John Donne

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John Donne

by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, circa 1595
30 3/8 in. x 24 5/8 in. (771 mm x 625 mm)
Purchased with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund, Lord Harris of Peckham, L.L. Brownrigg, the Portrait Fund, Sir Harry Djanogly, the Headley Trust, the Eva & Hans K. Rausing Trust, The Pidem Fund, Mr O. Damgaard-Nielsen, Sir David and Lady Scholey and numerous Gallery visitors and supporters, 2006
Primary Collection
NPG 6790

Sitterback to top

  • John Donne (1572-1631), Poet and divine. Sitter associated with 21 portraits.

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

This portrait presents Donne in the guise of a brooding, melancholic lover. The inscription around the oval ‘O Lady, lighten our darkness’ is a deliberate misquotation of Psalm 17, and implies the cause of Donne’s misery is a woman. Donne bequeathed this ‘picture of mine ... taken in the shadows’ to his friend Robert Ker, later 1st Earl of Ancrum (1578-1654).

Paintings can often undergo significant changes to their appearance through the addition of inscriptions and emblems, and the alteration of the background or objects in the composition. The removal or retention of such areas of large-scale overpaint is a key question when a painting undergoes conservation treatment because, whilst they can provide misleading information, they also form an important part of the object’s history. This issue can be complicated further by the circulation of photographs from before and after treatments, which can provide conflicting information to researchers who are interested in discussing the ‘original’ appearance of a work.
Just such a case was brought to the Gallery’s attention through an enquiry from Dr Sarah Howe into the conservation history of the portrait of the poet John Donne (1572-1631), which was acquired by the Gallery in 2006. The painting had been in the collection of the Marquess of Lothian and had been mis-identified as a portrait of the medieval poet John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) for many years before being rediscovered by John Bryson and John Woodward in the late 1950s as a portrait of John Donne. An article in The Times about the discovery (13 October 1959), described how ‘traces of books and a quill are faintly visible in the foreground’ of the painting. These objects were of great interest to scholars as they pointed to Donne’s self-presentation as a writer, and the description of the work was repeated by Geoffrey Keynes in his Bibliography of the Works of Dr John Donne in 1973. However, in September 1993 when Renaissance scholar and expert Kate Gartner Frost was given permission to see the portrait by the Marquess of Lothian, she noted to her ‘great surprise’ that:

...nowhere, under strong light and the closest examination, were Mr. Dick and I able to discern the slightest sign of the manuscript book, writing stand, inkpot and quill that feature so prominently in Keynes’ description. Rather, dimly visible, but visible all the same, is the pommel of a gentleman’s sword – a far more conventional accessory for the day and for Donne’s position at the time he sat for the portrait.
‘The Lothian Portrait: A New Description’, John Donne Journal, 13, 1994, p. 7
This raised the question of when and why the objects had been removed. The book, quill and inkpot were not mentioned by Roy Strong in his discussion of Donne’s iconography in his 1969 catalogue of Tudor and Jacobean portraits at the Gallery, and comparison of dated photographs in the Heinz Archive showed that they must have been removed between 1959 and 1961. This correlates to records that the painting underwent conservation treatment in 1961. The style and position of the objects in the earlier photograph suggests that they were later additions to the portrait, which is likely why the decision was taken to remove them. The inscription ‘John Duns’ in the upper-left corner also appears to have been removed at the same time, and was of a style that suggested it had been added in the first quarter of the eighteenth-century, when a number of inscriptions were added to paintings in the Lothian collection. Therefore, when Keynes described the painting in the 1970s he must have been working from an early photograph or from previous notes.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Smartify image discovery app
  • 100 Writers, p. 22
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 116 Read entry

    John Donne is best known for the passionate and witty love poems he wrote in his youth, and the sermons meditating on sin and redemption that he preached in his role as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral. Born into a Catholic family, Donne was among the gentlemen–adventurers who joined the assault on Cadiz in 1596, and the following year he was at sea in the Azores expedition under Walter Ralegh. While working for Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Donne secretly married Lady Egerton's seventeen-year-old niece Anne More. This resulted in his temporary imprisonment and the loss of his post; a blow to his ambition that he famously summed up in the epigram: 'John Donne / Anne Donne / Undone'. Donne was probably closely involved in the composition of this portrait, which is given a theatrical quality through the incorporation of a feigned oval. It was painted while he was finishing his education at the Inns of Court and around the time that he is thought to have been writing the early Elegies. The portrait may have been designed as a personal message to an unknown lover; the Latin inscription around the oval, which translates as 'O Lady, lighten our darkness', is a deliberate misquotation of Psalm 17 and implies that the cause of Donne's melancholy aspect is a woman. He bequeathed the portrait, which he described as 'the picture of myne which is taken in the shaddowes', to his friend Robert Kerr, later 1st Earl of Ancram.

  • Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 84
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 180
  • Cooper, Tarnya; Fraser, Antonia (foreword), A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2012, p. 25 Read entry

    One of the earliest images of an Elizabethan poet, this portrait of the exceptionally talented John Donne was perhaps designed as a personal message to an unknown lover. The portrait may reflect Donne’s troubled heart and his melancholy state of mind when, as a young man in his early twenties, he was finishing his education at the Inns of Court in London.

    Donne is shown here in an unusual pose with his head set back in shadows, his collar untied and arms crossed, as if caught up in contemplation. The Latin inscription around the edge of the oval can be translated as ‘O Lady lighten our darkness’ and might be read as a plea to a reluctant lover.

    Donne was probably closely involved in the composition, and this important portrait has been described as a product of his imagination, ‘as much as the Elegies and Satires’. Donne described the portrait in his own will as ‘the picture of myne which is taken in the shaddowes’ when he bequeathed it to a friend just before his death.

  • Edited by Lucy Peltz & Louise Stewart, Love Stories: Art, Passion & Tragedy, 2020, p. 11
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 66
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 58 Read entry

    The poet John Donne, who trained as a lawyer, is best known for the passionate and witty love poems he wrote in his youth, around the time this portrait was painted. A student at Oxford and at the Inns of Court, Donne was raised a Roman Catholic, converted to the Protestant faith and in 1615 was ordained a priest in the Church of England. He became chaplain to James I and was later Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.

    This portrait is one of the earliest of an Elizabethan poet. It presents Donne in the guise of a brooding, handsome melancholic lover, with his long dark hair, and sensuous lips. The artful dishevelment of his triple-layered lace collar, which is left slightly open, enhances the sense of the poet’s preoccupation and may be a pun on his name and state of mind (un-done). The Latin inscription around the oval, which translates as ‘Lady/or mistress/ Lighten my darkness’, is a deliberate misquotation of Psalm 17, and implies that the cause of Donne’s misery is a woman. Donne bequeathed this picture, which he described in his will as ‘taken in shadowes’, to his friend Robert Ker, later 1st Earl of Ancram.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1595back to top

Current affairs

The Nine Years War begins in Ireland. The Earl of Tyrone leads an uprising against the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. He appeals to the Catholic Philip II of Spain for assistance.
Spanish ships land in Cornwall sparking fears of a new Armada. They burn Penzance and Mousehole but then flee.
The Jesuit poet and Catholic martyr Robert Southwell is executed for treason. His Saint Peter's Complaint and Other Poems is posthumously published.

Art and science

Sir Walter Ralegh sets out on a voyage to Guiana (now Venezuela) to find the mythic land of 'El Dorado' where there was said to be large amounts of gold. His search is unsuccessful.
Sir Francis Drake sails for the West Indies.
William Shakespeare writes Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream at about his time.
Portrait of the poet and clergyman John Donne is painted at about this time.


Battle of Fontaine-Française- Henry IV of France defeats the Spanish army and the remnants of the French Catholic League under Charles, Duke of Mayenne.
Sigmund Báthory, Prince of Transylvania and Michael the Brave, Prince of Wallachia defeat the Ottoman army at the Guirgevo (in present-day Romania).
Mehmed III succeeds Murad III as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

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Susan Moore

10 February 2020, 08:53

Just read the short story by Helen Dunmore about this portrait - this lead me to this web page. “Taken in Shadows “ in the collection “Girl Balancing”.