The Laurel Wreath

In around 1630-1632, the Dutch artist Daniel Mytens, at the time in the employ of King Charles, was commission to paint a double portrait of the monarch and his queen, Henrietta Maria. On this canvas, now part of the Royal Collection, the King is being passed a laurel wreath by his wife, as ‘a symbol of their union and a public statement of tenderness and intimacy.’  The result is below…

DM C and H

History tells us that the King was less than impressed, however, and another painter, a certain Antony Van Dyck, was asked to produce his own version…

AVD C and H
© Archiepiscopal Castle and Gardens, Kromeríž, Czech Republic

Van Dyck’s offering was better received, and replaced Mytens’ attempt on the royal wall. Within two years, Mytens had left England and returned to the Netherlands. Whether this was a direct result of the King’s snub or merely a matter of timing, we can’t be completely sure, but it marked the end of Mytens’ career as a royal painter, and he never worked in England again.

Uunfortunately for Mytens, I can see why Charles wanted an alternative. For starters, the background is drab and empty, offering none of the majesty, intensity or intimacy Charles was looking for. The royal couple’s expressions come across as slightly reluctant, with Charles gingerly reaching to take the wreath as if not entirely sure what to do with it, while Henrietta Maria looks rather bored with the whole affair.

Van Dyck’s, by comparison, ticks all the boxes. There is colour, glamour, a blue sky. Charles watches the queen with an intimacy Mytens completely omitted, and Henrietta Maria looks directly at the viewer, with an expression of satisfaction and the certainty of her role. Charles may be the king, but here the main player is definitely his wife! During the English Civil War she was mistrusted by many, being French and Catholic, and accused of holding a dangerous influence over Charles. Looking at Van Dyck’s double portrait, I wonder if the clever and gifted painter was also making subtle, foreshadowing allusions to this? He fulfilled the brief to Charles’ satisfaction, but may also have offered us a glimpse of the real dynamic in their relationship, and the second power behind the throne.

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Childhood

This latest blog has been my most difficult to date. I wanted to do a study of children in England during the 17th century, and while there are numerous examples I could use, they are, for the most part, restricted to a single demographic, which is children of the nobility or royalty. For obvious reasons, this section of society was the most able to afford to commission portraits of their children, so it has been very hard to find representatives of those in the lower classes or poorer families from this period. If readers can point me in the direction of any, please feel free to leave a comment at the end of the post.

So with apologies for the somewhat one-sided view, I’ll start with with one of the most famous children of all at the start of the 1600s…

Charles I as Duke of York
Charles I when still Duke of York, by Robert Peake the Elder, 1605
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

 

Lady Mary Feilding
Lady Mary Feilding, as Countess of Aran, later Marchioness and Duchess of Hamilton (1613-1638), by Daniel Mytens, 1620

I like this one very much. I’ve never seen it before, and it’s quite unusual with the striking orange dress and feathered hair around the side of her face. Can any costume experts suggest what the white hair decoration would be made of? It looks to me like a lace headband, perhaps a comb, but as I know nothing about clothing in this period, I am happy to be corrected. Incidentally, for anyone interested in family connections, Lady Mary was a niece of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, the favourite courtier of both King James and Charles I.

 

Browne family
A Family Group, called Sir Thomas Browne and his Family, perhaps in part by William Dobson, c.1640s(?), The Chatsworth House Trust

 

Princess Mary
Princess Mary, Daughter of Charles I, c.1637, by Van Dyck
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

3rd Viscount Cary

This is my favourite. I have seen this portrait by Cornelius Johnson described as Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland (the subject of an earlier blog post), but this has to be wrong as Johnson was mainly working from the 1640s onwards, much too late to have painted King Charles’s wartime Secretary of State as a child. Another source says that this is Falkland’s son, Lucius Cary, the 3rd Viscount (1632-1649), which must be correct. Whoever the boy is, it’s a very endearing picture, complete with Johnson’s signature wide lace collar. I like that there is nothing behind or around him, and other than his hat, there are no distracting props to take your attention from the face or the pink colouring of his outfit.

 

Esme Stewart
Esme Stewart, 5th Duke of Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond, by John Weesop, 1653
©historicalportraits.com

 

Esme Stuart and sister Mary
Esme Stewart, 2nd Duke of Richmond, and his sister Mary, by John Michael Wright, c.1660
(section of larger portrait including their mother, Mary Villiers, Duchess of Lennox
and Richmond)

 

Basil Dixwell
Sir Basil Dixwell, bt.(1665-1750), by Mary Beale, 1681

The Early Years

I’ve been focussing a lot on portraits from the 1640s, so I thought I’d take a look at some earlier painters, active during the reign of King James I, to illustrate how portraiture (and fashion) changed as the century went on.

First, we have Flemish-born John de Critz (1551/2-1642), who was employed by King James in 1603 as serjeant painter* (jointly at first with another painter named Leonard Fryer, who had held the post under Queen Elizabeth), and produced pictures of the royal family, their Court and the nobility.

In this picture of James’s queen, Anne of Denmark (date not given), both the art and fashion still strongly resemble the Elizabethan style, and the sometimes flat, static poses and brushwork. I do like the drapery and shine on her skirts, however, and the intricate patterning of the lace collar.

Anne of Denmark
Anne of Denmark,  by John de Critz the Elder, ©National Portrait Gallery, London
(c) Montacute House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
James VI & I (1566-1625), by John de Critz the Elder,  date? © National Trust

Robert Peake the Elder (c.1551-1619) was an English artist employed by Queen Elizabeth, and after her death, by King James.  He shared the role of serjeant painter with John de Critz from 1607, and had also been appointed official picture-maker to the young heir, Prince Henry of Wales, of whom he created this unusually colourful portrait in 1603.

Henry Prince of Wales
Henry Frederick (1594–1612), Prince of Wales, with Sir John Harington (1592–1614), in the Hunting Field, 1603. ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Finally,  we have Paul van Somer (c1577-1621) another Flemish painter, who came to England around 1616 and began working at King James’s court.

James I van Somer I
James I of England and VI of Scotland, date? by Paul van Somer I, ©Museo del Prado, Madrid

Portraiture was developing, although not drastically so as yet. But with the 1620s came the period of Peter Paul Rubens, Daniel Mytens, and  Antony Van Dyck, all of whom would bring a new ‘look’ to English portraiture…

 

 

*The Serjeant Painters were employed, not only to paint original portraits and copies,  but also in the gilding and decorating of royal residences, coaches, barges, etc.

Dobson

What I love about 17th century portraiture is that you can watch its artistic development changing as the decades pass,  from the end of the Tudors to the beginning of the Stuarts, through the Civil War and on into the Restoration.  Beginning with the likes of William Peake and John de Critz in the opening years of the century, to Daniel Mytens, Peter Paul Rubens, Antony Van Dyck, William Dobson, Godfrey Kneller and Peter Lely, each decade seems to have its own illustrator to tell its story.

You can also chart the events of the period through its art, from the death of Elizabeth and the end of the Tudor dynasty in 1603, through King James’s court to the unsettled and nervous reign of Charles I, into the austere war years, and on to the glamour of Charles II’s restored monarchy. For me, no other period in British history can be so well-defined by those that painted it.

There were many memorable artists  working in England during the 17th century, but my favourite of them all is William Dobson.

William Dobson
“Portrait of the Artist”, possibly c.1645/6, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Dobson was an Englishman, born in St Albans in 1611 and trained in London with what seems to have been an ordinary painter’s apprenticeship. What is remarkable about him is that he wasn’t famous or well-travelled like Sir Antony Van Dyck or Rubens, both of whom worked for the most prestigious and influential people across Europe, nor did he have a distinguished education or career to recommend him, yet somehow, by the end of 1642, he had left London and was living in Oxford as the court painter to King Charles I. We have no idea how he got the job, but the works he produced of the Royalist supporters during four years of civil war became the eye-witness images of the conflict that we recognise today.  The Parliamentarian side had their own painter, Robert Walker, whose work we know by his many portraits of Oliver Cromwell, and other artists were also present during the period, but no name is as closely associated with the tragedy of the English Civil War as William Dobson. His ability to portray ‘real’ people, with their flaws and vulnerabilities,  is what makes his work so poignant and moving. Take this painting of the troubled King Charles, for example. I’ve not seen any other royal picture, of any king or queen, painted more honestly than this.

Charles I
“Charles I” c. 1642-1646, ©HistoricalPortraits.com/Philip Mould Ltd
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