This significant but little-known portrait of Mrs Oliver St. John, which was probably painted about 1636, exemplifies the qualities which ensured van Dyck's success in England.
By the time that van Dyck arrived in England for the second time, in the spring of 1632, more than ten years after he had first visited the Stuart court in London at the invitation of the Earl of Arundel and the Duke of Buckingham, he had established a reputation as one of the most gifted portrait painters in Europe. Reflecting this, his clientele included prominent members of the nobility and members of the great royal families of Europe. Van Dyck's brilliance and the freshness of his style of painting offered King Charles I the possibility of distilling, in supremely elegant visual form, an idealised vision of his political authority as monarch and of recording and reinforcing the splendour of the Stuart dynasty. Knighted by King Charles I and enrolled in his household as 'principal painter in Ordinarie' soon after his arrival in 1632, van Dyck worked in England for much of the rest of his life, although he continued to travel and work on the Continent. Van Dyck's years in London were dominated by commissions from the King and Queen, which resulted in the production of a series of portraits of the royal family which revolutionized court portraiture in England, and which are among his greatest contributions to European painting. While the scale of King Charles I's patronage placed the artist under considerable pressure, van Dyck's virtuosity and appetite for work, as well as the experience he had gained from working in Rubens' Antwerp studio in managing the burden of such patronage, enabled him, alongside his multiple royal commissions, to execute portraits of many of the most prominent figures of the day, many of whom were closely connected to the court.
This portrait was identified as being of 'Lady Pollett' in an inventory of circa 1683 and is evidently of Catherine, third daughter and co-heiress of Horace Vere, 1st Baron Vere of Tilbury (1565 -1635), who first married Oliver St. John (1613- 1638), of Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire, in March 1633 and secondly John, 2nd Baron Poulett (c. 1615-1665), of Hinton St. George, in March 1640. Her father, one of the most effective military commanders of his generation, had particularly distinguished himself fighting for the Protestant cause in the Netherlands in the 1590s and later in defence of the Palatinate against the might of Spain. Her family was well-connected and among her brothers-in-law was the celebrated Parliamentarian General Thomas Fairfax, whose daughter married George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. This portrait is likely to have been painted circa 1636 at the time of her first marriage, and the delicately painted rose that she holds over her stomach is thought likely to allude to her pregnancy. Her first husband's family, which was long established in Wiltshire, was a cadet branch of the St. Johns of Bletsoe, Bedfordshire, and descended from the great fifteenth-century heiress Margaret Beauchamp, through whom they were related by blood to the Tudors. Catherine St. John's father-in-law, Sir John St. John (1585-1648), who was created a baronet in 1611 and was later High Sheriff of Wiltshire, was a staunch Royalist who lost three of his eight sons fighting for the Royal cause in the Civil War, and is now perhaps best known for the remarkable series of monuments and the triptych of his family which he commissioned for the church at Lydiard Tregoze. The sitter's second husband was a Member of Parliament for Somerset and, like her first husband, came from a prominent Royalist family.
With its understated elegance and yet its sense of authority, this portrait shows many of the qualities that defined van Dyck's output in England. The sitter is shown in an interior beside a draped curtain which Oliver Millar (op. cit.) thought 'perhaps unusual' in being 'unaccompanied by any architectural feature'. Millar also noted that 'There are interesting indications of the painter's method: in the painting of the foreground up to the dress and of the background up to, but partly not quite reaching, the edge of the curtain and the far shoulder, and round the far side of the head, which is rather smoothly and carefully painted' commenting that the sitter's dress 'is rich in texture, especially in the handling of the lights'. As Millar also observed, the way in which the sitter's dress falls below her waist and the placing of her left hand is very similar to the same passages in the artist's full-length of Mrs. George Kirke (San Marino, The Huntington Art Gallery), which he dates to circa 1637 and to those in van Dyck's portrait of Isabella, Lady De La Warr (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts), which he dates to circa 1638 (O. Millar, op. cit, pp. 545-6, no. IV 150 and pp. 495-6, no. IV 85).
The picture, which presumably remained in the sitter's possession when she married Lord Poulett (d. 1665), was later in the collection of William Kerr, 1st Earl of Lothian, who in 1667 presented it to the statesman, historian and collector Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674). Clarendon, who had fought on the Royalist side in the English Civil War and went into exile in 1646, was appointed Secretary of State by King Charles II at the Restoration, and later rose to great power as Lord Chancellor. At Clarendon House, which Clarendon built in London to the design of Roger Pratt, he formed an important collection of portraits of 'learned and heroic persons of England' which included, among other notable works, van Dyck's celebrated portrait of James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, with his wife and daughter (New York, Frick Collection). Clarendon had apparently been looking for a portrait such as the present picture for his growing collection and his interest in the picture may also have been stirred by the fact that he was connected to the St. Johns of Lydiard Tregoze through his first wife, Anne, and that the connections provided by the St. John family had helped his early legal career. Lord Tweeddale described to Lothian Lord Clarendon's pleasure in the acquisition: 'He did commend it exceedingly as one of the best ever Vandick did, and said he had taken cair to putt it in good order and streatch it and soe far as could amend where spoil'd. bot it was in his owen hows, and he desir'd me to see it before I went home...' (R.M.G. Wenley, op. cit., p. 37). Bishop Burnet later recorded that when Lady Poulett's grandson, the 1st Earl of Poulett was assembling a gallery of family portraits he 'was a humble petitioner' to Clarendon's sons 'for leave to take a copy of his grandfather and grandmother's portraits (whole lengths drawn by vandike) that had been plundered from Hinton St. George, which was arranged with great difficulty, because it was thought that copies might lessen the value of the originals' (Bishop Burnet, History of his own Time, Oxford, 1833, I, p. 179). In 1683 Clarendon's son Henry Hyde, 2nd Earl of Clarendon, moved to Cornbury, Wiltshire, where this portrait was recorded in an inventory of circa 1683-5. After the death of the 4th Earl of Clarendon in 1753 it was in the part of the collection inherited by the 4th Earl's daughter, Catherine, Duchess of Queensberry and Dover.