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The Capel Family

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The Capel Family

by Cornelius Johnson (Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen)
oil on canvas, circa 1640
63 in. x 102 in. (1600 mm x 2591 mm)
Purchased with help from the Art Fund, 1970
Primary Collection
NPG 4759

On display in Room 1 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

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Appropriately, given the horticultural interests of the Capels, the family are pictured here posing in front of their formal garden at Little Hadham. The composition of Johnson's group is influenced by van Dyck's Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two Eldest Children (Royal Collection, 1632).

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • I-Spy National Portrait Gallery, 2010, p. 19
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • The British Portrait, 1660-1960, 1991, p. 49 number 40
  • Bennett, Sue, Five Centuries of Women and Gardens, 2000 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 5 October 2000 to 21 January 2001), p. 35
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 20 Read entry

    Arthur Capel, his wife Elizabeth and their five children pose in front of their formal gardens at Hadham Hall, which reflect the horticultural interests of the family.

  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 32
  • Edited by Rab MacGibbon and Tanya Bentley, Icons and Identities, 2021, p. 70
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 32
  • Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 70
  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 73
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 94
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 58
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 58 Read entry

    The great family portrait shows the Capels, a prominent Hertfordshire family, just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Sitting on the left is Arthur Capel (1604-49), who in 1641 was made a Baron, fought in the Civil War as a Royalist and was subsequently to die on the scaffold shortly after Charles I. He was described as representing 'the honourable royalism which stooped to no intrigue, and would soil itself by no baseness'. To his right (and looking fondly at him) is his wife, Elizabeth, and standing beside him is his oldest son, Arthur, who was created Earl of Essex by Charles II at the Restoration and who committed suicide in the Tower of London in 1683 after being implicated in the Rye House Plot. What is striking about the portrait is that there is no hint of the political troubles to come. Rather it is a scene of a peaceful domesticity, with a view to the right of their garden at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 721
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, pp. 82 - 83 Read entry

    This grand family portrait shows Lord and Lady Capel, with five of their nine children, at a time when they were enjoying a comfortable life as one of the richest families in England. The gardens that form the backdrop are perhaps those of Little Hadham, the Capels’ home.

    The painter, Cornelius Johnson (1593–1661), the English-born son of an émigré Netherlandish family, was a fashionable and accomplished artist. This work shows the influence of Anthony Van Dyck’s Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two Eldest Children (1632, Royal Collection).

    This peaceful scene belies the turbulence that was shortly to overtake the Capels. Initially opposed to Charles I’s policies, Lord Capel became a Royalist during the civil wars in reaction to the violence of Parliamentarian views. He was captured and executed shortly after the King himself. His oldest son, Arthur, was later accused of involvement in the Rye House plot of 1683 (a plan to assassinate King Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York), and died in suspicious circumstances while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Henry Capel, however, was a successful politician who also created a garden at Kew, the beginnings of the Royal Botanic Gardens; Elizabeth became a talented botanical artist; and Mary was a distinguished horticulturalist.

  • Waterhouse, Ellis Kirkham, The dictionary of 16th & 17th century British painters, 1988, p. 142

Placesback to top

Events of 1640back to top

Current affairs

Second Bishops' War. James Graham, Marquess of Montrose, leading the Scottish armies, occupies northeast of England. Defeat at the Battle of Newburn forces impoverished Charles to sign Treaty of Ripon.
Long Parliament. Habeas Corpus Act is passed, abolishing the Star Chamber. Impeachment of Royalists, Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud.

Art and science

Author, James Howell, writes Dodona's Grove, a historical allegory of events since 1603. A renowned royalist, Howell's anti-parliamentary remarks in the book would later attract accusations from parliamentarians.
The last Caroline masque before the outbreak of civil war, Salmacida Spolia by Sir William Davenant, is performed at Whitehall Palace.


Frederick William becomes Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia. The Elector's policy of religious tolerance benefited his state during the religious struggles dominating the Thirty Years' War.
The Bay Psalm Book is published, the first book to be printed in British North America.

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Phillip Wheeler

18 December 2019, 18:14

Arthur Capel after his execution by order of parliament in 1649, was buried at St. Cecelia`s Little Hadham, Herts. I've just been there. His inscribed grave slab is on the the right of the altar table, his son's to the lhs. He'd broken his parole of the 1st ecw by taking up arms again