Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: tate britain

Van Dyck and Britain

I finally got round to visiting Tate Britain for its Van Dyck and Britain exhibition on Friday. It’s a very well put together collection. The exhibition starts with a look at English portraiture before Van Dyck’s arrival in London, leading through into portraits of Charles I and his family and of Charles’s court. As well as the familiar portraits – Charles on horseback, Henrietta Maria in all her finery,  the young Charles II in armour – it has some less well-known works like this amazing portrait of Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle:

0218_vandyck

It then moves from the public to the private to focus on Van Dyck’s personal life. The highlight here is undoubtedly the famous double portrait of  Van Dyck and his friend Endymion Porter:

endymion-porter

For me one of the best parts of the exhbition was the section on the impact of Van Dyck. I was really pleased that the Tate had got hold of engravings by Pierre Lombart inspired by Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I on horseback. Here is the first, showing Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector and produced at some point after 1655:

cromwell-horseman

AN150548001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

It is a straight lift from Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I on horseback with M. de St Antoine:

charles-horseback

Alongside the Cromwell engraving, the Tate had a subsequent impression of the plate, this time with Cromwell’s head scratched out and Charles I’s head put in:

charles-horseman

AN150545001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

But I thought the Tate missed a trick by not showing the intermediate plate, which has become known as the Headless Horseman:

headless-horseman

AN150541001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

There was also a wonderful portrait by John Singer Sergeant of the Earl of Dalhousie, which owes a debt to Van Dyck’s portrait of Lord John Stuart and his brother Lord Bernard:

singer-sargent-dalhousie250px-sir-anthony-van-dyck-lord-john-stuart-and-his-brother-lord-bernard-stuart

Talking to a few other visitors, it seems that most people there on Friday afternoon were struck by how well Van Dyck captured the fashions of the 1630s: the flowing hair, the sumptuous fabrics. But walking out of the Tate, I realised that what had inspired me most wasn’t the emblems and accessories in the portraits – flawlessly executed as they are – but the simpler portraits, where the sitter’s expression is what conveys their power. The picture I kept coming back to, above all others, was Van Dyck’s portrait of the earl of Strafford with Sir Philip Mainwaring.

van_dyck_thomas_wentworth_earl_of_strafford_with_sir_philip_mainwaring_1639-40

As a painting this is sparsely detailed compared to many of the martially- or mythologically-inspired grand portraits of Charles’s court.  But Van Dyck has captured Strafford’s mix of charisma and utter ruthlessness perfectly. Walking out onto Millbank it was Strafford’s steely gaze that I took away with me.

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:

The Lure of the East

I went to Tate Britain’s exhibition about British orientalist painting at the end of last week. The Lure of the East has been criticised by some reviewers for being excessively “politically correct” in castigating British painters’ interpretation of the Middle East. This isn’t a proper review as such, simply some notes on a painting that particularly grabbed me. But personally I thought the exhibition steered a remarkably even course between the imaginative sympathy of many of the painters and the occasionally oppressive or lurid fantasies projected onto their subject matter by others. It’s on until 31 August so do drop in if you get the chance.

One painting that particularly stood out was of Robert and Teresia Shirley (artist unknown, c. 1627). Robert was an English diplomat and traveller who spent time in Persia in the late sixteenth century and who while there married Teresia Khan, a Circassian aristocrat. Above is Robert in richly embroidered Persian dress, with Teresia holding a pistol and a pocket watch. These symbolise the new technology being introduced to Persia at the time – one of Robert’s legacies was the training of the Persian army in English military tactics, in return for 5,000 horses.