The crucial painting in Tate Britain’s excellent Van Dyck and Britain show isn’t a Van Dyck after all. Robert Peake’s Henry, Prince of Wales and Sir John Harington in the Hunting Field stands proud but confused in the very first room. The absurd boy in a hunter’s body, the pistachio green clothes, the misshapen limbs, the angular style, the cadaver of the stag hanging awkwardly at the bottom of the canvas, the miniature crests swinging on twigs: Peake’s magnificent yet deeply flawed British school painting represents everything Van Dyck’s majestic style would eliminate over the course of the seventeenth century.
For the connoisseur and the art historian this is a brilliant exhibition. It shows how British art became European. How the stiff Dutch and oblique British painters of the sixteenth century gave way to the flowing, regal style of the seventeenth. How we got from the Cholmondeley Sisters to Kneller, Lely and beyond.
But it’s more than just transformation in the history of art. Van Dyck developed not just a pictorial manner, but a whole visual concept of nobility and royalty emanated from his workshop. The portraits of Charles I would become a touchstone for depicting kings and queens, or indeed for imbuing any sitter with a sense of majesty. And because Van Dyck has been so influential, because we are so used to a certain type of regal portrait, it is Peake’s painting that leaps out (here compared against Van Dyck’s painting of the future Charles II)
Robert Peake, Henry, Prince of Wales and Sir John Harington in the Hunting Field, 1603, Metropolitan Museum, New York
Anthony Van Dyck, Future Charles II as Prince of Wales, c.1637-8, Private Collection
And just as Van Dyck canceled out a whole aesthetic, removing not just the painted stiffness, but he clarified what a painting is, a recording of the visualised world which suspended disbelief.
So in Peake’s canvas, there still remain the artificial elements which would leave a viewer to question its visual authenticity. The studded colouration on the saddle, giving the canvas a tactile presence, the two crests dangling from the trees or the text at the bottom left or etched on the trees. Such devices were relics of a mode of visual communication which thought not of painting as simply representing the visual world but providing a more heterogeneous mode of communication, which documented abstract values in more concrete fashion.
In Van Dyck’s oeuvre just about any device which distracts the illusion of verisimilitude is eliminated; the Fleming has such belief in the rhetoric of his style that he is not need to bolster the message of majesty with other symbols and icons. The paintings speaks for itself. And once Van Dyck had made this transformation Britain, or perhaps more correctly England, could no longer be insulated from southern as well as lowland Europe.
How did he do this?
Anthony Van Dyck,Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, c.1638, National Gallery London
Van Dyck creates sitters that are effortlessly relaxed. The splendid clothes (probably done by assistants as well as Van Dyck) show an absolute mastery of the textures of silk and satin – close-ups of trousers and skirts form their own abstract symphonies.
Detail of Stuart brothers painting above
Each item is unsullied and loudly declares that their wearers need not work nor labour.
William Killigrew, 1638, Tate Britain
Emotions are calm and restrained, showing the sitter’s absolute control of any internal sentiment and often stand in contrast to the more tempestuous weather in the background (for example the portrait of William Killigrew) And while there are dark greens and browns in the background, the lead characters are illuminated by a clean, pure light.
Details of noses
And with the poses themselves, the way the sitters organise themselves within the space around them, that each characters asserts his regal bearing. Van Dyck’s characters are often (although not always) haughty in their attitude, carrying their arrogance before them. The gaze of the viewer is disdained. Sitters either look askance, bearing acknowledging a spectator’s presence, or simply look through the viewer. This is no level playing field; the spectator is clearly in the presence of superiors The phrase ‘looking down your nose’ seems a perfect fit for Van Dyck’s sitters. The fingers too are worth noting, long graceful digits that add to a sitter’s elegance.
Details of fingers
Yet all the while that Van Dyck was concocting the new regal approach, the English political scene was fermenting – the Civil War would explode in the year of Van Dyck’s death. Does the exhibition blindly ignore all the fault lines cracking open in English society, the gaping ideological differences which would result in twenty years of trauma? Well, in a sense yes. There is little or no mention of politics in the labels, and there is no contextual visual documentation to place Van Dyck in the society in which he worked. We learn nothing about this history. But at the same time, Van Dyck gave the contemporary curator very little to work with. Van Dyck’s visual world, entirely focused on the world of the cavaliers rather than the roundheads, offers no indication of the friction and strife that would follow. Is that really a surprise? Patrons did not commission paintings that reflected doubt. I suppose the political interpretation is in the very absence of politics in Van Dyck’s oeuvre, showing a mindset that was desperately trying to close itself off and develop in splendid isolation. The great antagonisms of the Civil War were everything Van Dyck’s leisured, majestic world was not.