Henry Capel, later Baron Capel of Tewkesbury (1638 – 1696)

Cornelius Johnson and Studio
(1593 – 1661)

Henry Capel, later Baron Capel of Tewkesbury (1638 – 1696)

Painted circa 1640

Oil on canvas, in its original carved and gilded ‘Johnson’ frame.: 21 x 24 ½ in. (53.4 x 61 cm.)



Likely commissioned by Arthur Capel, 1st Baron Capel of Hadham (1604 – 1649), and his wife Elizabeth, Lady Capel (d. 1661);

presumably by descent at Cassiobury Park, until the 1920s;

Mary Benedict ‘Minnie’ Astor (1906 – 1978) by 1926 (according to an old storage label, Lenygon & Morant Ltd., 31 Old Burlington Street, London);

Roberta Brooke Astor (1902 – 2007);

Private collection, New York until 2017.

Our portrait of the one-year-old Henry Capel, derives from Cornelius Johnson’s impressive group portrait of the entire Capel family (now at the National Portrait Gallery, London), where he sits on his mother’s knee, as his sister hands him a pink rose from a basket. In our portrait however, we see baby Henry seated at a table draped in an expensive ‘Turkey’ rug, tied by his ‘leading strings’ to a chair. He reaches for pink roses on the table, with outstretched arms and the same quizzical look towards the viewer as in the group portrait. It was a well-established practice for patrons to commission autograph replicas of their portraits for close acquaintances or other members of their family, and it was a service Johnson was accustomed to providing. Our painting of the young Henry could be such a piece.[1] It is also possible that it was a preparatory study painted from life by Johnson, and later worked up by the artist’s studio.

The pictorial device of a rose is significant in both paintings. As well as showing Johnson’s delicate technique and skill as an artist, alluding to Henry’s youth and innocence, the roses are a direct reference to the family’s dedication to nature and gardens. The Capels were one of the greatest gardening dynasties of this period. Henry’s mother, Elizabeth, was the only daughter and sole heiress of Sir Charles Morrison (1587 – 1628), whose estate and lauded garden at Cassiobury in Watford, she inherited. As in the family group portrait by Johnson, in this portrait of baby Henry we see a verdant garden beyond, presumably of their home, Little Hadham, in Essex.[2]

As an adult, Henry Capel designed an exotic garden at Kew where he built two ambitious greenhouses – one for oranges, the other for myrtles. It was through his marriage in 1659 to Dorothy Benet, (daughter of Richard Benet of Kew), that Kew Palace, known as Capel House, came into the Capel family. Henry’s garden would later become the site and nucleus of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Notably, Henry was painted by Sir Peter Lely on the occasion of his marriage to Dorothy. It hung in the library of Cassiobury Park until it was sold in the estate sale of 1922, and now graces the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.[3]  

Henry’s eldest brother, Arthur Capel, 1st Earl of Essex (1631 – 1683), likewise portrayed in Johnson’s group portrait of the Capels, was also an influential gardener, extensively re-modeling their grandfather’s impressive garden at Cassiobury. Their sister, Elizabeth (1633 – 1678), (presenting a rose to baby Henry in the group portrait), married Lord Herbert, 2nd Earl of Carnarvon, and became a talented botanical artist,[4] and their other depicted sister, Mary Capel (1630 – 1715), married Henry Somerset, 1st Duke of Beaufort, becoming a distinguished horticulturalist, gardener and plant collector in her own right.

Johnson’s commission by the Capel family was not insignificant. Arthur Capel, 1st Baron Capel of Hadham (1604 – 1649), and his wife Elizabeth, Lady Capel (d. 1661), were devoted royalists. They would have commissioned Johnson knowing the artist’s connection to Charles I, as among his royal ‘servants in ordinary of the chamber’. The resulting group portrait of the Capels can be seen as Johnson’s direct response to van Dyck’s ‘Greate Peece’ of the royal family, (Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two Eldest Children, 1632, Royal Collection). There is no doubting that the similarity of the composition was a purposeful homage.

Retrospectively, the Capel family portrait represents the peak and end of Johnson’s British career, but also the end of the Capel family’s life as they knew it. Following the death of Van Dyck in 1641, and with the outbreak of Civil War in 1642, Johnson moved with his family to Holland, never to return to England again. Meanwhile, Arthur Capel was raised to the peerage in 1641, but his fortune swiftly fell with that of the king, and both were beheaded in 1649.

The Capel children saw their luck return with the eventual restoration of the monarchy. Henry became a politician who sat in the House of Commons between 1660 and 1692 as MP for Tewkesbury and later Cockermouth. He was a member of the English Privy Council from 27 April 1679 to 31 January 1680, and was First Lord of the Admiralty for the same period, and invested again as Privy Councillor in 1689. He was enobled as Baron Capell of Tewkesbury in 1692, becoming Lord Justice of Ireland and Privy Councillor of Ireland in 1693, and Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1695 and 1696. He died aged fifty-eight in Chapelizod, County Dublin, and was buried on 8 September 1696 in Little Hadham, Hertfordshire, where he had spent his childhood in the family seat, playing in the garden so carefully portrayed in Johnson’s group portrait.

Although the early provenance of the present portrait is unknown, it comes more recently from the illustrious collection of the philanthropic and multi-millionaire Astor dynasty. First recorded in the 1926 as part of the collection of ‘Mrs Vincent Astor’, Minnie Astor née Cushing was a prominent American socialite and art collector, and the second wife of Vincent Astor, son of John Jacob Astor IV and great-grandson of America’s first multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor. It then passed, presumably through Vincent, to his third wife, philanthropist and writer, Roberta Brooke Astor, née Russell (1902 – 2007). Brooke Astor was in her own right a prolific collector and patron of the arts.


We are grateful to Karen Hearn for her assistance in researching this painting.



The National and Professional Identities of Cornelius Johnson’, (abridged), by Karen Hearn ~

Cornelius Johnson was born in London, the son of Flemish émigrés whose family originated from Cologne. His parents were part of the great influx of Protestants from the Netherlands who fled religious persecution following the Spanish conquest of Flanders and the fall of Antwerp. All Johnson’s known works are portraits. He worked on every scale, from the tiny oval miniature to the full-length and even the large group portrait. Although he constantly and subtly modified the manner in which he presented his sitters, his paintings are generally recognisably his.[5] There is a meticulous precision in the handling of jewellery and of dress that were such signifiers of rank and wealth.       

Although he may also have received some training in London, Johnson is thought to have learned much of his craft in the northern (largely Protestant) Netherlands, perhaps in the Delft workshop of Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt (1566 – 1641) or with Jan Anthonisz van Ravesteyn (c.1572 – 1657) at The Hague. When he returned to London, presumably in late 1618 (we know that he witnessed a family baptism there in January 1619), the market there was still principally one for portraits.

In 1622, when Johnson married Elizabeth Beck (or Beek), herself from a Dutch migrant family based in Colchester, he was living in the London parish of St. Ann, Blackfriars.  Blackfriars was popular with immigrant craftsmen of many different trades, because it was outside the jurisdiction of the guilds of the City of London.

Throughout the 1620s, Johnson was clearly extremely busy, producing portraits for an increasingly important client base.  He must have begun to run a workshop, with assistants, although we know nothing about how this operated.[6] In 1631, he painted a full-length portrait of Charles I,[7] and on 5 December 1632 Johnson was appointed Charles I’s ‘servant in ye quality of Picture Drawer’. However, earlier the same year, Anthony van Dyck had arrived in London and had also begun to work for Charles I, who had appointed him ‘principalle Paynter in Ordinary to their Majesties’. As Charles’s official painter, van Dyck was, of course, expected to settle there.

A 1626 document had recorded Johnson’s Blackfriars residence as ‘Goeinge downe to the Waterside’. It was therefore probably close to the house with a garden that was also on the Thames at Blackfriars, that Charles I would provide for van Dyck.  In 1635, £20 was spent on making ‘ … a new Cawsey way [10 foot broad] and a new paire of Staires …’ up into van Dyck’s garden there, so that the King could go ashore from the royal barge ‘ …to see his Paintings in the monethes of Iune and Iuly 1635’.  So, the two painters must have been near neighbours.

In 1634 the Heralds at the College of Arms in London confirmed that Johnson was entitled to use a coat of arms – indicating that he was a man of some status. They did this by registering a five-generation pedigree, which Johnson must have submitted to them,[8] and which named his great-grandfather as 'Peter Johnson of Cullen' - that is, ‘of Cologne’. Johnson’s Cologne ancestry is significant, because, as mentioned above, later in life, he would choose to word the signature that he inscribed on his paintings ‘Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen’ – which means, in Dutch, ‘from Cologne’. 

However socially and professionally ambitious Johnson may have been, the overwhelming success of his Blackfriars neighbour must have presented him with a considerable challenge. Indeed, during the 1630s, Johnson can sometimes be seen discreetly adopting and adapting van Dyckian compositions and postures in his own work.

In fact, Johnson seems to have received only a few commissions from Charles I himself – and these were generally for small-scale images. It appears that Johnson may even have developed this format principally for the royal family. Some of these were actually miniature copies after works by van Dyck. They include two near-identical small paintings on copper which replicate the figure of the infant Charles II  from van Dyck's enormous 1632 portrait of Charles I and his queen Henrietta Maria and their two eldest children (referred to in an early document as the 'Greate Peece'). The prince is depicted in a dress, as was customary at this period for little boys, who were not put into breeches until the age of six or seven.   Presumably Charles commissioned these little paintings to be given as gifts.

Johnson also painted three minutely detailed tiny full-length portraits, on oak panels, of Charles I’s three eldest children. Each child is placed in front of a carefully chosen open-air scene.  Thus, behind Charles, Prince of Wales we see a military exercise in progress. Behind little James, Duke of York, who holds a pistol, a hunt is visible; while behind Princess Mary there is a garden with a fountain. These works, too, were documented in Charles’s collection.  All three are signed and dated 1639, so Johnson was obviously still working for the King then - indeed, in 1641 he was officially listed among the ‘King's servants in ordinary of the chamber’.

During the 1630s, Johnson clearly also had a number of clients from east Kent.  More than a century later, the engraver George Vertue would write that Johnson actually went to live there.  Vertue’s source was Johnson’s great-nephew, a little-known British painter called Anthony Roussel (c.1663 – 1743).[9]  Vertue wrote that Johnson ‘lived sometime in Kent … [and] painted pictures for several Gent. Familyes thereabouts – Augers  Palmers. Hammond. & Bowyers &c. done mostly in the years 1630 & to 40’.  Of these, Vertue singled out for especial praise ‘a Curious fine head of Sir Thomas Bowyer and the Lady Auger Bowyer. Called the Starr in the East for her remarkable beauty.’ A portrait of 1633, which is now in the Government Art Collection, seems to be Johnson’s painting of Lady Bowyer.

Johnson was clearly always aware of the commercial need to be flexible. He offered portraits on every scale - including miniatures.  He was adept at responding to external influences and changes, including major setbacks like the arrival of van Dyck in London. He was perpetually modifying the manner in which he presented his sitters.  He was prepared to collaborate with other artists and to make versions of other artists’ works, including those of his famous neighbour, van Dyck.  He used a carefully chosen, controlled range of poses. Perhaps as a response to van Dyck’s metropolitan success, he also developed a regional clientele away from the Court, in Kent. 

Van Dyck died in December 1641, which should have re-opened opportunities for the artists in London whom he had elbowed aside.  However, the political situation was deteriorating, and the King and Court left London early in 1642. With the outbreak of war, he had the resourcefulness to leave the country into which his migrant family had assimilated, and move to the northern netherlands. At his death in Utrecht in 1661, he was a pillar of his community and a prosperous man.


[1] Interestingly, there is also a bust-length portrait of Elizabeth, Lady Capel, in the collection of Clarendon Hall, that Karen Hearn suggests is most likely the hand of Johnson.

[2] In the NPG’s group portrait of the family by Johnson, the garden has a formal, geometric design, embellished with fountains and a terrace on which one can just make out pots containing tulips, then both fashionable and expensive.

[3] In addition to the portrait of Henry's sisters, the Metropolitan Museum owns a third work from the Cassiobury Park library: George Capel, Viscount Malden, and Lady Elizabeth Capel by Reynolds.

[4] One of Elizabeth’s paintings survives in the Royal Collection today, while Sir Peter Lely’s later portrait of her with her sister Mary, shows her holding one of her own works.

[6] In January 1625, Johnson took on John Evoms.as an apprentice, and in April 1638 another (unnamed) apprentice joined him. According to George Vertue, Johnson’s nephew Theodore Roussel worked with him for nine years; see Hearn 2015, op cit, pp.17, 18, 45.

[7] Reproduced in Hearn, 2015, fig 15, p.25; it was a near-replica of the portrait type of the king being produced during these years by Charles’s official portraitist, the migrant Dutchman, Daniel Mytens.

[8] Reproduced in Hearn, 2015, fig.2, p.9.

[9] Anthony had, however, been born two years after Johnson’s death, and there seem to be problems with some of his evidence.