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Nicholas Dixon; Fortune and Failure at the Restoration Court

Fri Jan 20, 2017

By Emma Rutherford

Fig.1. A Noblewoman, wearing a pink gown trimmed with diamonds and pearls, a brown silk sash pinned to her left shoulder, pearl earring, c.1675, by Nicholas Dixon

The sensuous confidence of this lady, who stares imperiously out of the dark background in this portrait miniature painted circa 1675 by Nicholas Dixon, is typical of the nature his output in the later Restoration era [fig.1].

In 1673, Dixon followed his master, Samuel Cooper (1607/8-72) as king’s limner (termed miniculator regis), after a year’s short tenure by the dwarf artist Richard Gibson (b.c.1605/15-90). Dixon’s appointment was probably due to his connection with Cooper, the great artist who by his death was the internationally renowned painter of both regicide and king (treating the two with equally candid veneration).

Dixon’s career was forged in a less troubled world than his master’s had been. The relatively settled and liberal court of Charles II continued to use the portrait miniature as the Elizabethan court had done. The prevailing Protestant monarch and his courtiers made good use of this secular art form as love token, perhaps remembering the importance of such a portable portrait during the king’s long exile abroad. Dixon was therefore obliged, in his role as official court miniaturist, to paint the principal players at court – and this included the mistresses of the king, as well as the monarch’s dangerously ambitious, illegitimate son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth.[1]

A Lady, wearing blue dress with pearl and diamond clasps, a blue robe over her shoulder, further pearls at her neck and pearl earrings

Fig.2. A Lady, wearing blue dress with pearl and diamond clasps, a blue robe over her shoulder, further pearls at her neck and pearl earrings, by Nicholas Dixon [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]

While Dixon’s technique certainly resembles that of Cooper’s, his new sphere of sitters required a more lavish handling and an injection of dazzling colour. The drama of an almost black backdrop allowed bold silk gowns, jewels and robes to sing. This particularly well-preserved example, previously with Philip Mould & Co., shows the intensity of the sitter’s expensive blue cloak against the dark setting [fig.2]. Like his master, Dixon often signed confidently with his initials, although his relative obscurity has led to some confusion with other artists of the period, such as the artist signing ‘DM’ (see Victoria and Albert Museum, EVANS.40).

Fig.3. Henry Rich, Lord Kensington, c.1657, by Sir Peter Lely

Dixon was also obliged to follow the new stylistic traits introduced by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), principal painter to the Stuart monarchy. Lely’s languorous brushstrokes perfectly mirrored the mood of the court. His female sitters, barely covered by their expensive silks, gaze dreamily at the viewer. His male sitters are more stolid; Lely had after all been painting men at war since his arrival in England in 1640 [Fig.3]. Dixon followed this lead, imbuing his female subjects, painted on a slightly larger scale as the 1670s progressed, with the same trancelike qualities found in Lely’s oil paintings. Like Lely, his male sitters were more conventionally portrayed.

Fig.4. Self Portrait, 1640, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]

Dixon had other interests in common with Lely – it can be assumed that the two men knew each other – including an interest in the growing commercial art market. Lely amassed a fine collection of old master paintings and drawings during his time in England, including the last self portrait painted by his predecessor, Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) [fig.4]. Dixon tried his hand at art dealing, Vertue noting that he ‘bought once a picture at a broker’s at a very small price, & sold it to the Duke of Devonshire for £500’.[2] Dixon’s knowledge of art outside the scope of miniature painting came via his appointment as Keeper of the King’s Closet. Here, he would also have seen the beautiful cabinet miniatures painted by Isaac (c.1565-1617) and Peter Oliver (c.1594-1647) after the great Italian masters. This type of miniature [see fig. 5] was highly coveted by Charles I and his circle and treated with the reverence of an old master oil painting. This affected not only their status but their value, with some cabinet miniatures valued equal to their oil counterpart in the sale of the royal collection, held by the Commonwealth after the execution of Charles I.[3]

Fig.5. The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c.1628, by Peter Oliver after Titian [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]

By the 1680s, Dixon had fallen on hard times. His career as court miniaturist was officially terminated in 1678 after a five-year tenure and he was replaced by the dynamic Peter Cross (c.1645-1724). It must have been galling that both men were the same age; Cross’s career considered to be on the ascent whilst Dixon’s showed a marked weakening in his skills. Dixon’s previously secure financial position was in peril.

Fig.6. King Charles II, c.1670, by Nicholas Dixon [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]

As well as dealing in pictures, Dixon looked to other types of painting for income. The previous success of the cabinet miniature appealed in that it would do away with the need for court commissions. The good connections that he has previously established at court could, also, be used to sell the works on the basis of his good name. And, of course, he knew the king’s face well enough to sensitively reproduce it in beautifully painted small portraits [fig. 6]. Optimistically entitled ‘The Hopeful Adventure’, Dixon attempted the popular lottery format in selling these cabinet miniatures. Prospective buyers were encouraged to buy tickets and then a select number would secure the final pieces. The scheme was launched during the mid-1680s, again in 1694 and finally in 1699. It failed at every attempt, with seventy of the cabinet miniatures mortgaged to John Holles, Duke of Newcastle.[4]

Dixon died in penury, his final years spent avoiding debtors and prosecution. The humiliation of such a fall from grace must have been astonishingly painful for Dixon, particularly when his failure was compared to the international success of his master Samuel Cooper. However, although Cooper had worked with his usual aplomb for the early Restoration court, it was perhaps Dixon who had truly caught the tone of the era ‘in little’, his life unfairly blighted by financial blunders and an inability to maintain the promise of his early career.

[1] Collection of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry

[2] ‘Vertue Note Books Volume 4’, in The Walpole Society, vol. 24, 1935-6 (Oxford 1936), p.193

[3] Fig. 5 shows a cabinet miniature by Peter Oliver that may have been the version owned by Charles I (it is one of two extant versions, the other being in the Victoria and Albert Museum, P.740-1882). At the sale of ‘The Late King’s Goods’, this cabinet miniature, then titled ‘The Egipitian Madona after Tytian’ sold for £50 – the same sum as the original oil painting by Titian from which it had been copied. See, ‘The Inventories and Valuations of the King’s Goods 1649-1651’ in The Walpole Society, vol, 43, 1970-72 (Oxford), p. 256

[4] Thirty of these miniatures remain in the collection at Welbeck today