This picture was described by Sir Oliver Millar, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures between 1972 and 1988, as: ‘a particularly vivid likeness of the king at that late period in his life and a rare depiction of him in ordinary dress’ (cited in G. Jackson-Stops, ed., The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985, p. 162, no. 91). Executed in circa 1677, the year of Rose’s death, it is an early example of a ‘conversation piece’, a genre of group portraiture that originated in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century and became popular in England in the early eighteenth century.
This subject, which exists in four versions, has been the subject of much conjecture. There is a picture of comparable quality at Houghton Hall, Norfolk; a slightly later copy in the Royal Collection (Windsor Castle; O. Millar, op. cit., 1963, pp. 136-7, no. 316, as ‘Artist unknown’); and a copy by Thomas Hewart painted in 1787 for Ham House. The earliest record of the subject is in a letter from Horace Walpole to his friend the Rev. William Cole, referring to the picture now at Houghton: ‘Mr. Pennicott has shown me a most curious and delightful picture. It is Rose, The Royal Gardener, presenting the first pineapple raised in England to Charles II. They are in a garden, with a view of a good private house, such as there are several at Sunbury and about London. It is by far the best likeness of the King I ever saw; the countenance cheerful, good-humoured, and very sensible…The whole is of the smaller landscape size, and extremely well coloured with perfect harmony’ (6 March 1780). William Pennicott later presented that picture to Walpole, and it is described in the 1784 catalogue of Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill as: ‘a most curious picture of Rose, the Royal gardener, presenting the first pineapple raised in England to Charles II, who is standing in a garden; the house seems to be Dawny Court [sic.] near Windsor. The whole piece is well painted, probably by Dankers [sic.]’.
The painting’s subject clearly resulted in the common belief that Rose was the first to grow a pineapple in Britain. However, while pineapples from the West Indies were given to the king in 1661 and 1668, none were technically grown in Britain until the beginning of the following century. The ananas sativus probably originated in Brazil, but was also found in the West Indies. The name came from the superficial resemblance of its fruit to a fur-cone: John Parkinson, Royal Botanist to Charles I, described the pineapple as: ‘scaly like an artichoke at the first view, but more like a cone of the Pine tree, which we call a pineapple for the forme…being so sweete in smell…tasting… as if wine, rosewater and sugar were mixed together (Theatrum Botanicum, 1640). European pineapple cultivation was pioneered in Holland, which benefitted from a trade monopoly in the Caribbean owing to the Dutch West India Company, established in 1621. The Dutch method of pineapple growing became the model for cultivation in Britain, aided by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which replaced James II with the joint monarchy of his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William of Orange. William Bentinck, close advisor to William III, is thought to have shipped an entire stock of pineapple plants to Hampton Court in 1692. Fruits were then ripened from this stock of mature plants, but these do not count as British-grown pineapples. This was probably also the case for the pineapple displayed in this painting. The first reliable crop of pineapples in Britain was in fact achieved by Henry Telende, a Dutch gardener to Matthew Decker, at his seat in Richmond, between 1714 and 1716. Decker commissioned a painting from Theodorus Netscher (1661-1732) in 1720 to celebrate this feat (fig. 1; Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum). This sparked a pineapple-growing mania; the list of Georgians engaged in this horticultural activity included the poets William Cowper and Alexander Pope, and the architect, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington. During the eighteenth century, Pineapples were paraded at the dining table as a symbol of the owner’s wealth and a testimony to his gardener’s skill and artistry.
An old label on the reverse of this picture identifies the house as ‘Dawny Court’ and the artist as ‘Danckers’. However, the house in this painting bears no resemblance to Dorney Court, near Windsor (spelt 'Dawny' in the 1784 Walpole catalogue cited above), seat of Roger Palmer, Earl of Castlemaine, whose wife, Barbara Villiers, was one of Charles II’s mistresses. Sir Oliver Millar suggested: ‘it is perhaps more likely to have been Dorney House near Oatlands in Surrey’, where pine-pits were constructed (cited in G. Jackson- Stops, op. cit., p. 162, no. 91). The architectural historian, John Harris observed that the house: ‘is not Netherlandish in style, but has rather more French characteristics. Indeed, generically, it resembles Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire, as existing about 1702. However, the garden is clearly fictitious’ (The Artist and the Country House from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day, exhibition catalogue, Sotheby’s Institute, London, 1995, p. 34, no. 8 [Houghton version]). Harris goes on to speculate that the architect of this house, should it have existed, could have been William Talman, who was architectural partner to George London, a student of John Rose, who succeeded him as Royal Gardener, and who originally owned the Houghton version of this composition. Regarding the attribution, Sir Oliver Millar commented that the traditional attribution to Hendrick Danckerts, even for the background: ‘cannot be sustained with any conviction…The figures and dogs, however, are most attractively painted’ (cited in G. Jackson-Stops, op. cit.).
John Rose’s gardening career may have begun at Amesbury House, property of Sir William Seymour, later 2nd Duke of Hertford and 2nd Duke of Somerset. The Duke’s London residence was Essex House, the property of his brother-in-law, Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, another of Rose’s employers, who sent him to study in France in the early 1640s. Rose was appointed the King’s Gardener at St. James’s in 1661, overseeing the garden between the Mall and the backs of the houses in Pall Mall (an area later interrupted by the building of Marlborough House and Carlton House); he went on to take charge of St. James’s Park across the Mall. Rose published The English Vineyard Vindicated in 1666 with a dedication to the king: ‘the Prince of Plants to the Prince of Planters’.