The National Portrait Gallery’s display showcasing a selection of this little known painter’s work is both beautiful and extraordinarily detailed, which is a pleasure to look at.
Born in London in 1593 into a Flemish/German Protestant family, Johnson is thought to have completed his training mainly in the Netherlands before returning to London by early 1619.
His work as on display at the National Portrait Gallery shows his careful attention to detail – in particular to the clothes that his subjects were wearing. This is constant theme throughout his work and makes the viewer believe that if they were to reach out and touch it they would actually touch the material.
Johnson was primarily known as a portrait painter and this is certainly an appropriate display to take place at the gallery and in awakening the public’s interest into this rarely heard of artist. Now that we have been given a taste of what his work was like, it could be argued that it would be appropriate to have a larger exhibition of his work to come to London in the future.
While the artist painted people from a variety of backgrounds from the gentry to the aristocrats and lawyers and merchants, it was particularly fascinating to examine his portraits of the future King Charles II, James Duke of York (James III) and Princess Mary as children and the way in which they were portrayed.
The portraits reveal a lightness in the touch in the technique that Johnson used and shows how carefully thought out each painting was. It is clear that they weren’t painted in a hurry and show how absorbed and enthusiastic about his work he was.
Johnson had been appointed ‘picture-drawer’ to the King in 1632 and was commissioned for a few small-scale royal portraits – but it was rising star Anthony van Dyke who was commissioned for the main royal portraits. However, you can’t help but speculate how Johnson would have approached painting the monarchs themselves.
But Johnson’s career was abruptly halted as civil war broke out in Britain 1643, leading to the artist and his family moving back to the Netherlands. However, he did continue to paint until his own death in 1661 – but never returned to London.
This display while brief gives visitors a tantalising hint of Johnson’s work and argues well that much more of his work deserves to be seen and appreciated by the public. His work has spent far too long in the shadows – despite his work being available to see in many museums across the UK.
Cornelius Johnson: Charles I’s Forgotten Painter can be seen in room 6 at the gallery until 13th September.