Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)

(Updated May 2023) A half-length portrait to right in blue and orange gown and brown full-bottomed wig. The sitter was one of the most celebrated and notorious political pamphleteers of the late 17th century and the first quarter of the 18th century. His output was prodigious although his only widely remember novel - of which he wrote five - is ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (1719), perhaps followed by 'Moll Flanders'. The former has been criticised as a defence of slavery, in terms of Crusoe's relationship with 'Man Friday', but that says more about the largely modern attitudes of those doing so rather than Defoe in the context of his time: it has never been out of print and its influence on other 'castaway' narratives on paper and in film (including science-fiction versions) has been continuous across two centuries. Other works still of modern interest include his 'Tour through the Island of Great Britain', and a notable account of the Great Storm of 1703: the 'History of the Pirates' (1724) by the mysterious 'Captain Johnson' - never satisfactorily identified - has also been attributed to him. Athough from a prosperous background and in early in life an astute businessman, Defoe had a controversial career, including being bankrupted and imprisoned. His writing - as a pioneering journalist, political propagandist and otherwise - was originally from his need to find alternative sources of income, and though he made a great deal at times he died pursued by lawsuits and creditors.

The portrait was purchased for the Museum at Christie's by Sir James Caird on 8 April 1934, already identified as Defoe but solely on tradition and perceived likeness to engravings of him, especially one by van der Gucht after Taverner (see PAF3335), though that shows him younger. The Kneller attribution appears to have originated with Jasper C. Laud, an antiquarian of Northenden, near Manchester, in a letter to the journal 'Notes & Queries' (17 June 1882), who had an interest in selling it. Some time afterwards he did so to John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847-1900) and it was noted as in his possession at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute in Thomas Wright's 1894 biography of Defoe, which reproduces the Taverner / van der Gucht print. An old inscription in French found on the back in 1991 gives the sitter as the Dutch flower painter Jan van Huysum (1682-1749) but investigations made then did not convincingly support this.

Object Details

ID: BHC2648
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: style of Sir Godfrey Kneller
Date made: 17th-18th century
People: Defoe, Daniel
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Painting: 762 mm x 635 mm; Frame: 832 mm x 715 mm x 105 mm; Weight: 12.0kg;

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