Description

Abraham van Blyenberch (1575–1624) painted this portrait of Ben Jonson in around 1617, when Jonson was in his mid-forties and at the height of his literary career. The painting is significant because it provides the basis for every other known image of the poet and playwright.

In 1619 Jonson described himself as having a ‘mountain belly’ and a ‘rocky face’, and his 17th-century biographer, John Aubrey (1626–1697), stated that he ‘had one eye lower than t’other and bigger’. Jonson is also described by contemporaries as wearing plain clothing and a coachman’s coat, which would have been a practical, hard-wearing garment with slits in the armpits for ventilation.

The painting shows Jonson as a stout man, with blemished skin, a wart to the side of his nose and slightly uneven eyes. His clothes are also very simple, a feature which is unusual for portraits from this period. Despite not being particularly flattering the portrait is regarded by critics as a good likeness.

What was Jonson the man like?

On one hand Jonson is described by his contemporaries as vain, pompous and drunk. On the other hand, he was able to make lasting friendships and call upon the hospitality of the great and the good of Jacobean society. Regardless of his divisive personality, Jonson’s contemporaries seem to have valued his company. His distinctive character is brilliantly illustrated in stories from his ‘foot voyage’ to Scotland.

In early July 1618 Jonson embarked on a journey to Scotland entirely on foot, a remarkable feat considering his weight (around 20 stone at this point) and his well-documented reputation for drunkenness. After completing the expedition in September, and receiving a warm welcome in Edinburgh, Jonson decided to stay in Scotland until January 1619.

He spent Christmas with William Drummond of Hawthornden, a Scottish nobleman and poet. Drummond kept a diary and noted down his impressions of Jonson, as well as a collection of Jonson’s rather dismissive opinions of his contemporaries. He famously criticised William Shakespeare for ‘wanting [lacking] art’, and mocked him for the geographical errors in his plays (The Winter’s Tale is set in Bohemia, actually a landlocked country in central Europe, but which features a seacoast in the narrative).

Drummond’s feelings toward Jonson were not much better:

Ben Jonson was a great lover and praiser of himself, a condemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him, especially after drink, which is one of the elements in which he lived [1]

Despite this unfavourable description, Drummond and Jonson became good friends and they continued to write to each other and exchange poems and books once Jonson had returned to London. 

[1] William Drummond, The Works of William Drummond of Hawthornden, Edited by John Sage and Thomas Ruddiman (Edinburgh: James Watson, 1711), p. 226.

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