14. Portrait of President Peter Mews, copy after Michael Dahl

by Dr Georgy Kantor – 22 October 2020
Dr Georgy Kantor introduces us to the portrait of a former President with a particularly varied life
President Peter Mews.jpg Portrait of President Peter Mews, copy after Michael Dahl, H 72.4 x W 59.7 cm, oil on canvas

The sitter of this portrait (one of the two we have of him), our President Peter Mews (1619-1716), played an important role both in College’s seventeenth-century history and in national politics. He matriculated as a scholar in 1637, was President in 1667-1673 (and Vice Chancellor in 1669-73), from which he moved on to become bishop of Bath & Wells in 1673-84 and then of Winchester in 1684-1706. He led probably the most varied, and even adventurous, life of all our Presidents to-date. He fought and was taken prisoner at Naseby as Captain Mews on the royalist side, been a spy for the exiled Charles II during the Protectorate years, and in 1685, when already a bishop, got himself wounded while commanding royalist artillery at Sedgemoor. The wound he received there explains a black patch on his cheek, and he is wearing the robes of the Order of Garter. As President, Mews was a part of a long dynasty going back to William Laud: he married Mary, daughter of President Baylie, who was married to Elizabeth, Laud’s niece. There is a case to be made for Elizabeth Baylie, who died in the Lodgings while Mews was President, being the connecting force between different generations of the seventeenth-century Heads of House, but we’ll save the story of this formidable lady for her own portrait in a later blog.

His scholarly achievement appears less to our credit when viewed from the modern perspective. The best known product of his pen was the Ex-ale-tation of Ale (1671, attacking coffee houses as disloyal, not perhaps a cause likely to attract much support in the 21st-century University), and his Latin oratory ‘on at least one occasion was praised for the appropriateness of what he said’, in that nice turn of phrase that the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has. He did lay aside his political affiliations for the case of academic freedom as the Visitor of Magdalen in James II’s reign, however (which led to him playing a significant role in the politics of 1688-9).

The portrait is first recorded in College in the 1728 catalogue compiled by President Holmes, where it is said to be a ‘Copy after Mr Dahll’ (the suggestion in the 1929 Catalogue of Oxford Portraits by R. Lane Poole that the portrait ‘may well have existed there since the Presidency of the subject’ is clearly wrong, as it was painted after the battle of Sedgemoor, as indeed was our other portrait, which shows the battle in the background). Michael Dahl (1659-1743) was a Swedish portrait painter, who had an extremely successful career in England between 1682-4 and after 1689 – his absence in England in 1684-9 makes the chronology of this portrait interesting, as references to Sedgemoor were not necessarily tactful after the fall of James II, but both Mews and Dahl have found themselves a place under the new regime. Dahl’s career opens a window into an incredibly international world of elite portrait painting of that era. He was born and educated in Stockholm, his teacher, Martin Hannibal, was Hungarian, his fame was made in England, but he also worked at Paris and at Rome, where he was supported by the exiled Swedish Queen Kristina – a pan-European experience to match our own age. ‘A man of great modesty and few words’, as his contemporary George Vertue, whose notebooks are one of the most important sources for British art history of that time, called him, Dahl provided successful competition to Godfrey Kneller as a painter to the British elite. This portrait, a thoughtful observation of an interesting and vividly shrewd man, provides a good glimpse of his manner – and gives us an insight into a fascinating and important moment in this College’s early history.

View the painting on Art UK here

Georgy Kantor 250x250.jpgDr Georgy Kantor, Tutorial Fellow in Ancient History and Keeper of the Pictures