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)

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz