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.

NPG 171, William Laud

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:

laud-hollar

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:

prima-effigies1

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:

burton-laud1

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:

laud-woodcut

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’:

laud-canons1

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:

3 Responses to “Van Dyck’s portrait of Archbishop Laud: the hijack of an image”

  1. Here’s another one to read, an old History Today article in which Kevin Sharpe would seem to agree with you that the images have played a strong role in shaping how Laud is now depicted. The historian criticises early Stuart scholars for buying into the satire levelled against the archbishop, for prejudging his papist sympathies in an era of high tension between the churches and, critically, for not taking Laud’s words and actions at face value.

    “Laud is too often depicted from the standpoint and propaganda of his enemies…His portrait, a dark brooding figure, suggests a sombre demeanour and stern determination which even the flamboyant romanticism of Van Dyck failed, or never attempted, to soften”

    http://www.historytoday.com/MainArticle.aspx?m=12610&amid=12610

  2. Perhaps not the most substantive comment in the world, but I’m coming at this post from my excessive reading of Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes,” where Laud is an example of the kind of excessive scholarly pride that goeth before a very big fall, and various Civil War texts where he’s a relatively faceless reformer.

    The thing that strikes me about the Van Dyck portrait, not having seen it before, is how hapless Laud looks. It makes me wonder if this is this really the same man?

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