed to Rembrandt and began to travel to Rome and Venice. By 1676, Kneller secured Royal patronage to King William III, and, of course, settled in England. He was knighted in 1692 and was considered one of the most fashionable of portrait painters. He was especially known for his series of portraits of ladies at the Royal Court which is known now as “The Hampton Court Beauties” (which for some reason reminds me of Kathie Lee Gifford who, early in her career was a Hee-Haw Honey). He’s also the artist of the “Kit-cat Portraits” of members of the famed “Kit-cat Club.” Lest you think that’s more portraits of “beauties,” I should tell you that they’re gents—none of whom are particularly attractive, sadly. The Kit-cat Club was a group of Eighteenth Century Whigs who gathered at Christopher Catling’s Inn and feasted on the innkeeper’s famous mutton pies which he had playfully called “Kit-Cats.”

And, now, you can say that you read about mutton pies today. I’ll bet it’s the only time.

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