Today is the birthday (1646) of Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1st Baronet (born Gottfried Kniller), the leading portrait painter in England during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and court painter to English and British monarchs from Charles II to George I. I don’t care for Kneller’s portraits much (nor formal portraiture in general), but I think of him as iconic of the Restoration and early Georgian period. When I think of Newton, I think of Kneller’s portraits.
Kneller was born Gottfried Kniller in the Free City of Lübeck, the son of Zacharias Kniller, a portrait painter. Kneller studied in Leiden, but became a pupil of Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt in Amsterdam. He then traveled with his brother John Zacharias Kneller, who was an ornamental painter, to Rome and Venice in the early 1670s, painting historical subjects and portraits in the studio of Carlo Maratti, and then later moved to Hamburg. They went to England in 1676, and won the patronage of the Duke of Monmouth. Subsequently, he was introduced to, and painted a portrait of, Charles II. In England, Kneller concentrated almost entirely on portraiture. He founded a studio which churned out portraits on an almost industrial scale, relying on a brief sketch of the face with details added to a formulaic model, aided by the fashion for gentlemen to wear full wigs. His assistants may have done much of the painting of fabrics and clothing leaving Kneller to paint the daces. His portrait style set a pattern that was followed down to William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds.
When Sir Peter Lely died in 1680, Kneller was appointed Principal Painter to the Crown by Charles II. In the 1690s, Kneller painted the “Hampton Court Beauties” depicting the supposedly most glamorous ladies-in-waiting of the Royal Court for which he received his knighthood from William III. He produced a series of “Kit-Cat” portraits of 48 leading politicians and men of letters, members of the Kit-Cat Club. Created a baronet by King George I on 24 May 1715, he was also head of the Kneller Academy of Painting and Drawing 1711-1716 in Great Queen Street, London, which counted such artists as Thomas Gibson amongst its founding directors. His paintings were praised by Whig luminaries such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Alexander Pope.
He married a widow, Susanna Grave, on 23 January 1704 at St Bride’s Church, London. She was the daughter of the Reverend John Cawley, Archdeacon of Lincoln and Rector of Henley-on-Thames, and the granddaughter of regicide William Cawley (he signed the death warrant for Charles I).
Kneller died of fever in 1723 at Great Queen Street and his remains were interred at Twickenham. He had been a churchwarden at St Mary’s, Twickenham when the 14th-century nave collapsed in 1713 and was active in the plans for the church’s reconstruction by John James. A memorial was erected to him in Westminster Abbey.
Samuel Johnson related this tale:
As to thinking better or worse of mankind from experience, some cunning people will not be satisfied unless they have put men to the test, as they think. There is a very good story told of Sir Godfrey Kneller, in his character of a Justice of the peace. A gentleman brought his servant before him, upon an accusation of having stolen some money from him; but it having come out that he had laid it purposely in the servant’s way, in order to try his honesty, Sir Godfrey sent the master to prison.”
Kneller’s home town of Lübeck is famous for its marzipan industry. According to local legend, marzipan was first made in Lübeck, in response either to a military siege of the city or a famine year. The story, certainly apocryphal, is that the town ran out of all food except stored almonds and sugar, which were used to make loaves of marzipan “bread.” It is generally believed that marzipan was actually invented in Persia a few hundred years before Lübeck claims to have invented it although there are conflicting claims as to its origin and spread in Europe. Nonetheless, Lübeck marzipan is of a very high quality and rightly famous.
My wife and I always made marzipan at Christmas for marzipan fruits and for our Christmas cake. You can buy good marzipan fairly easily, but it is cheaper to make it yourself. All it takes is some egg whites, blanched almonds and confectioners’ sugar.
3 egg whites
8 oz blanched almonds
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp almond extract (optional)
Put the almonds in a food processor and pulse until you have a grainy powder, but not so long that the oil separates.
In a bowl beat the egg whites lightly and then add the egg whites and sugar. Knead, either by hand or with a dough hook in a mixer until the marzipan is very smooth.
Wrap in plastic wrap and foil. It will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely. Warm to room temperature before using.
Yield: about 1 lb.
Marzipan can be used in a host of ways including making all manner of imitation fruits, flowers, and animals, as well as covering or filling cakes. Here’s a little gallery of ideas.
. . . and one spooky marzipan baby . . .