My Favourite Painting: Xanthe Arvanitakis

The director of Chiswick House chooses a dramatic 17th century portrait.

Xanthe Arvanitakis on The Ambassador of Morocco by Jan Wyck and Godfrey Kneller

‘Since I joined Chiswick in 2020, this painting, in an octagonal domed saloon on the first floor, has always stopped me in my tracks. It is a portrait of Mohammed bin al Attar, who was sent as an ambassador from Morocco to the Court of Charles II in 1681.

‘He caused a sensation in London and became famous for his displays of horsemanship in Hyde Park. The painting forms an important part of the Black Chiswick through History community research project.’

Xanthe Arvanitakis is the director of Chiswick House and Gardens Trust

Charlotte Mullins comments on The Ambassador of Morocco

In 1684, Godfrey Kneller and Jan Wyck collaborated on an equestrian portrait of the Moroccan Ambassador Mohammed bin al Attar, who had visited England in 1681–82 to promote an anti-Spanish alliance between Morocco and England and had been welcomed into aristocratic society, attending parties and touring estates. Crowds gathered when he went riding in Hyde Park to admire his horsemanship.

Here, al Attar sits confidently on a rearing horse, wearing Moroccan military dress with a flourish of classical drapery. He looks out calmly, his beard neatly clipped, his dark hair curling from beneath his white turban. In his right hand, he wields an exceptionally long spear that stretches across the painting diagonally. It is echoed by the stance of the horse and countered by his yellow sash, which gives the work great dynamism.

Two years before al Attar’s portrait was painted, Kneller became a naturalised Briton. He had been born in Germany and spent time studying art in The Netherlands and Italy before settling in England. By 1684, he was regarded as the leading portrait painter in the land. Dutchman Jan Wyck worked in Britain for 25 years.

He was a successful military and maritime artist who collaborated with Kneller and John Wootton, painting the horses and scenery in several of their works. Wyck was known for studying horses from life and for his attention to detail. This painting belonged to the 3rd Earl of Burlington, the architect of Chiswick House, and it still hangs in his former home.

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