Protestantism was absolutely central to the way in which eighteenth-century Englishmen thought about themselves and the world around them. The popular perception of history since the reformation was dominated by the narrative that England was an embattled bastion of the true faith, assailed by Catholic enemies from without and at constant risk of being undermined by the agents of anti-Christ who were thought to lurk within. This powerful sense of Protestant exceptionalism was propelled by a virulent print culture which emerged in the early seventeenth-century and was fanned by the experiences of civil war, restoration and revolution. By the turn of the century, the streets of London and other English cities were awash with cheap publications that revelled in the nation’s status as the new Jerusalem and the home of God’s elect. A calendar of historical events published in London in 1700 listed the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 alongside the creation of the world and the birth of Christ in its canon of red letter days in human history (Colley, Britons… p.21.) God, the people of England were repeatedly told, took a particular interest in the fate of Englishmen.
Similar views were expressed in the engraved images of the period. These ranged from cheap woodcuts depicting lurid images of the massacre of Protestant settlers in Ireland to high-end copperplate engravings celebrating the anniversary of England’s delivery from the Gunpowder Plot. One such print shows the theological leaders of the Protestant faith gathered around a table on which a lone candle burns. Opposite them sit the representatives of Catholicism – usually, the Pope, a friar, a cardinal and Satan – who together attempt to blow out the flame and plunge the world into darkness and damnation. The image is thought to have originated with the Dutch engraver Cornelis Danckertsz the Younger (1561-1634) and may have appeared in Amsterdam before being taken up by various London publishers around 1640. The earliest attributable English version was published by Thomas Jenner (fl.1618 – d.1673). In this version the text next to the candle reads is a direct translation of the Dutch original and reads: “The candle is lighted, we cannot blow out.” Interestingly, by the time this image was painted around 70 years later, the inscription had been changed to the more explicitly nationalistic, “The Candle is England”, suggesting that the fate of the English nation and the Protestant faith were now regarded as being inextricably intertwined.
The painting itself is oil on canvas, measuring 60.9 x 77.3cm and it has been tentatively dated to c.1700. My guess would be that it probably dates closer to 1710 and that its creation coincided with the upsurge in aggressive High Church sentiment that accompanied the Sacheverell riots of that year. The identity of the artist is unknown but it seems reasonable to assume they were an amateur who copied the image from an engraving (a similar contemporary example of such paintings can be found HERE), although I’ve been unable to identify which print they may have been working from. The painting was previously the property of the Scottish preacher and philanthropist Rev. Thomas Guthrie (1803 – 1873) and from there descended through three successive generation of the Verney family before being sold by Sir Edmund Verney in November 2019. The painting popped back up at auction a few weeks ago and fetched a respectable hammer price of £3,000.