Little is known of the life and artistic career of John Weesop. The information in this note is drawn from Sir Oliver Millar's recent article which has reestablished his artistic personality.
The diarist George Vertue recorded in a notebook, assembled between 1713 and 1721, the legend, transmitted to him by 'Sykes' (presumably the painter William Sykes), that a painter called 'Wesop' or 'Weesep' had come to England in 1641 'in the time of Vandyke' and had remained until 1649 and that his pictures 'pass for Vandyke' ('Vertue Note Books', I, Walpole Society, XVIII, 1929-30, p. 49). However, in February 1723, Vertue also found a reference in the Register of Burials in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields to the burial of a John Weesop 'at Westminster' in 1652. Sir Oliver Millar has shown that further evidence of the artist's life is provided by the Rate Books for the Parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields which record a man called 'Mr. Wessopp', and a variant 'Mr. Wisop', living in Bridges Street, Covent Garden, in 1651 and a 'Mr. John Weesop' living in St. Martin's Lane, on the West side, in 1652 and 1653. The same rate books also record a 'Mrs Weesop' living nearby, in Duke's Yard, in 1653 where she was still living in May 1654, which as Sir Oliver Millar notes is 'not easy to reconcile with Sykes' statement that Weesop left England in 1649', although 'this had already been thrown into question by Vertue's note of the burial of John Weesop in London in 1652, which is slightly inconsistent with the rate-book evidence' (op.cit., p. 625).
Early inventory references allow Weesop's name to be attached confidently to four pictures, on the basis of which Sir Oliver Millar has identified a small group of other portraits by the same artist which he believes are 'palpably by one hand' and show Weesop to have been a 'painter of some distinction and marked individuality', although 'not a hand that would pass for Van Dyke' as Sykes had suggested (op.cit., p. 625). These early inventory references are the 'Estimate' of pictures at Ham House, drawn up circa 1679 (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Art Library, MS HH 1 1974) and the list, in the archives at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, of pictures lent in 1730 by the 3rd Earl of Cardigan to his son Lord Brudenell. The 'Estimate' of the pictures at Ham includes, as no. 179, a portrait of 'The Dutchess of Lauderdale, of Wesop', valued at £5 (now Tollemache Collection, Ham House, The National Trust; O. Millar, op.cit., p. 625, fig. 37) which Sir Oliver Millar sees as characteristic of the artist's work 'in the softly painted hands, with their tapering fingers, in the short brushed strokes in the head, in the inflated draperies with their rather sharp-edged folds on which the lights are carefully worked and heavily loaded with pigment, and in the individual and unusually rich colour ...'
In the 1730 Cardigan list three pictures are given to Weesop; 'Two children & a Dog by Weessop' (no. 18); 'Lord Grandison & Mr. Villiers, by Weesopp' (no. 19); and 'Lady Sussex & three Children by Weessop' (no. 3) (O. Millar, op. cit., respectively figs. 40, 42 and 48).
The present portrait is particularly close in stylistic terms to the double portrait of 'Lord Grandison & Mr. Villiers, by Weessopp' recorded on the Cardigan list, which shows two sons of Sir Edward Villiers, half-brother of the Duke of Buckingham (whose elder brother the 2nd Viscount Grandison, had been mortally wounded at the siege of Bristol on 24th July 1643) at three-quarter-length, in military dress (The Duke of Buccleuch, K. T., on loan to the Government Art Collection; fig. 1). Sir Oliver Millar comparing the present portrait with the Grandison portrait comments:
'The husband's military dress and pose are practically identical with those of the older Grandison brother. The two figures are set against a loosely handled backcloth of trees and a stormy sky ... The heads are, again, very carefully painted, with generous use of pigment that is noticeable in all the portraits attributable to Weesop; the figures are rather limply drawn; and the colours are striking, especially the man's gold laced sleeves and his companions very strong red dress. By now the weak hands of the startled young wife have almost become a signature.'
The flamboyant composition of this portrait owes a clear debt to van Dyck. Sir Oliver Millar points out that the Grandison double portrait is very closely based on Van Dyck's double portrait of the Earl of Newport and George Goring (now in the Duke Foundation, Rough Point; G. Gluck, Van Dyck. Des Meisters, Gemälde, Stuttgart, 1931, p. 435) although he also notes Weesop's individuality in his approach to the composition of the Grandison portrait:
'Weesop opens the composition out, gives it perhaps a more relaxed air and sets the figures against a rich atmospheric landscape with a little Van Dyckian camp on the right ... Particularly impressive is the handling of the lower right hand corner and the enrichments on the military dress of the figure on the right. Weesop gives to this figure a Dobsonesque flamboyance ...' which he goes on to say clearly links it to the present picture. It was perhaps this quality that led Horace Walpole to confuse the Grandison picture with the work of Dobson when he saw it at Boughton in July 1763 ('Visits to Country Seats, etc', Walpole Society, XVI, 1928, p. 55).
While the identity of the sitters in this portrait is now unknown, it seems clear from those of his portraits where sitters are identifiable, that many of his patrons came from the inner circles of the aristocracy with Royalist sympathies.
Of Weesop Sir Oliver Millar concludes:
'With the qualities he took from Van Dyck and his evocation of a slightly Dobson-like mood, in addition to his own not inconsiderable, if rather limited, abilities - chiefly evident perhaps in his idiosyncratic range of colour - he could for a brief period have presented something of a challenge to Lely, Hayls or Soest, and clearly enjoyed the patronage of a number of influential patrons.'