3 December 2011

Rarely seen Charles I painting in government collection

An Interior with King Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, Jeffery Hudson,
William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke and his brother Philip Herbert,
later 4th Earl of Pembroke,
Henry van Steenwijck, c,1630-35, (GAC)

The current series of exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery in London marks the first time the Government Art Collection (GAC) has been exhibited the public in its 113-year history.

Although not earmarked at the time of writing for public viewing, a painting of Charles I surely ranks as his most informal adult depiction ...

Over 200,000 artworks in the Collection are owned by the tax payer, most of which are in storage or on goverment office walls not viewable to the public. Searching through the online archive I came across An Interior with King Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, Jeffery Hudson, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke and his brother Philip Herbert, later 4th Earl of Pembroke by Hendrick van Steenwijck the Younger (purchased from Sotheby's in 1951).

The painting shows the King and Queen standing in a doorway to a corridored series of paved rooms. It isn't clear whether the Herbet brothers are guests or hosts, though the presence of Henrietta Maria's dwarf, Jeffery Hudson, suggests they might be visiting a royal residence (Denmark - né Somerset - House?).

William Herbert died at the age of 50 in 1630, which dates the painting at around 1625-30. More closely associated with the Jacobian court, he sponsored Shakespeare's first folio and is one of the claimants to the 'Fair Youth' of the sonnets. He led a rather colourful personal life.

Philip Herbert, 4th Earl, was of favourite of James I and Charles, accompanying Henerietta Maria from Paris to England in 1626. Rarely given more than a footnote in English Civil War histories, he is worthy of diversion as an example of a courtier-turned-turncoat. He expanded his colonial ventures under Charles whilst also amassing a large art collection, further cementing his relationship with the King. This was not to last, as his increasingly Puritan sympathies set him at odds with the Queen. He served in the Bishops Wars, though by this time his relationship with the King was beginning to strain. The final spilt with his patron came after Pembroke voted for the bill of Attainder whch sealed Stafford's fate. When war finally came he delared for Parliament, though as a moderate.

The persons depicted in the painting are, however, less interesting than its composition. If it weren't for the shaft of light falling on those entering the room, Hudson and the playing puppies might steal our focus. Also ignoring the royal party is a less well-dressed figure in the corridor at the rear. The King and Queen barely slip into shot, as if caught on CCTV showing the brothers around.

The figure in the corridor at the back of the picture

I was unaware of the painting's existence until the collection came online, having certainly never seen it in a book. Nick Page's entertaining little biography of Hudson, which wrings a rollicking tale from the few surviving sources about the little man of Rutland,  mentions the piece (there is no reproduction), but attributes it to Daniel Mytens.

The mention of Mytens rather than Van Steenwijck sent me digging. An article in the Burlington Magazine (Vol. 89, No. 534, Sep.1947) a few years prior to the painting entering the GAC features an article by Margaret R. Toynbee.

She claims the work is "sometimes know as The Royal Family at Theobalds", which appears to identify its location (Theobalds, near Cheshunt, was given by Robert Cecil to Charles' father and became a favourite royal residence).

Most intriguing is Toynbee's claim - attributed to E.K. Waterhouse (Sir Ellis Kirkham Waterhouse (1905-1985), - that this is not the only version of the painting in existence. Waterhouse directs Toynbee to three owners of near-identical pieces:

  • Mr A. A. H. Wykeham, Pitt Place, Brighstone, Isle of Wight (attributed to Mytens).
  • His Majesty the King, Windsor Castle (attributed to the Flemish school).
  • William Hallsborough Ltd, 63 Wigmore Street, W1 (attributed to Mytens).

Toynbee points out that the two painting shown in the hall in the Wykeham-owned version are a pair of Titians - the Entombement and the Supper at Emmaus - both on record as owned by the King at the time as part of the Mantua collection. By 1639 they were recorded as being in the privy lodging-room at Whitehall, but their appearance in the painting provides further evidence that if we do not know for certain in which residence the party are depicted, it is almost certainly owned by the King.

Jeffrey Hudson playing with a pair of dogs

As the Hudson biography suggested, the artist himself falls into question. Toynee is sure the works are composite pieces. Van Steenwijck - the artist named as painted of the GAC version - was a student of Van Dyck and collaborator of Daniel Mytens. He was in England until at least 1638, surfacing in Leiden in 1642 before dying - probably in the Hague - in 1649.

She also suggests it possible that Van Bassen and Poelenburgh could have leant their hand.

So which version lies in the GAC? Intrigued to know I made contact. Curator Phillipa Martin swiftly and comprehensively cleared things up:
"Our painting is version ‘3’ in Margaret R. Toynbee’s article, and its provenance is as follows:
Lord Chesham; Sotheby's 13 February 1946 (Lot 7); William Hallsborough Ltd; Sotheby's 23/5/1951 (Lot 88), acquired by Government Art Collection (GAC) via Agnews
You are quite right to point out that other artists are likely to have worked on the painting. The painting features in the 1999 catalogue raisonné of the work of The Steenwyck Family as Masters of Perspective by Jeremy Howarth. It is listed on page 272, cat No: 11.F.16. The text echoes the Toynbee article: 'Horace Walpole believed that at least one of the conversation pieces in this series was by Steenwyck with figures by Cornelius Poelenburgh or Barthold van Bassen…' and the artist is therefore given in the catalogue as 'Hendrick van Steenwyck the Younger and possibly either Cornelius Poelenburgh or Barthold van Bassen'. 
The catalogue also includes Earl Poulett’s version, giving the artist as “Hendrick van Steenwyck the Younger and Daniel Mytens and possibly Anthony van Dyck”. (The GAC painting is described as a variant of this work.) The versions in the Royal Collection and that formerly with the Wykeham family are described as ‘Possibly by’ Steenwyck, etc., and ‘Attributed to’ Steenwyck, etc. I would recommend sourcing the catalogue, as it includes a great deal of information on all four versions.
The GAC painting is currently in our store. It has been on loan to Dover House (the Scotland Office) in London and at the British Ambassador’s residence in Vienna. More recently it has been on show in our viewing space here and used for public guided tours of the GAC building. It has not yet featured in a public exhibition."
So there we are!

The GAC searchable collection holds many other 17th century works, including further portraits of Charles I. All paintings not currently on exhibit in the GAC are viewable by appointment at their offices in central in London.

The Government Art Collection
A Charles I Conversation Piece - Margaret R. Toynbee (1947)


  1. Love this painting ! Glad you "discovered" it.

  2. Thank you for sharing the extra information about this painting. I've seen it before, reproduced in books, but always in passing as a "minor" work of the era. I've always liked it because it's one of the rare paintings to hint at the diminutive size of this king and queen. Much different from the heroic scale of the various Van Dyck portraits!