The picture I like best…is the William Dobson portrait of John, Lord Byron, and his Page, which hangs over the fireplace in the Drawing Room. To me it seems imposing without being stiff, and the colours are so glowingly warm. Painted during the Civil War it shows Byron with the wound on his cheek he got during a night attack. For some time he was the Governor of Chester, and since he was also related to the Leicester family by marriage one of their children was christened Byron in his honour (a girl, oddly enough).
I think Dobson shows him looking like a true commander; relaxed but confident, standing firm in the centre as he gestures towards the cavalry, holding his marshal’s baton, wearing his golden suit and swathed in that eye-catchingly huge red sash.
But in reality Byron, although extremely brave, wasn’t always a gifted commander. It was in fact a serious tactical mistake of his that contributed to the disastrous Royalist defeat at Marston Moor. After his cause failed he ended up in exile in France where he died in 1652. Knowing all this gives his portrait, done in better days, a retrospective filter of melancholy.
And I often wonder what became of the young African page who is leading out Byron’s splendid horse and gazing up at him so trustfully.
The picture I like least…Friar Puck by Henry Fuseli, which hangs in the Gallery. I have read that Fuseli was a highly significant figure in the cultural shift away from Classicism to Romanticism and I’m sure he was; and I don’t know enough about art to make any criticism of his composition, brushwork etc. I defer absolutely to the judgment of Sir John Fleming Leicester, the connoisseur who formed the core of the Tabley collection and who chose this painting himself. But my gut response to this picture is I don’t like it. And I certainly wouldn’t want to meet its hyperactive hero on a dark night. Or ever.
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