National treasures – Van Dyck: Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart


Continuing our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…

In a room full of paintings, why does a particular one leap out? Practically every painting in the National Gallery would probably leap out if it were instead displayed in a common-or-garden gallery, so a painting housed here must have a very high degree of leap-outishness indeed if it is to perform the trick.

I can’t say exactly why Antony Van Dyck’s double-portrait first leapt out at me, other than because of its luxurious colours and the extreme foppery of its subjects’ poses. What a pair o’ ponces, I thought, mirthfully. But whereas some art is diminished by narrative explanation, the more you learn about this one, the more striking it becomes.

The young men portrayed are Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart, sons of the Duke of Lennox and cousins of the doomed monarch King Charles I. They could hardly look wetter if they tried, could they? Alabaster skin, golden spaniel hair and huge Stuart conks. Their mirrored three-quarter profiles and unnaturally co-ordinated front feet create the vague sense that they are engaged together in some sort of foxtrot. Lord John (left) is the elder brother, leaning contemplatively, his expression entirely placid. Lord Bernard is lower on the steps, as befits his junior status, but is arranged in an aggressively foppish and complicated ‘I’m a little teapot’ stance (a sketch for which survives in the British Museum). John, it seems, is the thinker; Bernard is the do-er.

Yet it turns out that these characterisations are inaccurate. Contemporary literature describes John has having a ‘rough and choleric nature…not delighted with the softness of the Court’ but ‘dedicated… to the profession of arms.’ Bernard, meanwhile, had ‘a most gentle, affable and courteous nature.’ Looking again at the painting, this knowledge somehow confers a layer of poignancy; they are posing within poses. It is as if neither boy could live up to the demands of image (just as none of us can live up to the permanent joy of family photo albums), and as if each is trapped in a pre-ordained role (as royals are to this day).

There is a further layer of poignancy. A few years later, both John and Bernard were to die in the Civil War. Knowing this, the setting seems ominous: they stand on the steps as if waiting for the carriage that will take them away, ultimately, to battle and death. Those grinning photographs of uniformed doomed youth heading off to one the 20th Century’s horrors are always rather heartbreaking, aren’t they? As indeed are most lively snapshots of the now deceased: we are all doomed but not one of us knows the hour. Looking again, the fops aren’t funny anymore.

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15 thoughts on “National treasures – Van Dyck: Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart

  1. Worm
    November 16, 2010 at 09:57

    They have such very little heads!

    I always rather liked the van Dyck self portrait at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. In his own self portrait, and to an extent in the lovely picture above, he seems to have captured a sort of fragile cervine youthfulness

    November 16, 2010 at 11:09

    But not as little as the horse’s head in the Charles I portrait, which hangs nearby.

    It’s an incredibly imposing picture, but that horse is just ridiculous…

    November 16, 2010 at 11:12

    Van Dyck seems to me a bit of a Francois Boucher, painting English Toffs rather than Louis the umpteenth’s fancy wimmen. This right little ravers picture is the one that, in the Wallraf Frau Malty frequently has to drag me away from.

    The toffs in the Van D, were they alive today, would be either yachties or oarsmen, firm of jowl, dim of wit, overconfident.

  4. Worm
    November 16, 2010 at 11:56

    That horses head is ludicrous!! Love it!

    November 16, 2010 at 11:58

    I can picture Frau Malty sighing as she leads you away from the Boucher by your tongue, Malty.

    There’s some sauce coming up later in this series, look out for it….

  6. Gaw
    November 16, 2010 at 12:56

    That painting brings out the roundhead in me.

    November 16, 2010 at 13:01

    Great post, Brit. I’ve always thought this painting shocks by being so similar to the present in some ways. Yet it was painted in about 1638. Apparently their father was a patron of Ben Jonson who lodged with the family for some years, but already we are aeons away from the world of Elizabethans and their playwrights. Time is a very slippery thing. Their flamboyance engages us while their pose pushes us firmly away, a playfulness lacking in the colder eye brought to bear in Van Dyck’s portrait of an extremely cruel man, Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford. Well, that’s my take. The great thing about masterful paintings is that the next time I see this one, another reaction to it will form.

    November 16, 2010 at 13:04

    We visited Washington for a few days about a month ago and I spent a couple of hours in the excellent (and free) National Gallery, focusing on the 17th century Dutch and other Masters. Lots of portraits and, inspired by The Dabbler, I was very aware of how the adults all had stone-cold blank stares while the children smiled or looked impish or whatever–much more human. It struck me as a mirror of our modern holiday snaps in which the adults all have obligatory “We’re having fun!” smiles while the kids pout or look shy or otherwise refuse to cooperate.

    It seems to me this portrait captures the awkward adolescent transition very well. The foppishness is very strained, much as a modern teen might feign an exaggerated coolness, and they can’t quite do the soulless mien despite their obvious efforts.

    November 17, 2010 at 11:21

    Interesting and convincing views, both, Mark and Peter.

    Mark – that portrait of Wentworth is mesmerising…must go in and take a look next time am in the vicinity.

    November 17, 2010 at 16:42

    As someone with a longstanding if admittedly one-sided crush on ‘this great, brave, bad man’ as Macaulay called him — without, incidentally, accepting the Whiggish notion that there was much very ‘bad’ about him — I can’t resist pointing out that this is surely the better, and possibly even more convincingly autograph Van Dyck portrait of Strafford?

    (I’ve been ignoring this thread, if only because I can’t quite bring myself to acknowledge the existence of Gaw’s inner Roundhead — now that I’m here, though, fascinating post as ever, Brit.)

  11. Gaw
    November 17, 2010 at 18:22

    Barendina, if I was confronted by one of those warty, pasty portraits of Cromwell from around the corner at the NPG something tells me my inner Cavalier would emerge.

    November 18, 2010 at 11:24

    Lord Bernard has some seriously weird anatomy going on. What on earth is wrong with his arms and shoulders? Just how long is his neck?

    Perhaps Van Dyck’s camera lucida had a distorting mirror effect.

  13. Gaw
    November 18, 2010 at 11:42

    Some of Ingres’ subjects also have implausibly long arms and necks. Makes them look more elegant?

    November 18, 2010 at 12:28

    This post requires some input from Susan, the rugby operatives would look, you know, dandy in this schmutter, leading to a seismic attitude shift, instead of ‘rip his head off’ it would be ‘have at you sir, touché’

  15. Worm
    November 18, 2010 at 13:22

    you are so right Malty – rugby played in Reformation era clothing WOULD be 100% better

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