This is a little gem of a display. Held in Room 6, one of the small rooms on the top floor of the NPG up there with the Tudors and the Stuarts et al, the display focuses on a now little-known portrait painter of the 17th century, Cornelius Johnson.
Cornelius Johnson was born in London in 1593 to a Flemish/German Protestant family and from the style of his work it is thought he trained in the Netherlands before returning to set up his studio in Blackfriars. Johnson was appointed as a court painter to Charles I and, although now pretty much forgotten, was one of the most popular, successful and prolific artists of his day. How does that happen? Here was a man who painted the portraits of the highest in the land and worked on every scale from giant family portraits to the smallest miniature. And yet, his name has all but disappeared from mainstream art history.
This is the first ever show of Johnson’s work and there are some stunning works on show. Especially beautiful is an early portrait of Susanna Temple, later Lady Lister from 1620.
The highlights of the display are four rarely-seen portraits of King Charles I’s children on show from the NPG’s own collection – a young Prince Charles looking small and somewhat haunted and nothing like the bombastic restored Charles II he would become. The future James II looks even more bewildered in his portrait, dwarfed by a giant column. These pre-Civil War portraits of the royal children are poignantly redolent of what we know is to come.
Cornelius Johnson was a contemporary of van Dyck but unlike the great and revered van Dyck, Johnson’s name is now virtually unknown. Hopefully, this new display will help restore his name and reputation in some small way. From what we can see of his work on display here in the NPG he certainly deserves to be remembered.
Open until 13th September 2015
Photographs © The London Art File
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place