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John Evelyn

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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John Evelyn

by Robert Walker
oil on canvas, 1648-circa 1656
34 5/8 in. x 25 1/4 in. (879 mm x 641 mm)
Purchased with help from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Dame Helen Gardner Bequest, 1992
Primary Collection
NPG 6179

Sitterback to top

  • John Evelyn (1620-1706), Diarist and virtuoso. Sitter associated with 13 portraits, Artist associated with 2 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Robert Walker (1599-1658), Painter. Artist associated with 143 portraits, Sitter in 3 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Evelyn records in his Diary that he sat to Walker on 1 July 1648, and that his portrait was intended to accompany a treatise on marriage which he had written for his young wife Mary Browne. The portrait originally showed him holding a miniature or medal of his wife. The skull was substituted some years later, with the Greek motto (top) signifying: 'Repentance is the beginning of Wisdom', and the quotation in Latin from Seneca on the importance of preparing for death.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Ingamells, John, Later Stuart Portraits 1685-1714, 2009, p. 87
  • Jordanova, Ludmilla, Defining Features: Scientific and Medical Portraits 1660-2000, 2000 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 14 April to 17 September 2000), p. 12
  • Ollard, Richard, Character Sketches: Samuel Pepys and His Circle, 2000, p. 40
  • Ollard, Richard, Pepys and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 64
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 61
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 61 Read entry

    This lugubrious portrait of John Evelyn, the famous diarist and virtuoso, was painted when he was 27. The year before he had married Mary Browne, the daughter of the English ambassador in Paris; she was then aged 12. Evelyn was subsequently to describe her as 'the best wife in the world, sweet and agreeable'. In 1648 he wrote a treatise on the benefits of marraige, called Instruction Oeconomique (he later wrote treatises on a huge range of subjects, including London smog); and on 1 July of that year recorded in his Diary that he 'sate for my Picture (the same wherein is a Deaths head to Mr Walker that excellent Painter'. It has been assumed that the portrait was commissioned in order to accompany the treatise on marriage and X-ray photographs have demonstrated that Evelyn's hand originally rested on a medallion or miniature, probably a portrait of his wife. It was subsequently replaced by a skull, making the portrait into a memento mori, with a quotation from Seneca above to the effect that 'When death comes to meet him, no one welcomes it cheerfully.'

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 211
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 84 Read entry

    John Evelyn’s wide-ranging interests make him difficult to define; although he held various public positions, his most important contributions were his writings on subjects as diverse as coins and medals, tree cultivation, refrigeration and religion. A founder member of the Royal Society, Evelyn remained true to its ideals, which encompassed what would now be regarded as the arts and sciences. He kept a diary, which, unlike that of his friend Samuel Pepys, was intended to be more about public record than personal revelation. At the age of twenty-six, Evelyn married the twelve-year-old Mary Browne, then resident with her family in Paris. The couple did not live under the same roof for another three years, and it was during their time apart that Evelyn had this striking portrait painted by the English artist Robert Walker (d.1658), probably to accompany a treatise on marriage that he had written for Mary. Originally he was shown holding a miniature portrait in his left hand, probably of Mary; this was later replaced by the skull, accompanied by the Greek motto, ‘Repentance is the beginning of Wisdom’, and a Latin quotation from Seneca, which can be translated as ‘He cannot with cheerfulness and joy receive his death, unless he bestowed much time and care in preparations against that sad solemnity’.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1648back to top

Current affairs

Resurgence of civil war largely ends at the battle of Preston, won by Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell's command.
Parliamentary General Henry Ireton's Army Remonstrance demands the king is tried an enemy of the state. Ireton also instigates a coups d'état, Pride's Purge, ridding Parliament of MPs supporting negotiations with Charles.

Art and science

John Wilkins, Bishop of Chester, publishes Mathematical Magick, the first work in English on the fundamental principles of mechanics, conceived in the form of a practical manual.


A series of European treaties, negotiated since 1644, results in the Peace of Westphalia and ends the German phase of the Thirty Years' War, and war between the Dutch and Spain in the Eighty Years' War. Delegations are sent from around Europe, Henri II d'Orleans leads the French delegation.

Tell us more back to top

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Susan Evans

27 January 2021, 02:38

I wonder about the information concerning the circumstances of the portrait, and that it originally included a miniature instead of the skull's head. The Gutenberg Project version of John Evelyn's diary has two entries that may be relevant (of course, I can't say whether he was writing the truth!). According to the diary, he was married in Paris in 1647 and sat for the portrait in 1648 when he was back in England. Firstly, the entry for 10 June 1647 says 'and, on Thursday, 27th of June, 1647, he married us in Sir Richard Browne's chapel, between the hours of eleven and twelve, some few select friends being present.'. The entry for 1st July, 1648 says 'I sate for my picture, in which there is a Death's head, to Mr. Walker, that excellent painter.'

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