Nicholas Dixon (fl. 1660 – 1708)
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, James had become one of the most prominent figures of the libertine court of Charles II (1630-1685).
This portrait by Nicholas Dixon shows James, Duke of York, in the guise of Lord High Admiral, a position he held from 1660-1673. Dressed in full armour, over which is tied the sash of the order of the garter, James here looks an epitome of martial bravery and, as such, provides a slightly different image of James to that with which we are more used to seeing...
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, James had become one of the most prominent figures of the libertine court of Charles II (1630-1685). His reputation as a womaniser – which paid no regard to his wife, Anne Hyde (1637-1671) – was such that it impressed even his brother Charles II, himself hardly a model of princely abstinence. Speaking with the French ambassador in 1677, Charles confided in him that ‘I do not believe that there are two men who love women more than you and I do […] but my brother, devout as he is, loves them still more’. In the view of an earlier Venetian observer, ‘the prince applies himself but little to the affairs of the country and attends to nothing but his pleasures’. Other than philandering, hunting was James’s favourite pursuit and he gave much money to the keeping of horses and hounds. As heir to the throne, James was entitled to a miniature court of his own; this he ran with characteristic excess, to the point that his servants struggled to control them. Aside from James, the chief culprit in this over-expenditure was his wife, Anne, who perhaps felt that it was more than she was owed given James’s serial disloyalty.
Nevertheless, James was a dedicated servant to the Admiralty – certainly, if Samuel Pepys’s (1633-1703) account is to be trusted – and was personally courageous. Indeed, the present work, which was executed around the year 1665, shows him at the height of his bravery. During the Second Dutch War of 1664-1667, James made a point of placing himself at the forefront of the action (and so fulfilling his nominal duties as admiral of the fleet), serving on board the Royal Charles at the Battle of Lowestoft in July 1665. So close was James to the fighting during this particular action that when Charles Berkeley, Earl of Falmouth, was killed onboard his ship, James was left spattered with blood.
However, James’s bravery did not translate into political ability. By the end of the 1660s, he had converted to Roman Catholicism and soon refused to attend Anglican services. With Charles unable to sire a legitimate heir, public fears began to mount that James would return England to Catholicism. Ultimately, attempts to exclude James from the succession failed so that in 1685 he inherited the throne. As king, however, he did nothing to allay the mistrust of many of his subjects, who were still raw from the bitter divisions of the Civil War years, by promoting Catholics in office in a manner that many perceived as being tyrannous. Eventually James went too far, causing Protestant parliamentarians to invite William, Prince of Orange, to become King of England in 1688, in what became known as the Glorious Revolution. Following his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, James spent the remainder of his life in exile as a pretender to a throne that he had rightfully inherited and had, by his own actions, lost.
Little is known about the miniaturist Nicholas Dixon. Over the course of the 1660s, he had evidently secured a considerable reputation for himself for he had painted the royal family – as here – and was in 1673 appointed as the king’s limner, succeeding Richard Gibson. That Dixon was able to inherit this post in the face of opposition from talented young artists of the likes of Peter Cross is a testament to his abilities and shows that he was seen by many as the natural successor to Samuel Cooper, by whom he had likely been trained. Dixon left his post in 1678, perhaps because he had grown tired of its demands, and in the following years continued to develop his painterly style. He seems to have encountered financial difficulties, in 1698 holding a lottery of miniature copies of the old masters that he had painted. This seems to have failed, for he was forced to mortgage the collection to John Holles, Duke of Newcastle.
 W. A. Speck, ‘James II and VII (1633-1701)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2009) [online edn. [accessed 19th June 2019].