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Samuel Butler (c.1613–1680)

P.9293-R George Vertue (1684-1756), the engraver of this portrait, was not only a prolific printmaker, but also a historian. He wrote multiple volumes of notes on the history of art in this country, which were bought by Horace Walpole after Vertue’s death, and used as a basis of his Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762–71).

In 1726 Vertue decided to engrave and publish a set of portraits of poets. He had already engraved two poets in previous years, and he decided that the style and size of these prints was close enough be included in a larger set. The set comprised Chaucer, John Gower, Edmund Spencer, Shakespeare, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, Ben Jonson, Milton, Abraham Cowley, Butler, Edmund Waller and Dryden (see P.9295-R for an impression of the portrait of John Dryden). Vertue did not engrave a title page for the set until 1730, calling the set Twelve Celebrated Poets. This portrait print is a wonderful example of Vertue’s idiosyncratic engraving style for this genre. The portrait of Butler is based on a painting by Gerard Soest (c.1600-1681), but Vertue does not reproduce faithfully the original canvas shape. Instead he used his preferred oval format, and let his imagination take over in the design at the top of the oval frame. Among other objects and figures he etched a sword, a dancing bear, a paint palette and a violin.

The frame is placed on top of a cartouche that would contain an inscription in a later state, comprising title, artists’ names and dedication. The dedicatee was Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (1689-1741). In 1722 Harley was MP for Cambridgeshire, but in 1724 he inherited his father titles and entered the House of Lords. His father had sought an advantageous marriage for Edward, and was successful: Henrietta Cavendish Holles (1694-1755) brought some of the Cavendish family wealth and estates to the marriage. One of the properties was Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, which served as the venue for their wedding.

Lord Oxford was a collector and patron of the arts. He was also an amateur archaeologist, and collected a wide variety of objects including manuscripts, coins and miniatures. One of his patrons was Vertue – they were apparently quite close and the two travelled together on tours of South-East England and East Anglia in 1738-9. Other recipients of his benefaction were the engraver George White and the poets Jonathon Swift, Alexander Pope and Matthew Prior. The architect James Gibbs was employed to design extensions to Wimpole, including a library. Lord Oxford was passionate about the extensive Harley family library. But his extravagance in collecting eventually wasted his finances. Wimpole Hall had to be sold in 1738 to pay off his debts. Lord Oxford grew increasingly depressed about the loss of his home and he died in 1741. The Harleian library was split up: some pieces of his collection went to auction in 1742; the printed books went later the same year, and were eventually dispersed in various sales throughout the decade. However, the one saving grace was that the manuscript collection was preserved intact. It was bought by the British Library and formed one of its founding collections.

Lord Oxford’s daughter, Margaret, (1715-1785) was also engraved by Vertue in a triple portrait, with her husband William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland (1709-1762) and her friend, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) P.9291-R

Museum Number P.9293-R