Francis CLEYN

Rostock 1582 - London 1658


The son of a goldsmith, the artist Francis Cleyn (sometimes Clein or Klein) was born in the North German city of Rostock, on the Baltic Sea, and seems to have entered the service of King Christian IV of Denmark around 1611. After a study trip of four years to Italy, where he spent time in Venice (meeting the English ambassador there) and probably also in Rome, he was back in Denmark by 1617. Cleyn’s Italian sojourn was to prove highly influential on his mature style and is readily evident in the painted ornamental decorations he produced for Christian IV at Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen between 1618 and 1623, which depicted pastoral landscapes, genre scenes and Italianate grotesques. (He also worked in the Danish royal castles of Frederiksborg, Christiansborg and Kronborg.) Cleyn is thought to have first visited England in 1623, on the recommendation of the English ambassador in Copenhagen, and had settled permanently in London by 1625. He worked extensively as a decorator and designer for Charles I, including designing the King’s Great Seal, and was awarded a yearly pension of £100. Cleyn’s first major public commission in England was for the now-lost ceiling decoration of the cabinet of Queen Henrietta Maria at Old Somerset House in London, which he decorated with allegorical figures of the arts above a frieze of putti, flowers, emblems and grotesques. (He also painted an altarpiece of The Crucifixion, since destroyed, for the Queen at St. James’s Palace.) Cleyn was highly regarded as a decorative mural painter, although almost all of his work in this field, including wall paintings at Holland House in London, Carew House in Parson’s Green and Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire, has been lost. The artist’s only surviving paintings are a series of interiors in several rooms at Ham House in Richmond, painted for William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart. As one scholar has written of the artist, ‘In terms of technical ability, Cleyn the Elder was certainly inferior to Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) or Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), his more talented contemporaries in London. But he far surpassed either as a composer of narratives; indeed, he was the greatest storyteller in English art until Antonio Verrio (c.1639-1707) undertook the decoration of the State Rooms at Windsor Castle around 1675.’ Cleyn is best known today for his work at the tapestry manufactory at Mortlake in Surrey, established by the Crown in 1619. Appointed chief designer at Mortlake soon after his arrival in England, with an annual salary of £250, Cleyn drew the original designs for the Hero and Leander series of tapestries, completed in 1636, as well as the series of Horses, The Five Senses and the borders for Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles tapestries. (As Edward Croft-Murray has noted, Cleyn was in particular ‘much appreciated for his grotesque[s]…the borders of his tapestries display several varieties of it, both Italian and Flemish.’) Mortlake produced exceptionally fine tapestries of Raphael’s seven cartoons, to which Cleyn added decorative borders as well as an eighth scene of his own invention; The Death of Sapphira, which measured some four by six and half metres and contained over twenty figures. The artist continued to work at Mortlake throughout the Civil War and during the period of the Commonwealth. Cleyn also produced a number of prints of decorative and grotesque motifs, together with designs for book illustrations, seals, title pages and ephemeral architecture. Drawings by Francis Cleyn are today in the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris and the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, while a 17th century album containing several dozen drawings by the artist - mainly figure, drapery and portrait studies, as well as several designs for tapestries - has recently been discovered in the collection of Southampton University. Two watercolour designs by Cleyn for the side borders of one of the Acts of the Apostles tapestries have recently been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.