A History of Art in England (14): Heads (painted, and lost)

van Dyck, Anthony, 1599-1641; Charles I (1600-1649), and Henrietta Maria (c.1609-1669), with Their Two Eldest Children, Prince Charles (1630-1685), and Princess Mary (1631-1660)

Charles I (1600–1649), and Henrietta Maria (c.1609–1669), with Their Two Eldest Children, Prince Charles (1630–1685), and Princess Mary (1631–1660)
Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) (after); Chiswick House [artuk.org]


Charles I and Henrietta Maria brought the art of painting to the centre of court life as never before seen in Britain, primarily through acquisition – inaugurating a wave of collecting amongst the aristocracy – but also through direct contact and appreciation of artists themselves.

Charles’s interest in art began in 1623, when he went to Madrid… in Spain, Charles saw the glories of its royal art collection… [and came home] with paintings by Titian and Veronese, and a burning ambition to acquire a great art collection of his own. [There’s a great article about this in a BBC article here]. And as the Royal Academy notes, Charles’s ‘burning ambition’ combined with Henrietta Maria’s sophisticated knowledge of the art world and the impact of visual culture.

The Royal Collection website notes:

Charles’s passion for contemporary art, and for the patronage of contemporary artists was also fuelled in the 1620s and his interests as a collector and patron became increasingly widely-known across Europe.

Rambling 1

Roy Strong (in “The Spirit of Britain”) draws our attention to this 1628 painting by Gerrit von Honthorst in the Royal Collection. The Duke of Buckingham presents the Muses of the Liberal Arts to the royal couple who we see re-presented as Apollo and Diana, sun and moon – the couple loved masques and dressing up. More ‘politically’ though they are hereby deemed “patrons of the arts and the focal point of the kingdom’s intellectual activity.” Which really says everything about how they saw themselves and expected others to see them, thereby increasing the divide between court patronage and the common viewer.

I do however think it’s important that as a collector and connoisseur, Charles was keenly aware of contemporary art. As we saw last time, Charles commissioned Rubens to paint the great Banqueting Hall ceiling with its Apotheosis of James I, a unique example of the European-style that occludes the Elizabethan Age and opens a near-century of ‘British Baroque’ – the later stages of which were recognised by a recent Tate exhibition.

Rubens, one of the most famous artists, widely-travelled but based mainly in Antwerp, was in London through 1629-30. Primarily on a diplomatic mission, he nevertheless had time to paint, for example “Venus, Mars and Cupid” and “Peace and War”, both gifts to Charles and now at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

However, for Rothenstein in “An Introduction to English Painting”, it is Rubens’ student, “the dazzling figure of Sir Anthony van Dyck”, who dominates:

“…he became Court Painter to Charles I and settled here more or less permanently in 1632… In his portraits Van Dyck gave the supreme interpretation of the chivalrous romanticism, the gravely poetic spirit with which Englishmen of the age of Charles I were imbued.”

That might be so, but equally Rothenstein writes that Van Dyck brings an audacity, a loftiness of vision, a new sensitivity to style and new understandings of design and colour. There are so plenty of his paintings to explore via artuk.org, but if I were to choose two, it would be especially for the richness of colour and texture:

Sir Robert Shirley (1581–1628) [1622, National Trust, Petworth House]

A Lady of the Spencer Family [c.1633–8, Tate]

(both at http://www.artuk.org).

Whilst Rubens would influence Constable, so Van Dyck is the forerunner of Gainsborough and Singer Sargent – however neither established a school of art in Britain, although Rothenstein does note Van Dyck’s pupil William Dobson (1611-1646) for his robust realism, colour and brushwork, and whom one of his peers described as “the most excellent painter that England has yet bred”

Little is known of Dobson’s early career, though Britannica.com reports:

While an apprentice to a stationer and picture dealer, the young Dobson began to copy the pictures of Titian and Anthony Van Dyck and also to draw pictures from life. Van Dyck, happening to pass a shop in Snow Hill where one of Dobson’s pictures was visible, sought out the artist and presented him to Charles I, who took Dobson under his protection and not only sat for him several times for his own portrait but also had the prince of Wales, Prince Rupert, and many others do the same. The king had a high opinion of his artistic ability, styled him the English Tintoretto, and appointed him sergeant-painter on the death of Van Dyck.

That appointment was in 1641, a year later the English Civil War broke out and Dobson found himself based at the royalist court in Oxford where, Rothenstein writes, “he painted a group of portraits marked by rare nobility, a direct but deep insight into character and resonant colour.”

Dobson, William, 1611-1646; Portrait of a Royalist

Portrait of a Royalist [1643; National Maritime Museum]

A half-length portrait of an unknown Royalist naval commander. He wears a salmon-pink doublet, with braid on the front and sleeves. Over his left arm, a drape of blue material, perhaps a silk cloak, may also symbolise the sea… one of Dobson’s most glowingly coloured works.

Whilst there’s quite a discussion at artuk.org with regard to the sitter’s identity, I quite like the fact that he’s “unknown”; proud and loyal, he looks out with that poetic sensibility Rothenstein notes.

 There were portraits painted on the Commonwealth side of things also, by artists such as Robert Walker (1599-1658), the chief painter of the parliamentary party during the Commonwealth of England from 1649–60, whose “heads” are still under the influence of Van Dyck but which, Rothenstein writes, “are truly and wholly Puritanic”.

Walker, Robert, 1599-1658; Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658)

[The Captain Christie Crawfurd English Civil War Collection; artuk.org]

Another English artist of the Commonwealth was Edward Bower (1597-1667) who sketched the doomed King Charles – defiantly wearing his hat – at the trials of 1649:

Bower, Edward, 1597-1667; Charles I (1600-1649), at His Trial

Charles I (1600–1649), at His Trial [National Trust, Antony]

The king would be beheaded a week later on scaffolding outside the Banqueting House (Rubens’ ceiling apparently covered over).

Charles and Henrietta Maria’s art collection would be sold off. (There’s a brilliant book looking at all of this by Jeremy Brotton called “The Sale of the Late King’s Goods”.

Cromwell’s Puritan forces take centre stage.

And, as Rothenstein puts it:

“beauty was suspect as the enemy of the good.”


However, with the collapse of Cromwell’s revolution and the Restoration of monarchy, there would be a new flourishing of visual art in Britain later in the 17th century – and one that would gradually expand into the common viewer’s domain.

And it is of note, before we leave Van Dyck behind, that as well as the inevitable portraits so beloved of the British court, he painted, in watercolour:

An English Landscape (possibly Rye)

van Dyck, Anthony, 1599-1641; An English Landscape

[late 1630s, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts; artuk.org]


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (14)

If you are enjoying this series and are able – even occasionally – to donate, I am extremely grateful. Many thanks and best wishes!


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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