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William Dobson was the first Englishman to paint English men - tough, sweaty portraits in complete contrast to the foppish airs given to the sitters by the Flemish painters dominant in England at the time. Even Van Dyke, whose mantle William Dobson assumed, could not escape such mannerisms.
There are several scenarios into which the scene in front of us might fit. The three men are as recognizable today as they were in their time - not fops from another age - but tangible human beings for us, in our age. They have no airs and graces. Three young strong characters - perhaps slightly drunk - celebrating their friendship in the most direct and honest way.
We might think them inebriated because William Dobson has given a silvery infusion to their flesh tones; an oily, sweaty glaze to the robust textures of their skin - not drunkenness perhaps but a nervous tension - a kind of expectation.
The date is 1645. The place - Oxford. The Civil War is raging. Charles I has fled London and installed his whole court in the town. The place is overcrowded. The courtiers are in cramped proximity to the King. The air is tense - Cromwell is closing in. It is "do or die time". The end of a long Royal dynasty is under threat. Their privileged world of opulence, grandeur and flamboyant Catholicism is under siege from sterile Puritanism.
Three friends, Royalists, anxious, in Oxford. Before them the greatest challenge of their lives, of their century, of their own position. The excitement and apprehension of the coming conflict – “All to win and all to loose”.
It is 1646, the place London. The battle is lost. They are lost. Cromwell and his puritans have smashed their world forever. The future is unknown, unthinkable. Instant arrest and imprisonment hangs over them. The three friends, under their confident masks, hide their apprehension, their insecurity. They are disoriented in a new world order. The artist himself, that very year, is to die in abject poverty.
The artist, William Dobson, the most fashionable painter to the Court having taken over Van Dyke’s crown, is in the centre. On his right is Nicholas Lanier, Master of the King’s Music and a pioneer collector of Old Master Drawings. On the artist’s left Sir Charles Cotterell, Dobson’s youthful patron. There is a symbolic tension between Lanier who, dressed in white satin, represents pleasure and Cotterell who, in sober black represents self-discipline, is protecting the artist from both Lanier and his excesses; physically and with steely glance. The artist separates two opposing philosophies.
However this picture is read, one factor clearly stands out - the humanitarianism with which the artist has endowed his sitters leaves us with an image of three young men that we can clearly understand and recognise today.