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Making it good in 17th century London

Michael Dahl, self-portrait: your typical blond Swede…

Swedish cultural profiles have long had the tradition of leaving their homeland and venturing out in the world. As early as the 17th century, the queen herself abdicated, sick and tired of living in a frozen country on the fringe of everything that went on in the culturally so exciting Europe (And yes, that is a simplification. Queen Kristina had other reasons, such as considering women to lack the temperament required to rule a country – although that sounds mostly as a sad excuse)
Our Kristina was not the only Swede to brave the hazards of unknown foreign lands in pursuit of culture and refinement. Quite a few of those who decided to make it abroad made for London – not so surprising, as to this day most Swedish people are born with an innate anglophile. One such cultural emigré was Michael Dahl, painter of the rich and famous in late 17th century London.
EHFA Anthony_van_Dyck_-_Five_Eldest_Children_of_Charles_I_-_Google_Art_Project
Van Dyck – Charles I’s children. Gorgeous!

Now London already had painters of the rich and famous – a strong tradition of portraiture painting had begun some generations before, exploded with Van Dyck, been further developed by the talented Peter Lely, and in the last few decades of the 17th century, the portraitist de rigeur was Sir Godfrey Kneller – magnificently talented, equally successful. So what could an unknown Swede contribute with?
To start with, a lot of people wanted to have their features committed to canvas. It was the thing to do, if you were rich enough. Kneller could paint until his fingers bled and still there would be a long, long line of irritated would-be-clients demanding he paint them as well.
Secondly, Michael Dahl was a talented young man. He did know how to paint, presenting his subjects in flattering light and hues.
Thirdly, Michael Dahl came well-educated. Sweden might be a backwater, but it had its fair share of nobles who wanted to preserve their countenances for the future, so there was a market for painters. Well, not so much painters in plural as painter in singular. A certain Ehrenstrahl had cornered the more lucrative part of the Swedish portraiture market. And this gentleman happened to be Michael Dahl’s teacher, having taught him since Michael joined his little art school in 1674 at the tender age of fifteen.
As per the passport issued in July of 1682, this is when Michael decided to shake the dust of his motherland from his boots and set off for England – and more specifically London. He detoured via Antwerp, and once in London he first found work with the engraver Robert White.
Sir Godfrey Kneller, selfportrait

Engraving was all nice and dandy, but what Michael wanted was an opportunity to work for Kneller, and soon enough the doors opened to the great man’s ateliers. This is when Michael realised his chosen career had just as much to do with business as with art. The wise artist did not depict the ugly warts in lurid detail, he did his version of photo-shopping, ensuring his paying client ended up pleased with his likeness. Art may require truth, but artists required food, and somehow a compromise had to be found between art’s requirements and a growling tummy…
John Vanbrugh by Kneller. Impressive portrait

Michael obviously found ways of dealing with this conflict. He also made friends with a certain Henry Tilson, and together these two young men set off on a grand European tour – to paint, to live, to flirt with pretty ladies and drink wine. But mostly to paint. Of course. They started off in Paris in 1685. This flirting thing went a bit overboard and Michael was suddenly a married man, his wife a certain Anna Margareta. Was this a happy marriage? No idea – but seeing as Michael took off for Rome, one can assume he wasn’t totally swept off his feet by passion.
Kristina Michael Dahl
Kristina of Sweden by Dahl

In Rome, Michael visited with ex-Queen Kristina. Less of the ex, this rather imposing lady would have told him, insisting on being addressed as if she were still a reigning queen. (Kristina’s life was not all smooth sailing after her abdication. Especially not after she openly converted to the Catholic faith. Did not go down well with the Swedes who were supposed to pay her a most generous pension…) Through Kristina, Michael was able to gain access to the dignitaries of the Vatican – but to be allowed to paint them, our young man had to convert. Which he did, but it is difficult to judge if he ever paid more than lip service to his new faith. Once again, our artist was learning that the artistic soul has to be tempered with a huge dose of pragmatism if the artist aspires to other things than starving in an attic.
Michael Dahl George,_Prince_of_Denmark_by_Michael_Dahl
Prince George, Michael Dahl

By 1689, Michael was back in London. This time, he opened his own studio and entered in open competition with Kneller. However, as stated already at the beginning, there were more who wanted their portraits painted than there were artists capable of doing so, and it didn’t take long for Michael to develop a thriving business. Plus, some years later he hit it off with Prince George (two Scandinavians having a great time in London, I’d guess), and now Dahl was no longer painting various ladies and gents of the nobility, he was also invited to paint Queen Anne – and Prince George. Michael Dahl, people, had arrived.
By now, Michael was more English than Swedish. His marriage to an unknown English woman in 1707 must have tied him further to his adopted country (and as to what happened to wife number one, no idea. Maybe she was so upset by him converting to Catholicism that she left him)
Queen Anne died childless. (And while I am no fan of Queen Anne, for various reasons, I cannot but pity this poor woman who went through so many pregnancies, suffered 12 still births, five live births of which four babies died before two, and then there was her surviving son, the little Duke of Gloucester who died at the age of eleven…) A new dynasty ascended the English throne, and Hanoverian George preferred Sir Godfrey Kneller to Michael Dahl, much to the latter’s irritation.
No one lives forever, and in 1723 Sir Godfrey died. A chance, at last, for Michael to establish himself with the king. Very soon after Kneller’s death, the king sent for Dahl, asking him to paint his grandson, little Prince William, at the time a toddler. Maybe Dahl just couldn’t cope with the idea of trying to paint an active child – he was in his sixties by now. Whatever the case, his reply along the lines that he was not interested in painting the child prior to having painted its parents or grandfather, did not go down well. George I was furious, and Michael Dahl never received another royal request – or a knighthood.
Anthony Van Dyck as per himself.

Michael Dahl died in 1743. At the time of his death, he had become firmly entrenched as yet another member of the famous English Portrait Painters – no matter that he was Swedish. But then Anthony van Dyck was a red-haired Dutchman, Peter Lely was just as Dutch if not as red-haired, and Godfrey Kneller was German. That proud English tradition, it seems, was built by aspiring foreigners, men who came to England, fell in love with what they found, and stayed there. Can’t say I blame them…

3 thoughts on “Making it good in 17th century London”

  1. Lovely piece, Anna. and it’s good to know more about Michael Dahl. He certainly seems to have grasped the wisdom of painting portraits which truly celebrate their subjects, rather than depict unflattering ‘truths’. (I’ve just read Rick Gekoski’s intriguing and provocative essay about Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill – the one that Lady Churchill arranged to have destroyed – so this theme is much in my mind).
    It occurs to me, re Swedes coming to Britain in search of renown, that there was some two way traffic. I’m thinking particularly of Thomas Telford’s work of the early nineteenth century on the Gotha Canal. As far as I can judge, Telford liked his time in Sweden very much. The Swedish King went so far as to give him a knighthood – which he ignored. But his friendship with the canal’s lead promoter Count Baltazar von Platen ended only on von Platen’s death.

  2. I love it when I learn something new – thank you for this interesting comment! And yes, now and then intrepid Englishmen have “made good” in Sweden, but I do believe the traffic has mostly been the other way :)

  3. Pingback: History A'la Carte 1-21-16 - Random Bits of Fascination

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