The Koblenzer Portraits of John Milton and Sara Milton

Introduction | John Milton & Seventeenth-Century Culture


Two historic portraits of the poet John Milton and his mother Sara have been given to the University of South Carolina's rare book collections by Drs. Peter and Caroline Koblenzer, of Philadelphia. 

John MiltonThe portrait of John Milton at the age of 21, by Benjamin Vandergucht (1753-1794) dates from 1792, based on the earlier "Onslow" Milton portrait of 1629, which was lost for many years after this version was painted.

The Koblenzer Portrait of

John Milton (1608-1674), at age 21

Benjamin Vandergucht (1753-1794)

One of two copies by Vandergucht from the “Onslow Portrait,” ca. 1629, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Oil on canvas, 1792: oval, 25 x 29 ins.

Provenance:  commissioned by the second Earl Harcourt, 1792; by descent through his family, at Nuneham Park and Stanton Harcourt; Sotheby’s, Nuneham Park sale, 1993; Dr. Peter H. Koblenzer, 1993.

Sara MiltonThe portrait of Sara Milton, dating from 1621, has been identified in recent scholarship as the only known portrait of the poet's mother. Scholars have attributed the painting to various artists, notably Cornelius Janssen or Jonson (1593-1661), Robert Walker (1595-1658), or one of the Hilliard family.

The Koblenzer Portrait of 

Sara Milton (1572-1637), at age 49

Painter unidentified: attributions have included Cornelius Janssen (1593-1661) or Robert Walker (1595-1658).

Oil on canvas, ca. 1621:  30 x 25 ins.

Provenance: estate of Milton’s widow Elizabeth Minshull Milton to Arthur Onslow, ca. 1729;  by descent through the families of Earl Cowper & J. F. Foster; Christie’s, 1940; Christie’s 1981; Sidney F. Sabin; Dr. Peter H. Koblenzer, 1989.

In 1729, the then-speaker of the British House of Commons, Arthur Onslow, is known to have purchased the portrait of John Milton copied by Vandergucht from the estate of Milton's widow, and it is now thought that he purchased the portrait of Milton's mother at the same time.

The portraits have been donated to the University by two distinguished art collectors Dr. Peter S. Koblenzer and Dr. Caroline S. Koblenzer, of Philadelphia.  The Koblenzers selected the University for this gift when they learned of the library's Robert J. Wickenheiser Collection of John Milton, one of the leading collections in the world, acquired for the University in 2006 with the leading support of William R. Richter and the William R. Richter Family Foundation. 

The Robert J. Wickenheiser Collection brought to the University a collection of over 6,000 volumes by and about Milton, dating from the 17th to the 20th century, with especial strength in illustrated Milton editions.  Further information is given in Dr. Wickenheiser’s comprehensive illustrated catalogue (USC Press, 2008), or on the Web at

The Koblenzer Portraits will be initially be on display in the Graniteville Room; their long-term home will be alongside portions of the Wickenheiser Collection, in the main seminar room, the William L. Richter Room, in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library.  

Dr. Louise Simons, of Philadelphia, who has researched the portraits, has suggested that the Milton family may have commissioned matched portraits of mother and son from the same artist.  In the 1980s, when she first learned of the portrait, she was sceptical that the sitter in the 1621 portrait was indeed Sara Milton, but through further research she and other scholars have become increasingly confident that the identification is correct. 

Dr. Patrick Scott, Director of Special Collections for the library, commented "Portraits like these help us tell students and visitors about the library's great collections. The Koblenzer portraits are beautiful and historically important, and the Koblenzers' gift shows that the Wickenheiser Collection has already caught national attention."

Tom McNally, Dean of Libraries, added: "This generous donation comes at just the right time, as we get ready to open the new special collections library, with increased opportunities to make such treasures known and accessible."

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