Podium: England seen through the eyes of van Dyck

Aileen Ribiero
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:20

Aileen Ribiero

From a lecture by the reader in history of art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, given to the Royal Academy in London

IT IS almost a truism to say that in a sense van Dyck was the creator of the Caroline court, for it is largely through his eyes that we perceive it. It is clear from looking at van Dyck's first great royal group, painted soon after his arrival in England in 1632, why he should from then onwards have had a virtual monopoly of royal portraiture.

Charles I wears a formal suit of black and silver. Note the silver ribbon bows at the waist, which secured the doublet to the breeches and which were also decorative. The cloak, with its Garter star, an idea introduced by Charles, is lined with lilac, and his hose are of the same delicate colour. The dignified formality of the costume (which never overwhelms the sitter) is perhaps a deliberate contrast to the simple bodice-and- skirt ensemble of the Queen. One wonders if van Dyck was bold enough to suggest to Henrietta Maria that she didn't wear court dress with its overgown, padded sleeves and high collar, but this style, the kind of fashionable informality that she introduced to the English court, and which the artist found more aesthetically pleasing.

Although this wasn't explicitly stated, Charles I must have quickly appreciated van Dyck's expertise in turning the ordinary into legend, and his ability to present the royalist absolutist theories visually, in a subtle yet clear way. In van Dyck's portrait of Charles I in three positions, painted probably in 1635, we can see how the artist catches the melancholy and indifference to realities in his character, and combines this with a virtuoso performance on the details of the dress.

While Charles I is depicted in the traditional roles of ruler and huntsman and - on horseback - as military leader, Henrietta Maria is usually shown in relatively informal, simple style, both in portraiture and in costume. In many portraits she is the epitome of courtly love, the beautiful and chaste consort, in white silk with little in the way of jewellery.

Van Dyck painted the Queen only once in formal court dress. Far better known is the famous portrait of Henrietta Maria with the dwarf Jeffrey Hudson, painted in the mid-1630s; the Queen wears a riding-costume of blue decorated with gold braid and with myriad tiny cuts - quite difficult to see in a slide, but a tribute to the artist's virtuoso skills. The bodice is based on the tabbed doublet worn by men, and Henrietta Maria has also adopted the masculine-style lace collar and black beaver hat. Such a costume, with its male components, caused some amount of moralist censure - criticism of the Queen's clothes and the "new" French fashions she introduced was allied to hostility towards her Catholicism, and to her supposed influence on the king.

On coming to England, van Dyck found the dress of Englishwomen quite different from the black of his native Flanders (black was also the colour of choice worn by the Spanish-influenced court of Genoa in Italy, where he'd spent some time). Englishwomen preferred brighter colours and formal costume. But this rather cumbersome style didn't suit van Dyck's taste as much as the simpler and more becoming bodice-and-skirt costume, particularly when combined with a subtle colour such as the tawny orange worn, for example, by Anne Killigrew, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and wife of George Kirke, Gentleman of the Robes to Charles I.

Other popular colours included that perennial favourite, white - a colour made a la mode by the Queen - and a metallic blue, of the kind we see in the portrait of Anne Carr, Countess of Bedford. Note both her decolletage (another fashion at court) and the fine silk scarf around her shoulders; as the poet Robert Herrick commented:

"A sweet disorder in the dresse

Kindles in cloathes a wantonnesse:

A Lawne about the shoulders


Into a fine distraction."

Van Dyck does more than just record dress - at times he can sometimes lead us astray with fanciful costume. He gives us an indelible image of how society wished to be seen, and he brings it, at a critical moment in time, vividly to life.

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