Books: In pursuit of painted ladies

Robin Blake grew up with a `Van Dyck' which led him to write the painter's Life

I first became conscious of a work by Anthony Van Dyck in my high chair. Spooning up my baby food, I had an excellent view of a grand double portrait hanging in our dining room - two court ladies, posing on the fringe of an English oak wood, one wearing white and adopting a pose of glacial aloofness, the other dressed in red, strumming a lute and looking out of the picture in a decidedly come-hither way.

The canvas had been acquired in 1930 by my paternal grandparents of Accrington, Lancashire, for the sum of 50 guineas. The vendor, a Liverpool barrister named Eccles, had got it from a brother-in-law but, finding the painting in its heavy and ornate gilt frame too big to hang in his house (the canvas alone measures 124 x 156.5 cm), he had kept it in storage. "I am sorry to say," he wrote from the Athenaeum in reply to my grandmother Marie's enquiry, "I can give you no information as to the artist or subject, which you must carefully examine. Have not seen it for years." My grandfather Hubert Blake, a manufacturer of hydraulic pumps, now took charge of the detective work on his Accrington Van Dyck.

He photographed the painting and circulated prints to six of the major art galleries in Europe. Replies were encouraging: the director of the Staatliche Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, even stated - excitingly but incorrectly - that the lady on the left was Queen Henrietta Maria. Eventually the "original" of the portrait was traced to the collection of the Earl of Chesterfield at Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire. The artist was Van Dyck and the two ladies were also identifiable: Katherine, Lady Stanhope and Lucy, Lady Hastings. Sixty years on, spurred initially by my family's sale of the picture in 1991 and hoping to flesh out Sotheby's catalogue entry (they classified it as one of Van Dyck's studio works), I embarked on a snowballing, six-year research effort that has now culminated in the publication of the first "common reader's" biography of the artist.

That no one has previously written such a book is attributable to the decline, over the past 150 years, in the artist's status, if not in his fame. Van Dyck had previously occupied one of the highest pinnacles in Western art but he was downgraded by the 19th century art historians, who used him to boost his master, Rubens. Rubens's celebrity in the 18th century had had much to do with his diverse sensibility, as distinctively emotional as rational, as strongly "feminine" as "masculine". But influential German commentators like Wilhelm Bode preferred to see "great" artists as potent avatars of the Wagnerian gods. For them, the Wotan-like virility of Rubens could best be displayed by consigning Van Dyck, his nearest rival, to aetiolated discipleship - brilliant, certainly, but also sickly, weak-willed and degenerate. Quite unsubstantiated gossip was relayed of his dabbling in alchemy and magic, and wasting himself in gourmandising, gambling and loose living.

Things might have looked up for Van Dyck as, in the 20th century, the artist-hero gave way to the anti-hero, but now his prospects were held in check by quite different stereotyping - he began to be seen above all as the artist who epitomised the cavalier "English Gentleman". In egalitarian times, this has been death at the box office and so the true depth and variety of Van Dyck's art - his distinctive characterisation, social observation, child psychology, landscape forms, religious feeling, allegory or mythology; his contribution to oil painting, drawing, watercolour and printmaking - have been clouded. Among all these qualities, it is his interest in the psychology of friendship that took my interest from the start - the friendship, for instance, between the two English women in my family's picture, painted in about 1636.

Friendship was profoundly important to Van Dyck, and he always painted his own friends superlatively. One compelling example, to be seen in the forthcoming Royal Academy quartercentenary exhibition, is the grand life- size portrait of the Abbe Scaglia, a 17th century "agent of influence" known in secret diplomatic despatches as Agent XX. Another is Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby on her Deathbed (1633), a small, desolately sweet canvas done for perhaps his closest English chum, the philosopher and buccaneer Sir Kenelm Digby. But the idea of friendship itself, as a platonic association of free souls or minds, was also an important general theme of Van Dyck, who took the double "friendship portrait", hitherto an extremely rare form, and gave it lasting life.

The neoplatonic theory of perfect friendship between men had flourished in the literature of the Renaissance but Van Dyck's visual representations of it departed from orthodoxy in also promoting female friendships. Katherine, Lady Stanhope and Lucy, Lady Hastings is just one of at least nine friendship portraits of English women. Another - featuring the poet Anne Killigrew and an unidentified woman - can also be seen at the Royal Academy exhibition.

However, the Accrington Van Dyck is about more than proto-feminism. Look further into the identities of the two ladies portrayed and intriguing biographical facts emerge. Lucy, Lady Hastings, on the right, was wife to the grandee Earl of Huntingdon's heir. She was a noted intellectual and educator of her daughters but she sprang from deeply unfortunate stock - not that of her father, the poet and government lawyer Sir John Davies, but the family of her mother, Eleanor Tuchet, on which a deep taint of tragedy, criminality, madness and death had settled. Eleanor's "idiot" son Jack drowned while her husband was serving as Attorney General of Ireland. Returning to London, Lucy's mother began making prophetic outbursts, predicting the Duke of Buckingham's 1628 assassination two years in advance and, even more impressively, announcing in 1633 that the King himself would one day lose his head - an event that she lived to see 16 years later.

These prophecies were regarded as quasi-seditious and Eleanor earned spells in gaol. But her marginal criminality is as nothing to that of her elder brother, Mervyn 2nd Earl of Castlehaven who, in a sensational case, and on the evidence of his only son, was arraigned for sodomising his servants, and prostituting his wife and step-daughter. Lucy Hasting's uncle thus became the last man in England to be tried and condemned by the House of Lords for common law crimes. In 1631 he was executed.

In Van Dyck's picture, Lucy shows no sign of these traumas, though they undoubtedly marked her ideas on female education, which emphasised sobriety and learning, while keeping pupils entirely "ignorant of the vitiousness of other great personages". Van Dyck, of course, was fully conversant with the Castlehaven scandal and, indeed, painted the 2nd Earl's step- daughter and prime victim, Elizabeth, in one of his most sensitive and troubling portraits (now at Wilton House near Salisbury). But in portraying Lucy here, he allows no shadow to darken the lady's agreeably plump, lute- playing figure, in distinct contrast to her severe, and even truculent companion. This in itself is a piece of rhetorical irony. In playing off one sitter against the other, Van Dyck gives a subtle personal twist to the friendship genre. The reason for this lies in his own relationship with Lucy's companion.

Nee Wotton, the favourite niece of the poet, diplomat and connoisseur Sir Henry Wotton (whom Van Dyck had met during his travels in Italy), Katherine Stanhope was at the time of the painting a young widow. Her job at court was governess to King Charles I's second child, the Princess Royal, but her special place in Van Dyck's story is secured by the passing mention, in a contemporary letter from the mid-1630s, of Van Dyck's infatuation for her.

Charles I's Painter-in-Ordinary was still unmarried, although he had become involved with the jealous courtesan Margaret Lemon, a virago who (so it was said) had threatened to bite off his thumb if he continued to keep company with beautiful society ladies at his Blackfriars studio. Katherine was one of these belles, yet we are told she firmly rejected Van Dyck's advances before quarrelling irrevocably with him over the price of a portrait. Katherine went on to marry a Dutch aristocrat and led an adventurous life during the English Civil War, risking her life to carry despatches and supplies from Holland to the King. Van Dyck's thumb may have survived intact, but his fingers had been burnt.

In the light of all this information, Katherine's body language - cool and self-contained beside the openness of her companion - seems calculated to convey a particularly piquant message: the painter contrasting a sharp- tongued, "difficult" woman with another who, although with much cause to be sad and perhaps bitter, has succeeded in overcoming her problems. Years ago, as a child, I pondered the disparity between the woman in white and the one in red. Today, I feel I know why it is there.

`Anthony Van Dyck: A Life 1599-1641' by Robin Blake is published by Constable (pounds 25)

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