Advanced Search

William Robinson, later Sir William Robinson, Knt.

Date: 1693
50 x 40 3/8 in. (127 x 102.6 cm.)
frame: 59 3/4 x 49 3/4 x 3 7/8 in. (151.8 x 126.4 x 9.8 cm.)
Medium: oil on canvas
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Beatrix Farrand
Object Number: 34.2
Label Text:William Robinson, an architect who made important contributions to the development of Irish classicism, was born about 1643, the descendent of an ancient Yorkshire family. On January 11, 1671, he became "Engineer and Surveyor-General of all fortifications, buildings, etc., in Ireland," and in 1674 the Earl of Essex, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, described him as "a very ingenious man & well skilled in some parts of ye Mathematics." In London on January 18, 1677, Robinson married Margery Tooke (c.1655-1708), eldest daughter of Elizabeth (d. 1653) and John Tooke (d. 1658) of Hertfordshire. Robinson supervised the repair of fortifications throughout Ireland from 1681 to 1687, when he retired briefly to England following the succession of James II. He returned to Ireland on March 4, 1690, four months prior to the declaration of war, and resumed his post as Surveyor-General following the Irish surrender in 1691. Debilitated after many years of gout, he resigned that post on April 19, 1700, but continued to serve in various other capacities. On June 19, 1701 (or 1702) he was created a knight and admitted to the Irish Privy Council. He spent most of his final years in England, where he died in 1712. In a will of 1709 he reserved a portion of his estate for "erecting and endowing some public works edifice for the advancement of learning and other good works."

The son of the chief surveyor of Lübeck, Germany, Godfrey Kneller was once destined for a career path similar to that of William Robinson, the architect who is the subject of this portrait. Kneller had been studying mathematics at Leydon University when he decided to change course and become a painter. Transplanted to England, he learned to ally the courtly elegance of Van Dyck and Lely to his own vigorous and realistic style. He had acquired a formidable reputation by March 1692, when he was knighted by William III. By June 1693 he was seeing fourteen sitters a day. Among them was William Robinson, whose portrait Kneller inscribed with the date 1693.
Many of Kneller's portraits from this period betray the strain that success imposed upon his work. Faced with an overabundance of commissions, he and his studio assistants adopted a formulaic approach that often resulted in perfunctory brushwork and generic, mask-like faces. No such weaknesses mar the present portrait, however, which is painted throughout with remarkable energy and confidence. At close range, the head has the appearance of an impromptu sketch. Individual strokes of flesh color, red, and white remain intact in most areas, with little blending, and it is actually the exposed grey ground that provides the shadow of beard on the chin and upper lip, and the suggestion of a furrow between the eyebrows. The ground also defines the creases alongside the nose and mouth and helps to differentiate the transparency of the tissue below the eyes from the robust flesh of the cheeks. Unusually, the drapery is more tightly finished than the face. An exception is the two-toned fabric spilling out from beneath the tawny satin cloak, which Kneller created by brushing patches of brown paint over the violet-grey ground.
By adding baroque flourishes to a venerable portrait formula, Kneller created a majestic presentation, calculated to impress. Robinson looms large before a stormy sky, dwarfing the distant ships behind him. With a cascade of lustrous drapery spilling over his left shoulder and arm, he unfurls a drawing of an oval inscribed within a rectangle, a geometric design which probably refers to his engineering work. The nature of the drawing suggests that the portrait was commissioned to commemorate Robinson's reinstatement as Surveyor-General in 1691, a post he had held for sixteen years before political conflict compelled his resignation in 1687. With his right hand, Robinson gestures toward distant ships suggestive of the multifarious commercial activities that he pursued along with surveying. In 1692 he became a Freeman of the Company of the Royal Fishery of Ireland, and he was also known as a "merchant and trader in foreign parts," who imported timber from Scandinavia. However, the man-of-war among the ships seems more relevant to Robinson's activities during the recent war in Ireland (concluded in 1691) as Comptroller-General of the Provisions for the Forces and Commisionary-General of Pay and Provisions. Kneller may have been deliberately vague about the imagery as an economical means of embracing the range of Robinson's responsibilities. A more cumbersome solution is found in the Portrait of Sir Christopher Wren, c. 1706-24, begun by Antonio Verrio and finished by Kneller and Sir James Thornhill, which represents the polymathic sitter in a similar pose, somewhat overwhelmed by the trappings of his multiple occupations.
Robinson's portrait was evidently commissioned by Thomas Coningsby (1656-1729), 1st Earl of Coningsby, who, as Receiver and Paymaster-General of the Forces in Ireland, had been Robinson's war-time supervisor. In 1693 Coningsby became Vice-Treasurer of Ireland and he commissioned several portraits of men who served alongside him. These subsequently hung in the Great Dining Parlour of his English country seat in Herefordshire. Robinson served as Coningsby's Deputy Receiver-General until 1703, when his calculation of the national debt triggered corruption charges. Robinson was imprisoned in Dublin Castle and declared "unfit for any public Employment in the Kingdom," but Coningsby mounted a strenuous defense, one of the few colleagues to adhere to him. As it happened, the scandal brought an abrupt termination to Robinson's illustrious career. Remarkably, it was just ten years after Kneller had painted him in full glory, the apparent master of all he surveyed.