Pastores, hedera nascentem ornate poetam,
Arcades, inuidia rumpantur ut ilia Codre
'Arcadian shepherds, adorn with ivy your poet as he grows, so that the lions of Codrus may burst with envy'
Virgil Eclogue 7.25 (spoken by Thyrsis)
The collection of quotations in the sculpted cartouche by celebrated ancient poets, including Virgil, Horace, Martial and Ovid, referring to poetic garlands, together with the laurel leaf motif in the border, indicate that this portrait was painted in celebration of Dryden's appointment as Poet Laureate by King Charles II in 1668. The central motto states boldly Par omnibus Vnus - 'One [poet] a match for [them] all'.
A gifted poet, playwright, literary critic and translator, John Dryden dominated the literary world of Restoration England. Dryden had worked with Cromwell's Secretary of State, John Thurloe, during The Protectorate, and had written a eulogy on Cromwell's death, Heroique Stanzas, in 1658. However, after the Restoration, he quickly transferred his allegiances to the new government. His main source of income during the 1660s and 1670s was theatrical writing. In 1667, he published Annus Mirabilis, a lengthy historical poem describing the events of 1666; the English defeat of the Dutch naval fleet and the Great Fire of London. This modern epic helped establish him as the pre-eminent poet of his generation and was crucial in his obtaining the appointment of Poet Laureate in 1668. In that same year, Dryden signed a contract with the King's Company to write three plays a year in return for a share of the profits and, two years later, was appointed historiographer royal. Dryden was painted later in life by Sir Godfrey Kneller (in 1693 and 1698) and James Maubert (in circa 1695) (London, National Portrait Gallery).
Having studied in Rome during the 1640s and early 1650s, John Michael Wright established a thriving practice as a portrait artist on his return to London from Dunkirk in 1656. He painted Oliver Cromwell's favourite daughter, Elizabeth Claypole as Minerva (London, National Portrait Gallery), in 1658. As a Catholic, however, Wright was enthusiastic about the return of the Stuarts in 1660 and soon received royal patronage in a commission to paint the ceiling of Charles II's bedchamber at Whitehall.
This painting was sold at Christie's in 1908 as part of 'The Collection of Historical Portraits removed from West Horsley Place', which included portraits of Sir Walter Raleigh and Nell Gwynne, mistress to Charles II. Purchased by Sir Anthony Browne in 1547, the house, whose early 17th century brick front conceals a medieval timber-framed structure, was occupied by a sequence of prominent figures, including three Lords Montagu of Cowdray, Carew Raleigh (Sir Walter Raleigh's son), Sir Edward Nicholas (Charles I's Secretary of State) and, more recently, The Marquess of Crewe.
We are grateful to Dr. R.E.C. Shorrock for his assistance in deciphering the Latin inscriptions on the sculpted cartouche and for highlighting their significance in the context of this portrait.