Kneller, Sir Godfrey, Baronet

, an eminent portrait painter, was born at Lubec about 1648. His father was surveyor-general of the mines, and inspector of count Mansfeldt’s revenues. At first Godfrey was destined for a

1 Harles de Vitis PhiJologorum, vol. I. —Rees’s Cyclopædia.
| military life, and was sent to Leyden, where he applied to mathematics and fortification; but the predominance of nature determining him to painting, his father acquiesced, and placed him under Bol, at Amsterdam, and he had also some instructions from Rembrandt. He visited Italy in 1672, and remained some time at Venice, where he painted some of the first families, and amongst them the cardinal Bassadonna. It is probable that he here learned that free, loose style of execution in which he delighted, but by no means excelled; with him it fell to negligence and clumsiness, particularly in his draperies, whilst sometimes his heads exhibit a perfect master of the pencil.

Kneller did not stay long in Italy, as in 1674 became to England with his brother, John Zachary, who assisted him in painting, without intending to reside here; but being recommended to Mr. Banks, a Hamburgh merchant, he painted him and his family. Mr. Vernon, secretary to the duke of Monmouth, saw them, and sat to Kneller; and persuaded the duke also to sit. His grace was delighted, and engaged the king his father to have his picture by the new artist, at a time when the duke of York had been promised the king’s picture by Lely. Charles, unwilling to have double trouble, proposed that both artists should paint him at the same time. Lely, as the established artist, chose his light and station: Kneller took the next best he could, and performed his task with so much expedition and skill, that he had nearly finished his piece when Lely’s was only dead-coloured. The circumstance gained Kneller great credit; and Lely obtained no less honour, for he had the candour to acknowledge and admire the abilities of his rival. This success fixed Kneller here; and the immense number of portraits he executed, prove the continuance of his reputation.

He was equally encouraged by Charles, James, and William; and had the honour of painting the portraits of ten/ sovereigns (viz. Charles II. James II. and his queen, William and Mary, Anne, George I. Louis XIV. the czar Peter the Great, and the emperor Charles VI.), which is more than can be said of any other painter. His best friend was William, for whom he painted the beauties of Hampton Court; and by whom he was knighted in 1692, and presented with a gold medal and chain worth 300l. In his reign he also painted several of the admirals for Hampton, Court, and the Kit-Cat club. He lived to paint George I, | and was -made a baronet by him. In 1722, sir Godfrey was seized with a violent fever, from tjie immediate danger of which he was rescued by Dr. Mead. He languished, however, some time, and died in October 1723. His body lay in state, and was buried at his country seat called Wilton; but a monument was erected to him in Westminster abbey, for which he left 300l. and gave particular instructions for the execution of it to Rysbrach.

During the latter part of his time, that is, after the death of Lely, in 1680, Kneller stood at the head of the professors of his art in this country, and that most conspicuously. It is not therefore surprising that he experienced the encouragement he did. He has left some few good pictures behind him as proofs of the natural powers he possessed; but his most sincere admirers, who are judges, must acknowledge that the far greater portion of those he allowed to pass into the world under his name, are a disgrace to him and his patrons. His picture of the converted Chinese, at Windsor, he is said to be most proud of, as justly he might be. It exhibits that he really knew what was good, and could produce it if he chose. According to his own doctrine, he did as much and no more than was accessary to pass current among his employers. “History painters,” he said, “make the dead live, and don’t begin to live till they are dead. I paint the living, and they make me live.

There is a singular paucity of imagination in Kneller’s pictures. He did indeed (and Wai pole justly commends him for it) indulge in an ideal drapery for women, instead of the monstrous dresses they wore at the time; but his ingenuity does not appear equal to assist them much; so that there is a ridiculous mixture of positive formality in the stiff neckcloths and wired skirts of coats of the men, and of an affected flow and grace in the loose robes of the women, which consist of nothing more than a chemise thrown open, and discovering the bosom, and a robe-de-chambre loosely drawn over it. All that Kneller can be justly praised, or deservedly esteemed for, generally speaking, is, that his heads, or rather his faces, have a good deal of liveliness and gentility. It seldom amounts to character in the general run of his portraits. Now and then the master-hand appears, when the subject or the moment were favourable. There is, at Petworth, a head of sir Jiaac Newton that would be an honour to any man to bave | produced; and portraits of branches of the Seym our family, whicir are a disgrace to the name they bear. In our days, happily, the weaknesses as well as the merits of Kneller are duly appreciated, and hundreds of his works consigned to the oblivion he probably wished they might experience. When the mass may be thus disposed of, and the select only remain, then he will obtain, unalloyed, the praise his talents, when carefully exerted, fully deserved.

A rapid pencil, and a ready talent of taking likenesses, were the foundation of his reputation; and a most fortunate ignorance of the art among the best informed even of the public, by whom he was employed, aided his progress. Not but that he was equal to the production of good works if he had been more carefully trained, and had lived amongst those who knew how to value works of art upon just principles; but he was amongst the most vain of mankind, and had no regard whatsoever for that posthumous fame which leads men to sacrifice present enjoyments to future glory. His motto was, “to live whilst he lived,” and, consequently, to make money was a matter of greater moment with him than to make good pictures; and he succeeded fully; for although he lost 20,000l. by the South Sea speculation, he left, at his death, an estate of 2000l. a year. His prices, whilst he painted here, were 15 guineas for a head; 20 if with one hand; 30 for a half, and 60 for a whole length.

Sir Godfrey was a man of wit, riot unmixed with profaneness, of which lord Orford has given some instances that might as well have been suppressed. The following is of another stamp. In Great Queen-street, Lincoln’sinn-fields, he lived next door to Dr. Ratcliffe. Kneller was fond of flowers, and had a fine collection. As there was great intimacy between him and the physician, he permitted the latter to have a door into his garden; but, Ratcliffe’s servants gathering and destroying the flowers, Kneller sent him word he must shut up the door. RatclifFe replied, peevishly, “Tell him he may do any thing with it but paint it.” “And I,” answered sir Godfrey, “can take any thing from him but physic.1


Walpole’s Anecdotes, Biog. Brit. Supplement. —Rees’s Cyclopsdia.