The Collectors

The 17th century  is notable not only for showcasing some of the most famous painters and paintings we are familiar with today, but also for the way in which the purpose and value of art was changing. Where art was once created for purely religious purposes, commissioned as family heirlooms, or used to make a statement of one’s wealth or influence, during the 1600s the practice of gathering the best works for prestige or personal connoisseurship created some of the greatest art collections in history.

Across Europe the battle was on to secure the most valuable pieces by  giants such as Titian and Raphael whenever a ruling family went bankrupt, lost their estate through war, or simply died, leaving their collections ‘up for grabs’. One of the most successful and notorious of these opportunists was King Charles I himself, who despite his other, less successful traits, had an excellent eye for art, and had his agents travel the continent scooping up the best to be had, often under the noses of other royal families or wealthy enthusiasts who were hot on his heels. Charles’s art collection – today considered to have been one of the most remarkable gatherings of western art to date – was sold off by Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth after the king’s death.

Another famous English collector was the courtier Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, painted here by Peter Paul Rubens in 1629/1630. Arundel spent many years touring Europe, negotiating and corresponding with agents and advisers in order to purchase the very best on offer. At his death, he left behind several hundred paintings, in addition to sculptures, drawings, prints and jewellery.

arundel
©National Gallery, London

Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, also amassed an impressive art collection of over 100 paintings, including more than 20 by Van Dyck, for whom he sat in around 1634.

pembroke
Philip Herbert by Van Dyck, ©National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Others with smaller but no less impressive collections included the ill-fated Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, who had works by Van Dyck, Mytens and Honthorst, and James, 1st Duke of Hamilton, who was particularly fond of Venetian paintings. These accounted for over half of his collection of 600+ works when inventoried in early 1643.

If you’re interested in the adventures and travels of the collectors and their prized possessions, I’d  really recommend a read of “The Sale of the Late King’s Goods” by Jerry Brotton, which describes the European art scene in the 17th century, and the fate of King Charles’s famed collection after his death. (Spoiler: Charles II managed to buy much of it back, where it now hangs in the Royal Collection. Phew!)

Sir Anthony van Dyck

No discussion of 17th century portraiture in England would be complete without mentioning the great Sir Anthony van Dyck. A student of Rubens (who painted the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London, which still stands today), he came to England in the 1620s to work as court painter to King Charles I, and remained there until his own death in 1641.

Unlike his successor in Charles’ employ, William Dobson, Van Dyck was fortunate to have  worked in the studio of the great Master, Peter Paul Rubens, and to have employed his talent in Europe, painting for wealthy and influential patrons across the continent. In England he produced some of the most recognised works in the history of English portraiture, such as this one of King Charles:

Charles I three
Dated c.1635/1636, ©The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

….and his own self-portrait, which was recently purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in London after a successful publicity campaign to save it from being sold abroad or into private hands.

Van Dyck self portrait
Painted c.1640, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Van Dyck’s death in 1641, shortly before the King left London for the final time as the Civil War began, leaves us with an intriguing question. Had he lived, would he have followed the King, and continued painting portraits of what was left of the Royalist aristocracy in exile from London? Or would he have looked to his own comfort and self-preservation and fled back to the safety of Europe? I don’t know enough about him to be able to offer an answer, but the timing of his death seems oddly fitting, as if he was no longer needed by the times, with war and ugliness on the horizon, and was making way for someone else. Would his beautiful and elegant style have ‘fit’ in the middle of such a fight? I’d love to know how his work would, by necessity and austerity, have changed had he lived and remained by the King’s side to paint the Royalists at war, but then if he had, we wouldn’t have had Dobson, and the visual memory of the conflict that has been passed down to us would be strikingly different.

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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