Sir Willoughby Aston, 2nd Bt. (1640 – 1702), of Aston Hall, Aston-by-Sutton, Cheshire, in a capriccio landscape

Studio of: John Michael Wright
1617 – 1694

Sir Willoughby Aston, 2nd Bt. (1640 – 1702), of Aston Hall, Aston-by-Sutton, Cheshire, in a capriccio landscape

Painted circa 1655-58

Oil on canvas: 50 x 40 inches, 127 x 101.6 cm

Provenance

  • By descent within the Aston family; with Thomas Agnew, ‘Late Agnew and Zanetti’, 18 Exchange Street, London, by the mid-19th century (according to an old label on the stretcher); with Old Bond Street Galleries, Piccadilly, & Liverpool Exchange Art Gallery, Dale Street, by the late 19th Century (according to an old label on the stretcher); The Dulin Gallery of Art collection (predecessor to the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee, later de-accessioned in the 20th Century ; Private collection, Knoxville, Tennessee until 2013.

This quintessential Baroque portrait, highly influenced by the work of both Sir Peter Lely and his chief rival John Michael Wright, depicts our young man seated in a rocky capriccio landscape, dressed in a classical costume of a richly flowing brown satin. His head rests upon his hand, evoking a wistful, melancholic romanticism that is further emphasised by the rich tones and soft brushstrokes of his costume and the landscape beyond. It reflects the general mood and aesthetic escapism of the early Restoration period, which followed the strictures endured during the English Civil War. [1]

The Aston family were one of the pre-eminent Cheshire families: the Aston Baronetcy was created by King Charles I on 25 July 1628 for the sitter’s father, Thomas Aston, High Sheriff and later MP for Cheshire.[2] Their seat was Aston Hall, Aston-by-Sutton, demolished in 1938. Thomas Aston 1st Bt. was painted by the prominent Cheshire portraitist, John Souch (c.1593 – 1645), in 1635, on the deathbed of his first wife, Magdalene Poulteney, now in the Manchester Galleries’ collection.[3] Sir Thomas married secondly Anne Willoughby, our sitter’s mother, in 1639, and it appears that he was named after his maternal grandfather, Sir Henry Willoughby, 1st Bt. This is the earliest known portrait of Sir Willoughby Aston, most likely commissioned when he attained his majority, his father having died when he was six.[4] He married Mary (1649 – 1711), the daughter of John Offley of Madley, Staffordshire, and they had eight sons and thirteen daughters.[5] Unlike his father, Sir Willoughby did not enter politics, preferring instead to manage his estates and act as High Sheriff of Cheshire for the years 1680 – 1681 and 1690 – 1691. He was an enthusiastic diarist from the years 1680 – 1702 and his diaries still survive, dealing mainly with the sitter’s domestic and county affairs in some detail.[6]

Born in London in 1617, John Michael Wright trained in Edinburgh with the eminent Scottish portraitist George Jamesone. When civil war broke out Wright, a Catholic, moved to Rome, becoming the first British painter to enter the prestigious Accademia di S. Luca in 1648. He returned to England in 1656, after an interlude as antiquary to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, and was quickly in demand for his portraits, particularly amongst fellow Catholics. Appointed Charles II’s ‘Picture Drawer’ in 1673, his future seemed assured. However, the anti-Catholic fervour surrounding the events of the Popish Plot, 1678, saw all Catholics exiled from London, and Wright travelled to Ireland, where he stayed until the death of Charles II in 1685. The patronage of the Catholic James II allowed Wright to regain his former position and in 1685 he accompanied an embassy from James II to Pope Innocent XI, writing an account of it published in 1687. His style bears similarities to that of his great rival Sir Peter Lely, but there is in his portraits a leaning towards individualisation and naturalism sometimes missing with the glamorous Lely.

 

[1] Strong (p65) notes that a melancholic humour was seen as a desirable attribute “being an indication of intellectual prowess in scholarship, philosophy and poetry.” Ref: Strong, R. (1969) The Elizabethan Image. Paintings in England 1540-1620. Exhibition catalogue: Tate Gallery, London

[2] The title became extant in 1815 when Sir Willoughby Aston, 6th baronet, died childless leaving his sisters as heirs.

[3] Their two sons and two daughters all died young.

[4] Also surviving is a portrait of the sitter’s sister, Magdalen Aston, Lady Burdett, painted by John Michael Wright and now in the collection of the Nottingham City Museums and Galleries.

[5] Ormerod, The History of the County Palatine and City of Chester, vol. 1 pt. 2 p. 726

[6] The folio volumes of his diaries from 1680 – 1702, bound in vellum, were purchased by the Liverpool Record Office and Local History Service in 1927, from a General Talbot, through Mr. R.H. Linaker. A description of the diaries, with biographical notes and extracts, can be found in The Cheshire Sheaf, 3rd. series, v. 24 (1927), p. 59.

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