Van Dyck’s portrait of Archbishop Laud: the hijack of an image
The Van Dyck exhibition has now started at Tate Britain. I haven’t had a chance to go yet, but in the meantime I thought it might be interesting to post about how a particular portrait by Van Dyck was put to very different uses by different political and religious factions.
In 1636, the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud sat for this portrait by Van Dyck. Laud stands in his convocational robes, gazing powerfully out at the viewer. This was Laud as the architect of a restored and revivified Church of England, projecting authority without the need for props like Bibles in the background.
The impact of the image wasn’t limited to Lambeth Palace. By 1640, Wenceslaus Hollar had produced this reversed etching of the Van Dyck portrait:
AN344014001, © The Trustees of the British Museum
Although such etchings would have been expensive at about 6d. each, the etching survives in a number of versions, which suggests it sold well. Nor is the only version of the portrait that was available:
AN406358001, © The Trustees of the British Museum
There was clearly an audience for popular reproductions of Laud’s portrait. In the 1640s, however, a different type of popular audience emerged in the wake of the controversy over the Laudian canons. Van Dyck’s portrait was very quickly put to a rather different use. For example, here is an engraving from 1641 of Laud with his nemesis Henry Burton:
AN48816001, © The Trustees of the British Museum
Laud is shown vomiting books as Burton holds him still, gripping his head in a manner which is meant to remind the viewer of execution. The captions confirm this. Burton proclaims that Laud will be ill “till Head from body part”, and the punning verse above their heads reads as follows:
Great was surnamed GREGORIE of Rome
Our LITTLE by GREGORIE comes short Home.
The pun here is that Gregory was not just the name of Pope Gregory the Great – a critique of Laud’s perceived return to Rome – but was also the name of London’s executioner, Gregory Brandon.
Woodcuts, the cheapest form of printed image, also had a field day with satirical images of Laud. Here is a woodcut that was commonly used to illustrate anti-Laudian pamphlets, in this case taken from Mercuries Message of 1641:
AN406357001, © The Trustees of the British Museum
In this case the satirical content was provided by the text that accompanied the woodcut. But depictions of Laud could be extremely sophisticated satires in their own right. Here is an image of Laud with fellow prelates, which draws on Van Dyck’s image (Laud is on the far left) but also plays with the associations of the word ‘canon’:
AN501635001, © The Trustees of the British Museum
These kinds of images would have been in wide circulation in bookshops, taverns and private homes in London in the early 1640s. They may have played an important role in shaping a popular political consciousness amongst Londoners, for instance amongst the hundreds who gathered to protest outside Lambeth Palace in May 1640. Laud himself was in no doubt of their impact, seeing a key cause of the reaction against him as:
base pictures of me; putting me into a Cage, and fastning me to a Post by a Chain at my Shoulder, and the like.
For more on anti-Laudian satire:
- Helen Pierce, ‘Anti-Episcopacy and Graphic Satire in England, 1640-1645’, The Historical Journal, 47:4 (2004), pp.809-48. This article is where I first came across all the images above. A revised version of the article forms chapter 4 of her excellent Unseemly Pictures: Graphic Satire and Politics in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2009).
- Andrew McRae, Literature, Satire, and the Early Stuart State (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 188-207.
- David Cressy, England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution, 1640-1642 (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 294-302.