When it comes to the most glamorous artists who ever lived, Sir Anthony Van Dyck ranks pretty high. In the early 17th century, he was the go-to man for portraits, operating as a kind of proto-Cecil Beaton as he toured Europe in his feathered hat, committing to canvas flattering likenesses of celebrated faces. But it was at the court of Charles I that he really flourished, his trademark style of swaggering poses being of particular appeal to the ill-fated king and his conceited followers.
For these services to celebrity, Van Dyck has been rewarded with a return to the headlines in our own fame-obsessed age. Last year, a newly discovered work by the Antwerp-born painter sent Fiona Bruce into a swoon on Antiques Roadshow, while just this month the Department for Culture, Media and Sport extended an export ban on his final self-portrait to allow more time for a campaign to raise the £12.5m needed to save it for the nation. This showy picture, painted in 1641 and currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery, gives us an idea of Van Dyck at his preening best, with luscious locks, goatee beard and slashed silk doublet.
But what of his character? No account of him has perhaps been so convincing as that in Viper Wine, the upcoming debut novel by journalist Hermione Eyre. An intoxicating fantasy in which real-life characters are haunted by the future, it tells the story of explorer and diplomat Sir Kenelm Digby and his wife Venetia, an English society beauty searching for the secret of eternal youth.
We look on as Van Dyck woos them into employing him with a sunflower and, in a final moving scene, paints the intimate portrait of Venetia on her deathbed, now in the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south-east London.
But in the book’s most evocative depiction of the artist, we attend a surreal Caroline salon at which Andy Warhol and the editor of Vogue gather around Van Dyck’s painting of the Digby family. By depicting this private view as a star-studded event, Eyre draws parallels with our own times to convey the elevated status that Van Dyck enjoyed. Meanwhile we are given a privileged insight into his personality as we see him sizing up the other characters in terms of brushstrokes and pigments.
As art history it’s deeply unorthodox – but as a postmodern portrait of a trend-setting painter in the midst of a comeback, it seems both thrillingly and entertainingly right.