John Riley, 1646 - 1691
Portrait of Nathaniel Johnston 1629-1705 in an Academic Gown
Nathaniel Johnston in an Academic Gown
oil on canvas
30 x 25in. (76 x 64 cm.)


Nathaniel Johnston, (bap. 1629?, d. 1705), political theorist and antiquary, was the eldest son of John Johnston (d. 1657) and Elizabeth Hobson, and was the brother of Henry Johnston. John was Scottish and lived for some time at Reedness in Yorkshire; he was also apparently rector of Sutton upon Derwent. Nathaniel (born in 1627 according to the Dictionary of National Biography) was probably the Nathaniel Johnston, son of John Johnston, who was baptized on 9 January 1629 at Whitgift, Yorkshire, which is very close to Reedness. Nathaniel was probably admitted at St Leonard's College, St Andrews, in 1647. In 1653 he married Anne (d. 1681), daughter of Richard Cudworth of Eastfield, Yorkshire, and had four sons, and one daughter, Anne. He was incorporated MA in 1654 at Cambridge, and graduated MD from King's College in 1656. He practised medicine at Pontefract in Yorkshire, but moved to London in 1686, where he at first lived ‘at the iron balcony’ in Leicester Street, by Leicester Fields; Anthony Wood dined here with him in September 1688. He was created a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians by the 1687 charter of James II, being admitted on 12 April that year. In 1686 Johnston made a mark as a political theorist. His 480-page folio The Excellency of Monarchical Government was the last major statement of absolutism prior to the fall of the house of Stuart, a book dedicated to James II and placed ‘at Your Sacred Feet’ (sig. A1r). It was printed at his own charge, and sold for 8s. in sheets and 12s. bound; a manuscript draft survives in the Wellcome Library. Johnston's topics are patriarchalism, the divine origin of government, the evils of democracies and republics, the virtues of princes and hereditary monarchy, the attributes of sovereignty, the duty of non-resistance, and the ‘prognosticks’ of faction and sedition. The book is saturated with erudition, but, unlike the clerical tories, this is chiefly of a classical rather than scriptural kind. Above all, he relies on Aristotle, ‘the Philosopher’, but also Cicero and Tacitus. The classical ideal of citizenship is skilfully moulded into a vision of good magistracy, counsel, and courtiership. Bodin and Lipsius are invoked, as are also English and Scottish absolutists such as John Nalson and Sir George Mackenzie; but absolute though Johnston's monarch is, he repudiates the oriental despotism he identifies with Hobbes, and absorbs the legal constitutional tradition of Bracton, Fortescue, and Coke. The fallen whig leader, the earl of Shaftesbury, is never named; instead Tacitus's story of Sejanus is retold. While most high tories abandoned the crown in defiance of James II's Catholicism, Johnston stuck loyally to the king's cause. In 1687 he published The Assurance of Abbey and other Church Lands, a promise that a Catholic regime would never reclaim the church lands laicized at the Reformation. (It answered a tract by Sir William Coventry which was in turn answered by John Willes.) The next year Johnston issued The King's Visitatorial Powers Asserted, a vindication of the crown's assault on Magdalen College, Oxford. He recounts the affair in every detail, and provides a large tranche of earlier precedents by which university statutes were dispensed by royal mandate, and often at the request of the university itself. These two works were commissioned by the king and published by the king's printer. All this guaranteed Johnston's ruin at the revolution of 1688. From 1693 he was receiving charitable gifts from the earl of Huntingdon in return for newsletters about political affairs in London. In 1695 Ralph Thoresby reported that he had visited ‘poor Dr Johnston, who, by his unhappy circumstances, is little better than buried alive’ (Diary of Ralph Thoresby, 1.301). In the following year Abraham de la Pryme recorded that ‘The doctor is exceeding poor … He has been forced to skulk a great many years, and now he lives privately with the Earl of Peterborough, who maintains him. He dare not let it be openly known where he is’ (Diary of Abraham de la Pryme, 114). Among his friends were the deposed Irish nonjuror bishop William Sheridan and the Jacobite bishop of St David's, Thomas Watson. The marquess of Halifax allowed him access to his library. Johnston's Dear Bargain (c.1690) is one of the most important and most quoted of early Jacobite treatises, a comprehensive indictment of the new Dutch tyranny of William of Orange, its arbitrary acts, its fiscal exactions, its Calvinist indifference to Anglicanism. It predicted ‘a long train of war, famine, want, blood and confusion, entailed upon us and our posterity’ as divine punishment for rebellion (p. 24). Yet it also cleverly played upon ‘country’ hostility to the Williamite court, and the sense of disillusion with the revolution among its supporters. It helped forge a tradition that can legitimately be called ‘whig Jacobite’. From the 1660s Johnston was an indefatigable antiquary. For three decades he collected materials on the history of Yorkshire, most of which he kept at his house at Pontefract, but he never managed to complete the writing of a history, which was to have been modelled on Sir William Dugdale's Warwickshire and Robert Plot's Natural History of Staffordshire. He proposed to write up his ‘antiquities’ parish by parish, describing the owners of estates, their pedigrees and seats, their arms, monuments, and funerary inscriptions. In this project he made extensive use of the manuscripts of Roger Dodsworth. In turn he befriended and encouraged Ralph Thoresby, a Yorkshire antiquary of the next generation; they met in 1682. He wrote, but never published, substantial histories of the earls of Shrewsbury. Johnston's notebooks ran to over 100 volumes. They were described in Catalogi MSS Angliae (1697); Bishop Gibson had access to them in the eighteenth century. Many were lost; some survive, but scattered in several archives. Extensive correspondence is extant: particularly with Thoresby, the earl of Huntingdon, Peter Le Neve, and Thomas Smith. Johnston's interests were scientific too. In the 1670s he corresponded with Martin Lister on such subjects as dissections of animals, bladder stones, mine drainage, sulphur, alum stone, and marcasite. With Thoresby, he also studied coins and medals. Johnston died in London at some point between 17 September 1705, when his will was dated, and 25 September, when it was proved. His will notes that he was of the parish of St Margaret, Westminster, and bequeaths his worldly goods to his son Nathaniel, an oilman of Watling Street. Johnston's Pontefract estate was ordered to be sold by chancery in 1707. Mark Goldie DNB

Artist biography

Riley, John (1646–1691), portrait painter, was born, according to his friend and earliest biographer, Richard Graham, ‘in the City of LondonAnno, 1646’ (Graham, 347). In the second volume of his Note Books George Vertue transcribed Graham's account verbatim, but, in recording further information from Riley's pupil Anthony Russel, he also noted ‘Bishopsgate Church [St Botolph's where] Mr Roily painter [was] buried. His father and mother lived in this parish where he was born’ (Vertue, Note books, 4.43). In his will, Riley calls himself ‘John Riley Junior, Bachelor’ and mentions ‘John Riley Senior his ffather, Jochebed Riley his Mother and Thomas Riley his brother’ (will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/404, sig. 71). Jochebed Riley (d. 11 Jan 1693) was probably Riley's stepmother, since she was apparently only eleven years old at the time of his birth. This record of his parentage confirms that he was not the John Riley, son of the Lancaster herald William Riley (d. 1667), mentioned in a Herald's College manuscript that led James Dallaway in his edition of Horace Walpole'sAnecdotes of Painting in England to identify Riley ‘as one of the several sons of William Riley, Lancaster Herald’ (Walpole, 2.221). This error has subsequently been repeated in the literature concerning Riley. It is conceivable, however, that the herald was Riley's grandfather, and this might explain Riley's later entry into court circles, and how he came to paint the Windsor herald Elias Ashmole twice. But Riley is hardly an uncommon name; and Graham does not mention such a connection.

An early anonymous source states ‘Mr. Hale that Stuttered, used to temper colours for Mr Reyley, that learnt … first of Mr. Fever’ [William Fever, who is totally obscure] (Whinney and Millar, 188, n. 1). Graham says that John Riley ‘was instructed in the first Rudiments of Painting by Mr. Zoust [Gilbert Soest (c.1605–1681)] and Mr. Fuller [Isaac Fuller (1606–1672)] but left them while he was very Young, and began to practise after the Life’ (Graham, 347). There is little trace of Fuller in Riley's work, but much of Soest, a portrait painter from Westphalia, who was probably trained in the Netherlands and worked in London from the 1640s. He was a very accomplished artist who attained a good practice among the gentry and aristocracy. But his unidealized, eccentric, melancholy characterizations of his sitters set him apart from the fashionable, flattering styles, such as that of Sir Peter Lely, favoured in court circles.

That Riley could begin practising ‘very young’ suggests that he had independent wealth, of which there are other indications. In November 1681 Mary Beale saw at the picture restorer Parry Walton ‘the Lady Carnarvons picture H.L. [half length] by Vandyck. in blew satin … lately bought by Mr Riley for 3511 [pounds]’ (Vertue, Note books, 4.175), a large sum at the time. On 15 September 1682 Riley acquired the freedom of the Painter–Stainers' Company of London ‘by redemption’, that is by payment.

Riley, says Graham:

acquir'd no great Reputation, till, upon the Death [30 Nov 1680] of Sir Peter Lely, [Riley's] Friends being desirous that he should succeed that excellent Master in the Favour of King Charles II. engag'd Mr. Chiffinch [William Chiffinch, (c.1602–1688), keeper of the king's jewels and of his majesty's closet] to sit to him for his Picture. (Graham, 347–8)

The portrait (Dulwich Art Gallery), Riley's first-known work, is a bust showing the sitter wearing his own hair. The drapery is Soest-like, if less stylish, and the head has a Soestian gravity, and also a shyness which characterizes Riley's best heads.

With the Chiffinch portrait, says Graham, Riley:

perform'd so well, that the King, upon sight of it, sent for [Riley] and having employ'd him in drawing the Duke of Grafton's Portrait, and soon after his own, took him into his Service, honour'd him with several obliging Testimonies of his Esteem, and withal gave this Character of his Works, that he painted both Inside and Outside. (Graham, 348)

Riley's pupil Thomas Murray (1663–1735) gave a very different account of his master's encounter with the king:

when [Riley] drew King Charles the Seconds picture. when his Majesty look'd at it. & said is this like me. (odds fish) then I'me an ugly fellow. this so much damp't Mr. Roilys spirit that he never coud endure to look at the picture. tho' a Noble man bought it & payd well for it. the King had it not. (Vertue, Note books, 4.28)

Nevertheless, Riley was ‘sworne Painter & Picture drawer in Ordinary’ to the king on 23 April 1681 (Gibson, 214).

Murray also told Vertue that Riley refused to allow even his students to watch him while he was painting ‘from the life’ (Vertue, Note books, 4.28). If sitters criticized his work:

this would mortify him to such a degree that he woud go out of the room & go into an other were his scholars were & vent his passion or uneasiness in til he had eas'd himself & then return to the company. put on an obliging agreable air. (ibid.)

Riley's secrecy contrasted with the practice of Godfrey Kneller, his rival in the 1680s. With his cosmopolitan background, including study with Rembrandt and Bernini, the German was confident and open: ‘he let any body see & be by him—painters or others often or casually any of his scholars’ (Vertue, Note books, 4.29). That Riley practised successfully for a decade as a fashionable London painter shows tenacity of spirit, the more so as he had grave technical deficiencies.

Bainbrigg Buckeridge says that Riley's ‘excellence was confined to a head’ (Buckeridge, 415). Richard Graham also claimed that ‘that which eminently distinguished [Riley] from all hisContemporaries was his peculiar Excellence in a Head; and especially the Colouring part’ (Graham, 348). In addition, wrote Graham, Riley, ‘by studying the Life, rather than following a particular Manner, arriv'd to a pleasant and most agreeable Style of Painting’ (ibid.). Graham's later statement is special pleading, doubtless designed to account for the eclecticism of the designs of the figures in Riley's portraits.

The heads in Riley's bust portraits of men are honest and discerning in character and have an attractive, melancholy reticence. That of John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale(c.1680–82, exh. RA, 1960; priv. coll.) conveys the latent power of this Scottish aristocrat. Elias Ashmole (1687; AM Oxf.), with its cool mauve drapery and silvery-toned hair and face, is a probing study of an aged intellectual. Of the same year, his portrait of Charles II's master of ceremonies, Sir Charles Cotterell (priv. coll.), is a grave yet genial portrayal of an elderly courtier. Like Soest, Riley seldom painted women, but his bust of Lady Verney in widow's weeds (Claydon House, Buckinghamshire) has the dignified simplicity of his best male heads; and his bust of the playwright Aphra Behn, known only from Robert White's engraving, has an engaging shyness.

Riley could not, however, represent convincingly anything more in space than a bust: his larger works all have structural weaknesses. His three-quarter length Scullion (Christ Church, Oxford) is unusual, being a portrait of a servant, and the head is full of character. Yet the poorly drawn figure fits awkwardly into the pictorial space. The three-quarter lengthLady Spencer and Child (1683; ex Sothebys, 10 July 1985) is documented in the sitter's diary as by Riley; its design is a flattened derivation from Soest's Unknown Lady with her Son(ex Christies, 18 March 1949). Other clumsy designs include the three-quarter lengths Charles II (Bodl. Oxf.) and Elias Ashmole (1683; AM Oxf.). Riley's three-quarter length Prince George of Denmark (1687; Royal Collection) is an adaptation of a late design by Lely, but with the head and body awkwardly joined, probably because two painters were involved. Riley recognized his technical weaknesses and hired Jan Baptiste Gaspars (fl. 1641–1692) to paint ‘postures’ (Vertue, Note books, 2.135). (On 25 November 1681 the Painter–Stainers' Company asked Riley and Gaspars to paint a portrait of the duchess of York for them.) Gaspars had painted ‘postures’ for Lely and was also to do so for Kneller. But they, like most artists who ran fashionable studios, still designed their postures, even if they used assistants to help them paint them. However, Riley apparently used his assistants (Gaspars and others) to design as well as paint postures and background settings. This was the case with the Riley–Closterman partnership, involving Riley with one, or perhaps two artists—John Closterman, who came to England with his brother John Baptist Closterman (a much inferior painter) in 1680. Vertue gives a confused account of the ‘partnership’, claiming that it started with Closterman's arrival in England and ‘held about two years only’, yet stating that it was so disadvantageous to Closterman that ‘had not Riley died [in 1691] he [Closterman] might well have been in debt’ (Vertue, Note books, 1.61). Thus Vertue was not clear when the partnership began. Also, because the two Clostermans were thought from the early eighteenth century until 1964 to be one artist, we cannot be certain whether one, or perhaps both, were involved in the partnership.

The three-quarter length portrait of Katherine Elliott (d. 1688) in the Royal Collection is described in a Queen Anne inventory as ‘Ryley ye Head Closterman ye Drapery’ (Millar, no. 331). As in Riley's Prince George of Denmark, the head and body are awkwardly joined. The portrait traditionally attributed to Riley of Bridget Holmes (1686; Royal Collection; inscribed with an apparently strengthened Riley ‘signature’), an elderly royal servant, is, however, a sophisticated, accomplished piece, far beyond the powers of Riley, but entirely consonant with independent works by John Closterman.

At Belton House, Lincolnshire, there are four full-length portraits of two generations of Brownlows which are generally recognized as products of the Riley–Closterman partnership. The female portraits are far superior in structure to those of the males, suggesting that the former may have been painted by John Closterman and the latter by his brother John Baptist. Riley may have painted the heads. It was also probably Riley who received the commission, since the Brownlows had patronized Soest.

There were additional reasons for Riley's success as a fashionable portrait painter. ‘He was’, says Graham, ‘a Gentleman extremely Courteous in his Behaviour, Obliging in hisConversation … He was never guilty of a peice of Vanity (too common amongst Artists) of saying mighty things on his own Behalf [and was] Prudent in all his Actions’ (Graham, 348–9). Thomas Murray's account corroborates this, showing how Riley could hide his feelings and be agreeable. He was a good dissembler, and he knew his limitations.

Riley's English birth was also an asset. From the early seventeenth century, because of their superior training and knowledge of the latest styles, foreigners had dominated fashionable painting in England. By the latter part of the century this had provoked discontent and the puffing up of English artists. William Aglionby touted the sculptor Grinling Gibbons as a potential ‘Northern Michelangelo’ and lamented the absence of ‘any of note, that was an Englishman, that pretended to History Painting’, attributing this to the nation's preference for portraits: ‘in that part we have had some who have proved most Excellent Artists … even at this time Mr Riley, who undoubtedly deserves his Character of the first and best Painter for Portraits in our Age’ (Aglionby, preface). There is no mention of Van Dyck, Lely, or Kneller, because Aglionby was considering only painters of English birth. (It is surprising that he elevated Riley above John Michael Wright.) Richard Graham's fulsome biography of Riley, published in 1695, is further evidence of this nationalistic trend.

Riley is not known to have travelled abroad, nor are there any known portraits by him of foreign visitors. Thus Graham's statement about Riley's ‘Works … being plentifully distributed over other Nations, as well as our own’ (Graham, 349) is inexplicable. Riley's career culminated on 24 July 1689 in his joint appointment with Kneller as ‘Principal Painter’ to William III and Queen Mary (Gibson, 216), though there are no known portraits by Riley of either as sovereign. According to Graham, ‘He had for several years been violently persecuted by the Gout; which after many terrible Assaults, flying up at last into his Head, brought him to his Grave’ (Graham, 349). He dictated a brief will on 3 March 1691 at his house in Holborn Row, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, leaving his property to John Riley senior, Jochebed Riley, and his brother Thomas, also a painter. He died at home on 27 March 1691 and was buried on 30 March at St Botolph without Bishopsgate.

Riley's pupils included Anthony Russell (1663?–1742), Edward Gouge (fl. 1715), Thomas Murray, and the elder Jonathan Richardson. The last named recorded Riley's will, became his administrator, and sold Riley's collection of pictures and drawings in two sales in February and April 1693. There is no drawing certainly by Riley himself (Croft-Murray and Hulton, 1.470). Riley occupies an honourable but minor place in the history of painting in England. Richardson was the teacher of Thomas Hudson, who in turn taught Sir Joshua Reynolds. Yet to see this progression as an ‘apostolic succession’ (Whinney and Millar, 188) is a false metaphor. The real development of painting in England, the ‘handing on of keys’ was from Van Dyck and Lely to Kneller, and then to Hogarth, Reynolds, and Gainsborough.

J. Douglas Stewart  DNB