Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I at Compton Verney

July 12 2012

Video: Compton Verney

A reader has kindly alerted me to this video from Compton Verney by its director Steven Parissien. (The sound quality is poor, and you have to turn the volume right up.) It discusses Van Dyck's Portrait of Charles I in Three Positions, which is on loan from the Royal Collection until September, and hangs alongside a later copy of Bernini's famous bust of the King, for which the painting acted as a guide.

I'm afraid I can't resist pointing out some innacuracies in the video. The supposition is made that it was fortunate for Van Dyck that he died in 1641 - a year before the Civil War broke out - for after 1642 'the patronage... people like Van Dyck had enjoyed completely disappeared'. This is not quite true, as the portraits by William Dobson of the court in Oxford show only too clearly. And in any case, Van Dyck knew what was coming and seems to have been making plans to leave England.

It is then said that after Charles I's death Cromwell 'tried to get away' from the 'iconic portraiture' of the Caroline regime, and commissioned paintings that were a little 'less kingly'. The famous line 'paint me warts and all' is mentioned. But again, not entirely true. The distinguishing feature of Parliamentary portraiture after the Civil War is that it seeks completely to emulate the Royalist portraiture formulated by Van Dyck in the 1630s. Robert Walker's portraits of Cromwell simply take an existing Van Dyck prototype, and place the Protector's head on top. In 1655 the engraver Pierre Lombart was paid £20 bythe council for an engraving of Cromwell (by then called 'His Highness') in exactly the same pose as Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I on a horse. After Cromwell's death, his head was rubbed out from Lombart's plate, and that of Charles I put back in.

The point is that Van Dyck's portraits were not seen just as images of royalty, but as images of power. That was Van Dyck's genius. The head on the body was interchangeable. In fact, any head would do.  

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