Sir Godfrey Kneller
Greatest Master of the English baroque portrait.
c.1648 - 1723
Kneller was the greatest master of the English baroque portrait. As Court painter to four sovereigns, he dominated English art for more than thirty years. Born in Lübeck, Germany, Kneller trained as a painter in Amsterdam under Rembrandt's pupil, Bol. He visited Rome and Venice probably painting portraits of Venetian nobility before coming to England in about 1676. He was appointed Principal Painter to the Court of William and Mary in 1688. He was knighted in 1692 and made a Baronet in 1715, the first painter to be so honoured. He married Susanna Grave in 1704. Kneller acquired a property in Whitton as his summer residence, which he adapted or rebuilt between 1709 and 1711 and which became known as Whitton Hall. He ran a large studio in London where he employed a number of assistants. His commissions were many and his output prolific. As a member of the Kit-cat Club pledged to support the Protestant succession to the throne, Kneller painted the set of intriguing Kit-cat Club portraits, some of which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery.
In 1713 he, together with Thomas Vernon were chosen to be Churchwardens of St Mary's, Twickenham. During their tenure they had to cope with the rebuilding of the nave after its collapse in April that year.
Pope in jest regrets Kneller's absence at the Creation
Kneller was acquainted with Alexander Pope who once in jest complimented him on the superiority of his works to those of Nature, and regretted his absence at the Creation. Kneller who was rather vain replied " I should have made some things better".
Critical of Pope's drawing master Charles Jervas, who had achieved some success and consequently set himself up with a coach-and-four, Kneller commented, "Ah mein Gott, if his horses draw no better than he does, he'll never get to his journey's end".
Kneller was also a local J P, and was noted for some eccentric judgments. A soldier stealing a joint of meat from a butcher, explained that the exposure of such luxury was more than he could resist. Kneller discharged the thief and reprimanded the butcher. Pope drily commented: "I think Sir Godfrey should decide the suit, Who sent the thief (that stole the cash) away. And punished him that put it in his way".
Disputes to the end
Kneller died on 26 October 1723 in the parish of St Giles in the Fields, London. His widow, Susanna, continued to live at Whitton Hall until her death in December 1729. Susanna had wanted to displace the memorial to Alexander Pope's parents, on the north east wall of the gallery of St Mary's church, Twickenham, with a large memorial to her husband designed by Rysbrack. Pope disputed this and was successful. Eventually, the memorial found a home in Westminster Abbey where, Kneller had said he did not wish to be buried "because they do bury fools there". According to Vertue Kneller was:laid in state at his [London] house … over his Coffin his Arms Crest Sur coat. gold spurrs &c. ecocheon & penants & he was carryd out of Town in a herse thursday November 7 … many coaches 6 horses & men in Cloaks on horse back in a grand manner. His body was taken to St Mary's church and placed in a vault reserved for this purpose when the church was rebuilt. Susanna also lies buried in St.Mary's.
Further reading: Ed Harris. 2019. Kneller Hall Looking Backward Looking Forward. Borough of Twickenham Local History Society. George Vertue Note Books 2.123, R S Cobbett, Memorials of Twickenham, 1872
People & Places, Borough of Twickenham Local History Society paper No.47
Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope, Yale, 1985
P and L Murray, A Dictionary of Art and Artists, Penguin, 1982
Anthony Beckles Willson, The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Twickenham, 2000
Complete Baronetage, G.E.Cockayne, Volume V, 1707-1800