John Souch (1593/4 - 1645) was an English portrait painter. He flourished in the early seventeenth century in the North West of England, and perhaps epitomises the role of art in English local life at that time.
John Souch was baptised on 3 February 1593/4 at Ormskirk, Lancashire. In 1607, he was apprenticed (at the age of fourteen) for a term of ten years to Randle Holme, the Chester Herald Painter and antiquary. A Herald Painter usually had a workshop in which all manner of heraldic devices and coats of arms were created for status conscious local gentry and nobility. These would be painted on boards for display on special occasions. A hatchment, a lozenge shaped board, would be carried at a funeral and then hung above the tomb.
However, the more talented herald painters sometimes branched out into portraiture, to satisfy a growing market for images to record betrothals, births, and (sometimes) deaths. Souch was clearly gifted in this direction, and consequently prospered under Holme's tutelage. He became a Freeman of the City of Chester in 1616, when he was twenty three. Painters in Chester, as elsewhere in England at the time, were regarded as craftsmen. Consequently, he became a member of the Chester Painters and Stationers Company, a painters' Guild that met in the upper room of the Phoenix Tower on the city walls. (This is now known as King Charles's Tower, and can be visited.)
Although based in Chester, he became, after the manner of the time, a peripatetic painter, travelling to client's houses within an area bounded by Shropshire to the South and Yorkshire to the North, and undertaking commissions, either heraldic or portraiture, on the spot. Thus he was paid 30 shillings in 1620 for a portrait of Francis Clifford, 4th Earl of Cumberland (whereabouts unknown), executed at Skipton Castle. (This is the first record of him as an independent artist.)
Style of painting
In common with many of his contemporaries, Souch adopted a two dimensional style, in which linear form and decoration were to the fore, rather than modelling, depth, or perspective. In fact the portraiture of the time can be said to be iconic rather than realistic. However, under the influence of Dutch and German painters active in London and elsewhere, this approach was starting to change. Souch himself may have undertaken artistic training in the Netherlands at some stage in his career, and some art historians claim to have detected the influence of Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen. In any case, his natural talent and sympathy for the subject seems to place him apart from other itinerant painters. Nevertheless, after the arrival of Anthony van Dyck in England, Souch clung to an older, Elizabethan, tradition of painting.
Few authenticated works survive, though several are attributed to him.
There is a fine betrothal or wedding portrait, 'Unknown Lady and Gentleman', and signed 'J.S. Fec.1640' at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester. (In this picture, the lady holds a tulip, a motif redolent of Dutch folk art, perhaps suggesting a visit to the Netherlands by the artist.)
Souch's masterpiece is undoubtedly 'Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his Wife', a painting of Sir Thomas Aston, 1st Baronet and family attending his dying wife. It has pride of place in one of the galleries of Manchester City Art Gallery.
Souch continued his association with the Chester Guild, which records him as 'mort' (dead) in 1645. It is possible that Souch, like Randle Holme, his master, was a royalist supporter, and had died in Chester as a consequence of the siege by the parliamentary army.
- Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
- Manchester City Art Gallery.
- Jane Turner (Editor). (2003). The Grove Dictionary of Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517068-7
- Image and overview of Souch's painting: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his Wife.