1671 JOHN BUNYAN. Painting Celebrating Bunyan's Election as Pastor of the Bedford Meeting from Prison!
1671 JOHN BUNYAN. Painting Celebrating Bunyan's Election as Pastor of the Bedford Meeting from Prison!
1671 JOHN BUNYAN. Painting Celebrating Bunyan's Election as Pastor of the Bedford Meeting from Prison!

1671 JOHN BUNYAN. Painting Celebrating Bunyan's Election as Pastor of the Bedford Meeting from Prison!

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 Well now, here is a museum-worthy piece of church history. Painted in 1671, it portrays John Bunyan [1628-1688] in prison, presumably at his election to become the Pastor of the Bedford Meeting House. He was elected to the position prior to his release in 1672 and the present was created while he was still in prison for non-conformity. 

At the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, non-conformists of all kinds, including Baptists, found their right of assembly drastically curtailed by application of the rarely-applied Conventicle Act of 1593. It forbade people from attending a religious gathering other than their parish church that included more than five persons not related to the person leading the worship. It carried of a 3 month sentence to be accompanied by banishment from England or execution if the person did not swear an oath of non-repetition for the offence. 

In November of 1670, Bunyan was preaching at a farm a few miles from Bedford when he was notified of his impending arrest. He chose not to flee and submitted himself to the arrest graciously, even though the charges were spurious at best and and he knew his wife was pregnant at the time and his young family would suffer. The child was stillborn, perhaps from the stress his wife experienced as a result of the trauma.

He was tried two months later in January of 1661 at Bedford. Unfortunately, he was tried by the same magistrates who would issue the Act of Uniformity of 1662, perhaps the least sympathetic court to dissenters in all of England. They colorfully accused him of having "devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to church to hear divine service" and not only so, but having also held "several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this Kingdom". In accordance with the law, he was sentenced to three months and exile if he did not resume attendance at the parish church and desist from preaching at his release. Because of his refusal to desist preaching, his three months became 12 years. In the eyes of the court, this was a mercy, since he ought to have been banished or executed. The mercy likely reflected the good relationship he had with his jailers.

In fact, over the years several of the jailers had grown quite fond of the saintly Bunyan and allowed him to have short times away from the prison. He was even able to preach on rare occasions. Perhaps more indicative of this freedom while away, his wife gave birth to another daughter born during his imprisonment. Evidently the time away from the prison was at least at points unsupervised. While in prison, he was also allowed writing supplies and began work on his most famous work, Pilgrim's Progress. It would become perhaps the most influential work, aside from Scripture itself, in the western church for nearly two centuries after its release.

By 1671, it was evident that religious toleration would allow for Bunyan's release. In anticipation, the Bedford Meeting House elected Bunyan as their pastor during that same year, even though he was still in incarcerated. The present painting appears to have been painted in commemoration of that event. It is dated to 1671, shows a rather gaunt John Bunyan, consistent with accounts of his slender frame while imprisoned, and the artist has very subtly included a wall shackle in the upper right of the image as a nod to his then-current situation. To our knowledge, it is the only extant painting of Bunyan actually painted of him while imprisoned. 

As hoped, in March of 1672 penal laws against dissenters were lifted and Bunyan, along with thousands of other Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Quaker preachers and divines, was released. By May of the same year, he had an official license to preach and took on his role as Pastor of the Bedford Meeting. 

The present work measures 27.5 x 31.5 inches framed; the actual painting being 16.5 x 20.5 inches. It is oil on original canvas which was relined sometime in the mid-19th century. Since we acquired it, we have had the relining removed, though the 19th century relining material has been preserved with the painting as it has a then-contemporary inscription. We have instead had it strip lined so that the rear of the painting shows the original 17th century canvas. The 19th century canvas we removed reads "John Bunyan Aetat 43," or, "age 43." This may be seen in the images. This age would correspond to the 1671 date on the painting itself. 

The restoration work has been done by one of the finest restorers in the country, Julian Baumgartner of Baumgartner Fine Art Restoration.


The frame is unrestored, though we are happy to help facilitate that if the new owner wishes. That cost should be somewhere in the $1,500 range for rubber mold casting, consolidation, and finishing. 

The work itself has been preserved for many decades in the collection of an eccentric old master's collector in the United States. We have seen his collection; it contained perhaps 100 old masters and 17th century works acquired as museum deaccessions and the sales of estate homes and castles across Europe. We are at present trying to determine the earlier provenance of this painting.

It is the opinion of the restorer that the painting is in every way consistent with the 1671 dating and, as it has no similarity to other known paintings appears to be wholly original. That said, there are several 18th century engravings which appear to pay homage to the present painting. 

It is unsigned. This is entirely sensible since any artist of repute would be committing career suicide by painting a jailed dissenter at the time. That said, it may be possible to chose the artist down. One very unique detail is the name John Bunyan upper left. It is not merely painted on; it has been built up of multiple layers of paint and is raised perhaps 1/16th of an inch off the canvas. Since we know the date and location [Bedfordshire], it may well be possible to locate signed paintings with similar construction. During restoration, we chose not to rebuild the damaged "an" at the end of Bunyan's name. If the purchaser chooses, we can have those reinstated before dispatch. 

A truly iconic painting, museum worthy, executed while Bunyan was in prison, authorizing Pilgrim's Progress, and likely as a painting to commemorate his election as pastor of the Bedford Meeting House. 

Price Upon Inquiry | Payments Available.