Cara/Andrea here, One of the things I love about browsing through a museum or gallery exhibit is that serendipitous discovery of some new item or person that adds yet another reason to be fascinated by the past. It’s those tiny colorful threads that make the rich tapestry of history come alive for me, and deepens my appreciation of the human spirit’s creative energy.
I recently stumbled upon the work of Sir Godfrey Kneller, a German-born painter who worked for much of his life in London. (He anglicized his name from Gottfried Kniller.) I was unaware of his art, but as I read the short biography on the gallery walls, and spent time perusing his canvases, I was delighted to realize that I’d come across a new-to-me historical figure with a fascinating story, both artistically and intellectually.
Born in 1646 in Lübeck, Kneller studied with Rembrandt and spent a number of years in Rome and Venice, mastering the art of historical and architectural scenes, before coming to England in 1674 at the invitation of the Duke of Monmouth. He was soon asked to paint a portrait of Charles II, and from there he quickly established himself as the premier portrait artist of the era. Court beauties, bewigged aristocrats, leading intellectuals, like Sir Isaac Newton—they all sat for Kneller, who in 1680 was appointed as “Principal Painter to the Crown.” Knighted by William III, and later created a baronet by George I, he is considered the master of English Baroque portraiture and established a style—albeit a trifle formulaic—that remained in vogue until Hogarth and Reynolds brought a different, more individualistic perspective to capturing people in paint and canvas.
One of the things that I found fascinating about Kneller was not just his art, which as I have said tends to be similar in formal style and composition, but his association with the leading influential thinkers of the day. His most famous works are his portraits of the Kit-Cat Club—which led me to another delightful discovery!
Founded in the late 1690s, the Kit-Cat Club was a group of prominent lords and literary luminaries of the day who wielded enormous influence in shaping British social and political thought. They originally met at a tavern in Shire Lane run by a man named Christopher Catling, whose mutton pies were know as Kit-Cats (the nickname is derived from his name, Kit being the diminutive of Christopher.) The club adopted the rather humorous moniker and soon became the unofficial center of Whig power during a time of flux in the monarchy. They later moved their meeting place to the Strand, where the legendary London restaurant Simpsons-In-the-Strand now stands.
Members included the highest born aristocrats of the land as well as ordinary men. It was an interest in ideas and politics that brought them together, and they are credited with shaping “modern” British attitudes going into 18th century. William Congreve, Sir John Vanbrugh, the Duke of Somerset, The Earl of Burlington, Sir Robert Walpole, and the Duke of Devonshire were Kit-Cats, as was Kneller himself.
The National Portrait Gallery in London has a small room devoted to Kneller’s Kit-Cat portraits. It’s quite an experience to stare at those self-assured faces and imagine being a fly on the wall at those meeting. Apparently, the club was famous for its elaborate toasts to the reigning beauties of the day. They commissioned special glasses with the compositions engraved on them. Some of the ladies who earned the honor were Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lady Godolphin and Lady Sunderland.
Kneller died in 1723, victim of a fever, and was buried at Twickenham Church, where he served as a warden. He is also commemorated with a monument in Westminster Abbey, highlighted with an epitaph composed by Alexander Pope.
So, see what I mean about one thing leading to another? Through a glance at a painting, I was lead to learn about the artist AND his world. To me, that’s the beauty and excitement of history—art, ideas, fashion, etc. all intertwine in such thought-provoking ways. It makes us ponder, it makes us smile, it makes us admire the amazing talents and personalities that have made the world what it is today.
So, what about you? Have you made any recent discoveries of new people or items in history that excited you? Do you have as much fun as I do walking through museums or exhibits and seeing something new? And lastly, what about portraits—do you have a favorite portrait painter?