Benjamin ('Ben') Jonson
Benjamin ('Ben') Jonson
by Abraham van Blyenberch
oil on canvas, circa 1617
18 1/2 in. x 16 1/2 in. (470 mm x 419 mm)
Sitterback to top
- Benjamin ('Ben') Jonson (1573?-1637), Poet and dramatist. Sitter associated with 19 portraits.
Artistback to top
- Abraham van Blyenberch (1575 or 1576-1624), Artist. Artist associated with 15 portraits.
This portraitback to top
Jonson was one of a small group of courtiers painted by the Flemish artist van Blyenberch, during his visit to England between 1617 and 1621. All other surviving portraits of Jonson derive from this one.
Linked publicationsback to top
- 100 Portraits, p. 29
- Audio Guide
- Smartify image discovery app
- 100 Writers, p. 26
- Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 120 Read entry
One of the most successful playwrights and poets of his time, Ben Jonson was born after the death of his father, a clergyman who was originally from Scotland. Jonson was brought up near Charing Cross, studying at Westminster School, and trained as a bricklayer, following his stepfather. He served in the Netherlands and also worked as a strolling actor, spending two periods in prison: for writing a seditious play in 1597 and for killing the actor Gabriel Spenser in a sword fight in 1598. His career spanned the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and he is particularly known for Every Man in his Humour/i> (1598), Volpone (1605) and The Alchemist (1610). He wrote a series of spectacular court masques in the early seventeenth century, collaborating with the architect and designer Inigo Jones. This portrait was painted during van Blyenberch's visit to England between 1617 and 1621. It may have been commissioned by the court favourite George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, to hang in his private collection; it was listed in an inventory of his son's collection in 1635. The portrait contains no inscriptions, attributes or emblems and no signs of the sitter's status; this focuses the viewer's attention on Jonson's face and gives the portrait a powerful sense of self-awareness. Blyenberch's painterly technique is without parallel in the work of contemporary English artists.
- Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 52
- Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 18 Read entry
- Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 180
- Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare (hardback), 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 180
- Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 212
- MacLeod, Catharine (preface, appreciation) Wilks, Timothy (introduction) Smuts, Malcolm (appreciation) MacGibbon, Rab (appendix), The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart, 2012 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 18 October 2012 to 13 January 2013), p. 22
- Motion, Andrew (edited), Interrupted Lives: In Literature, 2004, p. 13
- Nicholl, Charles, Character Sketches: Elizabethan Writers, 1997, p. 21
- Nicholl, Charles, Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2005, p. 42
- Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 68
- Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 343
- Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 183
- Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 76 Read entry
One of the most successful playwrights and poets of the seventeenth century, Ben Jonson was probably more famous and celebrated during his lifetime than his contemporary William Shakespeare. He wrote a wide range of poetry and prose but is particularly known for his comedies, including Every Man in his Humour (1598), Volpone (1605) and The Alchemist (1610). He lived a turbulent life, and was imprisoned several times for crimes including manslaughter, but found success in court circles as well as the public theatres. He was granted a pension by James I in 1616, and he wrote a series of court masques – elaborate allegorical entertainments involving dance, music, poetry and spectacular stage sets – under the patronage of Anne of Denmark.
Jonson was one of a small group of people painted by the Flemish artist Abraham van Blyenberch (1575/6– 1624) during his visit to England between 1617 and 1621. Van Blyenberch’s vigorous brushstrokes seem to capture something of Jonson’s colourful character. All other known portraits of the playwright appear to derive from this one.
Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top
Events of 1617back to top
Current affairsRobert Carey, Earl of Monmouth is made Chamberlain to Prince Charles.
Petitions from Catholics persuade James I to permit certain types of recreation on Sundays. However, the king's subsequent declaration of sports angers Puritans who advocated for appropriate and strict observance of the sabbath.
Art and sciencePhysician and Rosicrucian, Robert Fludd, begins to publish his philosophical work, Utriusque cosmi. Extensively illustrated with mystic emblems, Fludd's neoplatonist metaphysics suggested a complex relationship between the spiritual and physical world, prompting attacks from leading scholars.
InternationalIncited by Charles d'Albert, Duke of Luynes, Constable of France, the seventeen-year-old French king, Louis XIII, forces his mother Marie de Medici who has held de facto power, into retirement and has her favourite, Concino Concini, assassinated.
Become a Member
Enjoy access to special events, discounts on the Gallery online shop, supporters’ updates and much more
Bringing people together by sharing the portraits and stories of the men and women who have shaped our nation.
Sign up to receive information on exhibitions, collections and activities of the National Portrait Gallery, including special offers, shop products, and exclusive competitions.
Tell us more
Framed & unframed prints
Choose your favourite portrait from our Collection as a framed or unframed print for your home.