Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Bearding Van Dyck

I have just returned from a visit to the US which for an Australian, means 15 hours pinned to an uncomfortable seat by the person in front of you on full recline with nowhere to go and nothing to do except watch the TV screen in front of you. What a brilliant invention inseat TV is! I managed to catch not only Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis a deserving Oscar winner) but also a little gem of a BBC TV program called Fake or Fortune.

Henrietta Maria after restoration
The Henrietta Maria Portrait before restoration
The concept of this program is to discover the provenance and attribution of notable artworks and it just happened the program I caught was on a suspected Van Dyck. Phillip Mould, the presenter of the program and an art dealer, purchased (for a few thousand pounds) a picture of a young woman described merely as Flemish School 17th century. He suspected he had found a Van Dyck portrait of Henrietta Maria. Like the layers of paint on the picture itself the program peeled back the history of a much copied portrait of Henrietta Maria, portrayed as St. Catherine.  Why was the painting overpainted? Was it because the Catholic imagery was unpalatable to a Protestant society? What was Henrietta Maria trying to convey with the symbolism of St. Catherine?

All of this is by way of a long winded preamble into a quick look at Anthony Van Dyck, the pre-eminent portrait painter of Charles I court. Think of any iconic portrait of Charles, his wife, family and friends and you can be sure the painting was by Van Dyck.
Anthony Van Dyck - self portrait

Born in Antwerp in 1599, the young Van Dyck learned his art in the studio of Peter Paul Rubens. He first came into contact with the English Court in 1620 under the patronage of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.  Charles I came to the throne in 1628 and threw himself into patronage and collection of great art works, often with the advice of Van Dyck. In 1632 he returned to the English Court as “principalle Paynter in ordinary to their majesties”. Over the next ten years, until his death in London in 1640, he brought the English court to life in a way never before seen in portrait painting.

Portrait painting was controlled by the Guild of Painters so to avoid this monopoly, Van Dyck was given a studio at Blackfriars on the river, along with a suite of rooms in the now unused Eltham Palace. During his time at court he painted over 70 portraits of the royal family and a special causeway was built to facilitate their visits to his studio.

However not every portrait was completely painted by the Master himself. He established a large studio in London, effectively a production line of portrait painting. It was his practice to make a drawing on paper which was then put on to the canvas by an assistant. He generally painted only the head of the sitter. Clothing and backgrounds were subcontracted. Although he had a studio of pupils and assistants there seems to be no connection with his studio and later painters of any significance.

Margaret Lemon
Not long after his arrival in London, Margaret Lemon became his mistress and he had a daughter by her. In 1638 Charles I granted him the rights of a “denizen” (effectively a citizen) and he married one of Henrietta Maria’s Ladies in Waiting, Mary daughter of Lord Ruthven. Over the next few years, Van Dyck travelled extensively in Europe but in 1641, in Paris, he fell ill and returned to London to die at the age of only 42. His tomb and monument (paid for by the King) in St. Paul’s Cathedral were destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

During his lifetime he lived extravagantly but managed to leave his wife and mistress and their daughters well provided for. Both daughters eventually lived in Belgium.

Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, in the robes of the Order of the Garter c. 1615. Unknown artist,National Portrait Gallery, London
One of his great patrons was Philip, 4th Earl of Pembroke and by comparing these 2 portraits (above and below) you can immediately see the shift from the formal portraiture of the early part of the century with Van Dyck’s natural approach. I particularly love this portrait of Pembroke because it is in the National Gallery of Victoria and is the only Van Dyck I have ready access to!

Phil Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke. National Gallery of Victoria

 The beautiful face of the young Queen that emerged from beneath the varnish of the Mould portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, is immediately compelling (and was the catalyst for Mould’s belief he had found a Van Dyck). However Van Dyck may have been guilty of flattering his sitters. When Sophia, later Electoress of Hanover, first met Queen Henrietta Maria, in exile in Holland in 1641, she wrote: "Van Dyck's handsome portraits had given me so fine an idea of the beauty of all English ladies, that I was surprised to find that the Queen, who looked so fine in painting, was a small woman raised up on her chair, with long skinny arms and teeth like defence works projecting from her mouth...

April 1 is the release date for my latest book, SECRETS IN TIME, a short contemporary time travel with a seventeenth century cavalier and a Van Dyck portrait!

When a seventeenth-century cavalier hurls himself over her garden wall, Doctor Jessica Shepherd is more angry than surprised. Although she ís no stranger to military re-enactors, there ís something different about Nathaniel Preston. If he ís to be believed, something…or someone…has sent him forward in time from the midst of a civil war to the quiet English countryside of the twentieth century.
With time working against them, Nathaniel has to convince Jessica why fate brought them together before he ís forced to return to his own era and certain death in battle.
Can the strength of love overcome all obstacles, even time itself?

1 comment:

Anita Davison said...

I wrote a post about this on my own blog too as the programme was so fascinating and with all the doubters I was willing the portrait to be a Van Dyck at the end. And love the fact you call 4th Earl of Pembroke 'Phil'