Portrait of an Age: Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Court Artist to Charles I, Is the Subject of a New Exhibition at Tate Britain. Kevin Sharpe, Consultant to the Project, Argues That the Visual Arts Can Be as Valuable as the Written Word to Historians Seeking a Better Understanding of the Nature of Politics and Power

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Though there are signs that things are changing, historians have shown surprisingly little interest in the visual documents of their period. I do not mean that they have completely ignored pictures. Many history books are lavishly illustrated. But usually illustrations receive little analysis and are more decoration than evidence for understanding an age.

For a long time this was the case with literature, quotations serving as baubles on the branches of arguments rooted in the historian's preferred and supposedly true materials: archives, printed pamphlets and the like. Latterly, however, although it has been led by historically minded literary scholars, there has been a move to recognise poems and plays as documents of the contemporary imagination and as evidence for the ideas and anxieties, the religious and political attitudes and tensions of the past. It is time that we accorded this respect not only to paintings but to all the visual culture--the engravings and woodcuts, medals and artefacts--of the past.


On February 18th Tate Britain opens Van Dyck and Britain, curated by Karen Hearn, who brought us the groundbreaking Dynasties exhibition in 1995. Unlike the 1999 Van Dyck exhibition at the Royal Academy, Van Dyck and Britain looks at the impact of the artist on British art and artists working before his arrival, his legacy to his immediate successors as courtly portraitists, and his influence on three centuries of aristocratic self-presentation.

I have been privileged to be the historical consultant and in that role have helped to select exhibits, write or check wall-texts and captions, and contribute to the catalogue. It has been both an enjoyable experience and a learning curve. When, more than 15 years ago, I wrote a book on The Personal Rule of Charles I, I had a sense that, for all the archives I had visited, I understood most about Charles I--or his values and how he conceived himself--from Van Dyck's paintings. Clearly the king and the artist had a major effect on each other. While on the Continent, Van Dyck had painted religious scenes as much as portraits, but in England he became almost exclusively a court portraitist working for Charles I (whereas he had not for James I on an earlier visit) and for the leading aristocrats of the Caroline age. In terms of the relationship with Charles I, the king's favour of a knighthood, a pension and a house tell us a certain amount but less perhaps than the intimacy suggested by the king building steps to Van Dyck's Blackfriars residence so that he could easily visit by water. The connoisseur king, I would suggest, saw in Van Dyck not merely an enormously talented artist with an international reputation, but an artist who could effect for him what the Titians he had seen in Spain had done for the Habsburgs. He saw in Van Dyck, I believe, an artist who could translate his values onto canvas and make his ideals real.


Central to Charles I's political and aesthetic philosophy was the belief that self-regulation was the principle of moral and political order. The king's own aesthetic lifestyle and moral rigidity expressed not just personal taste but a broader philosophy of the regulation of the passions and appetites and a belief that the king should and could teach by example such virtues as the best means of securing order. Those beliefs were evident in Charles's personal behaviour, in his marriage, and in the arrangements for his court. It was represented in the twice-yearly court masques in which the king, his queen and the courtiers performed. And it is the essence of famous Van Dyck royal portraits, such as Charles I on Horseback with Monsieur St Antoine and Le Roi a la Chasse. As we study these canvasses, we see the representation of a philosophy of government, just as in the original family portraits of Charles I with his wife and family or of the royal children we see a powerful, novel and personal representation of the common conceit that the king was the father of the nation who ruled by love rather than fear. …


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