Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland (1675-1722)
About the work
This engraving was published to illustrate a work written by compiler of histories and biographer Thomas Birch (1705-1766), titled ‘The Lives and Characters of Illustrious Persons’ (published 1743-52). The work was published by John and Paul Knapton of Ludgate Street, London, and featured portraits of 108 famous Britons from the time of King Edward III (reigned 1327-77) to contemporary figures. Each portrait was accompanied by Birch’s account of the sitter’s life.
Where possible, the engraved portraits were copies of existing paintings. Artists Charles and George Knapton (cousins of the booksellers and publishers John and Paul Knapton), artist and printseller Arthur Pond, and book illustrator and engraver Hubert-François Gravelot are all thought to have been involved in finding and copying the older portraits required for the project. The engraver and antiquary George Vertue was initially employed to engrave the plates but produced just nine before being dismissed for slowness and replaced by Dutch engraver Jacobus Houbraken, who worked from Amsterdam. The ornamental surrounds of the portraits were designed and engraved by Gravelot. The plates are in most cases dated, some as early as 1740.
About the artist
Jacobus Houbraken was born in Dordrecht, the son of Dutch artist and art historian Arnold Houbraken. Jacobus studied under his father, before making his name engraving portraits after both Old Master and contemporary artists, producing works for several countries. He engraved the plates for the third edition of Paul de Rapin’s ‘History of England’ (1743–47) and also for Thomas Birch’s ‘The Heads of Illustrious Lives and Characters of Illustrious Persons of Great Britain’ (1743–52). Hubert-François Gravelot produced the ornamental designs for both works. Houbraken’s pupils included Dutch printmaker and draftsman, Pierre Tanje. Houbraken died in Amsterdam at about the age of 82.
Godfrey Kneller was born in Lübeck, Germany. He moved to Amsterdam in 1662 to study painting under Rembrandt and Ferdinand Bol. He later trained with Gianlorenzo Bernini and Carlo Maratta in Rome. He returned to Lübeck in 1675, before moving to Hamburg and then to London to study the works of van Dyck. In England he received commissions from prominent figures, including Charles II. Charles sent Kneller to France in 1684, to paint the portrait of Louis XIV. Kneller maintained his position at court after the accession of James II in 1685 and, when William and Mary came to the throne, he and portraitist John Riley became joint Principal Painters to the Crown. Following Riley’s death, Kneller alone retained the position. He was 77 when he died.