John Michael Wright (1617-94)
The friends Dillon made at court encouraged him to participate in gambling which soon led to fights, and Roscommon became renowned as a successful duellist...
This striking example of Wright’s richly elaborate court portraiture represents Wentworth Dillon, a prominent Irish literary figure active in post-Restoration England. He was a strong advocate of learned writing in response to the ‘undignified’ approach adopted by some of his contemporaries, following the return of the more liberally-minded Charles II in 1660.
Dillon was born in Dublin to James Dillon, 3rd Earl of Roscommon and was the nephew and namesake of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. Although little reliable information is available regarding Dillon’s early life, he was sent to Caen in Normandy, to be educated under the guidance of the celebrated Huguenot scholar, Samuel Bochart. Accompanied by Lord Cavendish, later the Duke of Devonshire, Dillon then travelled through France and Germany before completing his trip in Rome, where he became fluent in Italian.
In 1649, following the death of his father James Dillon, 3rd Earl of Roscommon, Dillon succeeded to the earldom and, following the Restoration, returned to England. The estates, castles and titles previously confiscated from his Royalist ancestors were returned to him and Roscommon became a well-received member of the English court. The new friends that he made encouraged him to participate in gambling, a popular amusement at court, however this soon led to fights and Roscommon became renowned as a successful duellist.
In 1662 Roscommon decided to return to his estates in Ireland and the following year published his first poem – a prologue for Katherine Phillips’s translation of Corneille’s Pompée. Throughout the late 1660s and early 1670s he was engaged in military affairs, raising a regiment in Ireland to fight alongside the French, against the Dutch. In 1679 he returned to writing and published one of his most celebrated works, Horace’s Art of Poetry – an English translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica, and thenceforth spent several productive years as a poet.
He established a literary group in 1682, referred to as the ‘academy’ by Roscommon’s friend Knightley Chetwood; members of this group were George Savile, Marquess of Halifax, Lord Cavendish, Henage Finch and John Dryden, amongst others. Dryden even included Roscommon’s translations of Virgil and Horace in his 1684 miscellany. Roscommon’s most famous poem is the Essay on Translated Verse which is said to have inspired Alexander Pope, paving the way for Augustan literature and for the subsequent translation of the classics. On his death in January 1685, Roscommon was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
John Michael Wright was one of the most successful and stylistically original native English artists of the seventeenth century. Along with earlier contemporaries such as Robert Walker and William Dobson, he was one of only a handful of English painters to find favour amongst the higher echelons of society. Wright made numerous visits to Ireland throughout his career and was frequently patronised by prominent Irish families.