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.
Peter Lely was born in Westphalia in Germany. He studied in Haarlem under Pieter de Grebber, becoming a Master of the Haarlem Guild in 1637. He relocated to England in 1641, where he succeeded Sir Antony Van Dyck as Principal Painter to Charles II. Lely presided over a large studio and employed several assistants. He frequently painted only the head of the sitter himself, before passing the work to an assistant to complete. The work of his assistants is often mistakenly attributed to Lely himself. He was knighted in 1680, shortly before his death that year. At the time of his death, over 100 canvases remained in his studio, many copies executed by assistants. His assistants also produced independent work in the style of their master.
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