Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1st Baronet (1646-1723)

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Self-Portrait

Sir Godfrey Kneller was the leading portrait painter in England during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and was court painter to British monarchs from Charles II to George I. His major works include The Chinese Convert (1687); a series of ten reigning European monarchs, including King Louis XIV of France; over 40 “Kit-cat portraits” of members of the Kit-Cat Club; and ten “beauties” of the court of William III, to match a similar series of ten beauties of the court of Charles II painted by his predecessor as court painter, Sir Peter Lely.

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The Duchess of Mazarin

Kneller was born Gottfried Kniller in Lübeck, Germany. Kneller studied in Leiden, but became a pupil of Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt in Amsterdam. He worked in Rome and Venice in the early 1670s, painting historical subjects and portraits, and later moved to Hamburg. He came to England in 1674, at the invitation of the Duke of Monmouth, accompanied by his brother, John Zacharias Kneller, who was an ornamental painter. He was introduced to, and painted a portrait of, Charles II. In England, Kneller concentrated almost entirely on portraiture. He founded a studio which churned out portraits on an almost industrial scale, relying on a brief sketch of the face with details added to a formulaic model, aided by the fashion for gentlemen to wear full wigs. His portraits set a pattern that was followed until William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds.

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John Locke

Nevertheless, he established himself as a leading portrait artist in England. When Sir Peter Lely died in 1680, Kneller was appointed Principal Painter to the Crown by Charles II. He was later knighted by William III. He produced a series of “Kit-cat” portraits of 48 leading politicians and men of letters, members of the Kit-Cat Club. Created a baronet by King George I, he was also head of the Kneller Academy of Painting and Drawing 1711-1716 in Great Queen Street, London. His paintings were praised by Whig luminaries such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Alexander Pope.

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Sir John Vanbrugh, one of Kneller’s first “Kit-cat” portraits

Kneller died of fever in 1723 and his remains were interred in Twickenham Church (he was a churchwarden there when the 14th century nave collapsed in 1713 and was involved in the plans for its reconstruction). The site of the house he built in 1709 in Whitton near Twickenham is now occupied by the mid-19th century Kneller Hall, home of the Royal Military School of Music.

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John Banckes 1676

In his hometown Lübeck there are works to be seen in the St. Annen Museum and in Saint Catherine Church. His former works at St. Mary’s Church were destroyed by the Bombing of Lübeck 1942.

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Dorothy Mason

Still wondering about an English painting in your family collection? Contact us…it could be by Sir Godfrey Kneller.