The Man Who Saved British Painting

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Byline: Mark Hudson

Van Dyck And Britain

Tate Britain, London

until May 17


These days exhibitions have to make big claims, and this one is more extravagant than most: that Anthony van Dyck, Flemish court painter to Charles I, was the father - no, the creator - of British art.

Scrabbling about in the century before Van Dyck, it's certainly hard to find much to get excited about: a few Elizabethan miniatures, and before that Holbein who, while undeniably great, didn't leave much of a legacy and was German. Indeed, when Van Dyck first visited London in 1621, he found that most of the leading artists were fellow Flemings. British painters just didn't make the grade.

Yet Britain boasted some of Europe's top collectors, notably King Charles himself, who dreamed of introducing the grandeur and fluency of European painting to backwater Britain, and saw in Van Dyck, a pupil of Rubens, just the man to do it.

Short, but handsome and hugely ambitious, Van Dyck was more than happy to step into this role. Knighted when he finally settled here in 1632, he immediately became the dominant figure in British art.

Looking at his extraordinary portrait of the collector Thomas Howard, you can see why he made such an impact, yet the exhibition room devoted to work for Charles I is disappointing. If the Royal Collection, the National Gallery and the Louvre had been generous enough to lend key works, this could have been an astounding display. But the two large pictures presented are too similar..

While it's interesting to see that the king's weary and far from idealised features have simply been copied from one picture to the other, these paintings were designed to be seen from a distance in very large rooms. Viewed close-up in these low-ceilinged galleries, it's all too apparent how much of their surfaces is just space-filling.

Royal favour led to a massive demand for portraits from the British aristocracy and there are whole rooms here of foppish youths in velvet pantaloons and slouchy boots, and their ringleted sisters and cousins. …