“the most excellent painter that England has yet bred“
Dobson was born in London, the son of a lawyer also called William Dobson. He is believed to have had access to the Royal Collection and to have copied works by Titian and Anthony van Dyck, the court painter of King Charles I of England. The colour and texture of Dobson’s work was influenced by Venetian art, but Van Dyck’s style had little apparent influence on Dobson.
Little is known of Dobson’s career in the 1630s, but when Van Dyck died in 1641, the opportunity arose for him to gain royal commissions from King Charles. He is said to have become sergeant painter to the king and groom of the privy chamber. However, this claim comes from only one old and as yet unverified source. During the English Civil War Dobson was based at the Royalist centre of Oxford and painted many leading Cavaliers. His portrait of the future Charles II as Prince of Wales at the age of around twelve is a notable baroque composition, and perhaps his finest work. He also painted at least the head of The Duke of York, as well as portraits of leading Royalists such as Charles Lucas and John Byron, Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Prince Maurice.
Around sixty of Dobson’s works survive, mostly half-length portraits dating from 1642 or later. The thick impasto of his early work gave way to a mere skim of paint, perhaps reflecting a wartime scarcity of materials. After Oxford fell to the Parliamentarians, in June 1646, Dobson returned to London. Now without patronage, he was briefly imprisoned for debt and died in poverty at the age of thirty-six.
He was married twice, first to Elizabeth, whose surname is unknown, as is the date of their marriage. She was buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields on 26 September 1634. On 18 December 1637 he married Judith Sander, who survived him.