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Benjamin ('Ben') Jonson

1 portrait matching 'NPG2752'

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Benjamin ('Ben') Jonson, by Abraham van Blyenberch, circa 1617 - NPG 2752 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

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)
NPG 2752


This portrait is the source from which all other images of Ben Jonson derive.

The provenance of this painting is uncertain. It is possible that it is the work listed as ‘Blyenberke – A Picture of Ben Johnson’ in the collection of the 2nd Duke of Buckingham in 1635. The portrait is said to have come from Odstock House, Wiltshire, the seat of the Webb baronets. In 1915 it was sold by Henry Bates of Salisbury to Sidney Wise of Duke Street and was purchased by the Gallery in 1935.

Historical context
By 1617 Ben Jonson’s literary reputation had been secured through the publication the previous year of his Workes; he had also been granted an annual royal pension. One of Jonson’s most important patrons, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, was painted by Abraham van Blyenberch in 1617, and he may have introduced the sitter to the artist. The portrait may have been acquired by George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, as it is possibly the work that was listed in an inventory of his son’s collection. The duke may have commissioned the painting as he was also one of Jonson’s patrons, or acquired it at a later date; in 1621 Jonson’s masque, ‘The Gypsies Metamorphosed’, was performed at the duke’s house in Rutland.

Jonson described himself in 1619 as having a ‘Mountaine belly, and ... rockye face’, whilst John Aubrey stated that Jonson ‘had one eie lower than t’other and bigger’ and that he had ‘a clear and faire skin; his habit was very plaine’.

Notes on attribution
Although it is not possible to prove that this portrait is the same as the one listed in the 1635 inventory, an attribution to Abraham van Blyenberch can be confirmed following comparative analysis of a portrait of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (Powis Castle). Both works share a broad, painterly style that is clearly distinct from other artists working in London at the same time.

Justification for dating
Abraham van Blyenberch appears to only have been active in London for a brief period between 1617 and 1621 or 1622, and the technique and materials in use in this work are consistent with a work from that period. The age of the sitter suggests that the portrait is likely to date from the same period as the portrait of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (Powis Castle). By 1627 it had been used as the source for an engraving by Robert Vaughan.

The painting has been has been enlarged by approximately 10 cm at the top, using a piece of non-original pre-primed canvas. Cusping can be seen in the original canvas at the join, which suggests that not much has been lost from the top. There is a pronounced craquelure across the surface. The original paint surface in the black costume is very abraded and there is a considerable amount of overpaint.

Painting technique
The portrait is painted on a single piece of medium grade, plain weave canvas, which was prepared with a pale brown priming. The portrait was painted with a rapid wet-in-wet technique, using small multidirectional brushstrokes and soft blending. The technique compares closely with the portrait of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. The pale preparation layer was used for the mid-tone in the flesh in both paintings and can be seen at the edge of the nose and mouth and in the eyes. The execution of the ear compares closely with the portrait of Pembroke, where the deepest shadow is created in the same way, with a few small dabs of red lake glaze.

Drawing and transfer technique
No underdrawing was detected during surface examination or using infrared reflectography. Unlike the majority of works examined during the Making Art in Tudor Britain project, it appears that the artist did not use any intermediary preparatory drawing or pattern.

Other known versions
There are numerous painted versions of this portrait:
- Knole (Lord Sackville), first recorded 1728
- Welbeck Abbey (Duke of Portland), first recorded 1755

Later copies include:
- Exton Hall
- Mr H. Jones, 35 Maple Street W1
- Unknown artist (Mrs Glen S. Utt, Illinois, USA)
- Formerly in the collection of Francis Colmer
- Christie’s 11 June 1948 (ex coll. Viscount Harcourt)
- Sawyer 1965 (Christie’s 29th January 1965)
- Christie’s 18th October 1946, lot 47 (ex coll. Earl of Ellesmere, inventory no. 387)
- Earl of Harewood, ex Chesterfield House (Christie’s 29th June 1951, lot 41).
- National Portrait Gallery (NPG 363), probably early nineteenth century.
- Christie’s The Gyrn Castle Sale, North Wales, 17th July 2006, lot 806
- Sotheby’s 20th July 1994, lot 129
- Sotheby’s 13th July 2000, lot 8
- Bonham’s, Creative Encounters: Writers, Artists and Musicians, The Roy Davids Collection, lot 83
- Royal Collection (miniature)
- Bonhams, 28th September 2004 (lot 52) and 27th February 2007 (lot 125)(miniature)

Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare, 2006, pp. 180-181
Davies, Randall, ‘An Inventory of the Duke of Buckingham’s Pictures, et., at York House in 1635’, Burlington Magazine, 10, 1906-7, p. 380
Hearn, Karen, ‘Images of Ben Jonson’, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson Online
Herford, C.H., and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, eds, Ben Jonson, 11 vols, 1925-1963, III, p. ix-x, XI, pp. 591-592
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London, 1969, pp. 182–184

Exhibition history
‘Searching for Shakespeare’, National Portrait Gallery, London and Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, 2006
‘The Stuart Portrait: Status and Legacy’, Southampton City Art Gallery, 2001
‘Paintings and their Context V: Death, Passion and Politics: Van Dyck’s Portraits’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 1995–1996
‘The King’s Arcadia: Inigo Jones and the Stuart Court, Banqueting House’, Whitehall, 1973
‘The Age of Charles I’, Tate Gallery, London, 1972-1973


Micro 01. Detail of the eye on the left (7.1…
Micro 02. Detail of the eye on the right (7.1…
Micro 03. Detail of flesh paint beneath the e…
Micro 06. Detail of flesh and edge of the eye…
Micro 07. Detail of the edge of the nose, sho…
Micro 09. Detail of hairline, with restoratio…
Micro 11. Detail of collar, with restoration…
Micro 12. Detail of black costume, with overp…
Micro 17. Detail of collar, with restoration…
UV 01. Front of the panel in ultra violet lig…

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Compare high-resolution images against the painting - mainly x-ray and infra-red photography images, but sometimes UV or raking light images - side by side with the ability to zoom in on details.

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The original canvas has an old glue-paste lining and the original tacking margins have been removed. There is a non-original strip of canvas along the top edge. The paint surface has a generally flattened appearance, caused by the lining process. There is an overall network of pronounced craquelure, but the paint and ground appear stable. The paint surface is generally abraded and there are numerous small paint and ground losses in the central area: in the collar, black drapery, beard, neck and the background above the shoulder on the left. The varnish is clear and even, although abraded around the edges due to contact with the frame rebate. The canvas tension is good and free from deformations.


Support type: Canvas

Panel condition observations

The canvas has an old glue-paste lining in sound condition. The painting has been enlarged by approximately 10 mm along the upper edge, using a piece of non-original, pre-primed canvas. Cusping is present in the original canvas at this join, suggesting the painting was not cut down significantly. The stretcher is in good condition. All wedges have been secured. The canvas tension is good.

Dendrochronology (what's this? )


An examination of tree rings, which can help to provide the earliest possible felling dates for the wood used for the panel. The technique can also indicate the geographical origin of the wood.

Last date of tree ring: n/a


The painting is on a canvas support.

X-radiography (what's this? )


A technique used to identify changes in composition beneath the surface of the paint layers and to understand the physical structure of a panel or canvas.

The narrow, non-original canvas addition along top can be seen clearly in x-ray. It is evidently a strip of primed canvas (see x-ray mosaic 01). The original cusping at the edge of the canvas can be seen along the top edge and down the right edge, which shows that the canvas used for this portrait was taken from a larger piece of pre -stretched canvas. There are dense wide marks in the paint along the top edge, which seem to be where the pale brown priming/underlayer was applied thickly with a wide brush,or possibly a priming knife.

The damage and paint losses in the collar and costume are clear in x-ray. The brushwork technique in the flesh paint is very clear, with thicker passages of finely blended paint applied to model the lighter areas while the pale brown priming was used for shadows.

Infrared reflectography (what's this? )

Infra-Red Reflectographyclose

A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.

No underdrawing was detected using infrared reflectography. The brushwork in the hair and face is evident and the restoration in the collar and in the lower part of the face can be seen clearly (see DIRR 01).

Paint sampling (what's this? )

Paint Samplingclose

Investigation into microscopic pigment samples or samples of other media in order to help with dating, to reveal the order of the paint layers and help to understand the painting techniques used.

Paint samples were taken for analysis in March 2012.

The canvas was prepared with a pale brown ground containing chalk with lead white, and brown and black particles. This can be seen in cross-section of sample 1.

Sample 1: Cross-section shows that the pale brown ground followed the pinkish flesh layer. The beard hair was then painted using a brown mixture of red ochre, crimson red lake, brown earth pigments, a little carbon black and lead white. Dispersion shows the same mixtures.

Sample 4: Dispersion shows mostly vermilion with a little lead white, red lake and traces of smalt.

Sample 2: Dispersion from the shadow of the right-hand side of the collar shows an unusual fine yellow pigment with rod-shaped particles. The same yellow was found in Sample 3, in the upper layer, from the background. It was thought that this might be restoration using a modern chrome-based yellow, but it was also found in the flesh of the hand of a portrait of Charles I (NPG 1112). Red ochre was also present in the sample.

Sample 3: Cross-section shows the pale brown underlayer containing large particles of lead white, with a mixture of orange and brown earth pigments. Over this is an opaque dark brown layer with brown earth pigments, red (probably ochre), yellow ochre, carbon black, and lead white. The uppermost layer is a thin translucent brown glaze, which contains red lake, a little red ochre and an unusual rod-shaped yellow ochre with fine particles. These rod shaped yellow particles were identified in the yellow used in the collar.

Dispersion of the opaque dark brown layer (the second layer) showed yellow ochre, brown earth, shards of carbon black pigment (perhaps plant black)and some chalk from the ground layer.

Surface examination (what's this? )

Surface Examinationclose

An examination of the construction of paint layers, glazes and condition often using a microscope. This method provides important evidence concerning an artist’s technique and paint handling and can reveal a specific artist’s characteristic painting style.

Painting style and method
The paint was applied using a rapid wet-in-wet technique. The multidirectional brushstrokes are small and passages of paint softly blend into one another on the canvas (see X-ray). The paint handling, technique and use of pigments closely compares with those found on the portrait of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, from Powys Castle, National Trust, which was examined at the same time.

Preparation layers
It appears that a single preparation layer was applied to the canvas. This pale preparation contains chalk, lead white, and some brown and black pigments; it was intended to show through as a mid-tone in certain areas on the surface. This layer is particularly evident around the edge of the nostrils and in the eyes. No underdrawing could be seen with microscopy or with infrared reflectography.

The eyes are thinly painted, leaving the preparation layer visible as the mid-tone in many areas (see micro 01 and micro 02). The highlight in the eyes was achieved with the use of flesh colour, brown and red mixtures, with the deep shadows achieved with the use of red lake. The irises were painted with dark brown and black.

The warm flesh tones were applied above the preparatory layer, using small soft brushstrokes and paste-like paint. The brushstrokes were smoothly blended wet-in-wet on the canvas. The paint is thickest in areas of extreme highlight and the preparation layer was intentionally left exposed in certain areas as a mid-tone. The intentional use of the preparatory layer in this way is clearly evident around the eyes, nose and mouth (see micro 01, micro 03, micro 06 and micro 07). The flesh colour is composed of a mixture of lead white, vermilion, red lake, black and very bright, good quality yellow ochre. In the palest flesh tones some smalt was also added. Although much of this has lost its colour, some blue particles remain visible. The main flesh paint was blocked in, leaving the preparation exposed for the areas of mid-tone (in the lips for example). Pale flesh colour was then applied to the areas of mid-tone, followed by the deep shadows using red lake and black above.

There is a considerable amount of overpaint in the costume, covering heavy abrasion to the original paint surface, and it is therefore difficult to assess the technique.

The background appears to have been applied directly above the preparation layer. The brown paint was thinly and streakily applied with a broader brush than used elsewhere, and contains lead white, charcoal black, some red earth, red lake and some bright, good quality yellow ochre. Above this, it appears that a second darker brown layer was thinly painted.

Order of construction
- Background
- Hair
- Collar
- Flesh blocked in and blended wet-in-wet into hair paint
- Costume
- Beard
- Flesh completed (definition and deep shadows)
- Hair and beard completed

Plant black, lead white, red lake, smalt, earth pigments, yellow ochre, red ochre, vermilion

Restoration observations
The canvas has suffered considerable abrasion during previous treatments and the tops of the canvas weave are exposed throughout. There is extensive restoration throughout, covering areas of loss, abrasion, surface craquelure and exposed canvas weave (see micro 09, micro 11, micro 12 and micro 17). There is a considerable amount of restoration in the background.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.

Examination with ultra violet light shows an even fluorescence over the surface where varnish remains after careful cleaning (see UV 01). The most recent restoration appears as dark areas, and is particularly evident in the collar and in the costume below the collar. Restoration at the top edge, along the additional strip of canvas, also appears dark in ultra violet light. There are fine dark lines of restoration over many parts of the fine paint surface craquelure.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: Late 20th century.


Teak and walnut veneer over pine sub frame.