Who is taught real history anymore?
I was never taught about the English Civil War at school despite studying history throughout. This gap in my knowledge about a foundational moment in British history has always felt like a thicket in the woods, through which I cannot truly see or understand where we are now.
It was during this period in the seventeenth century and its aftermath that Britain settled major questions that divided other countries; the balance of power between monarch and parliament, the people’s recourse to the law in times of difficulty, and an acceptance of religious and political differences. As a result, we took a path which led to a prosperity within the world that we still take for granted. Our decision to deprive schoolchildren of this knowledge has left many of my generation uprooted from our past.
During the Civil War more people died, as a proportion of the British population, than in any other war in our history, including both World Wars. The whole country was divided and destroyed, with some families torn apart by split loyalties.
Which side would you have been on? Would you have been a Cavalier, a supporter of King Charles I and an upholder of the old way of doings things, or a Roundhead, a supporter of Parliament and the army, religious puritanism and radical change? Even today, it is difficult to choose between the two extremes and I can see why it divided families.
Why am I thinking about the English Civil War?
These dramatic years have recently flared up in my imagination by a painting that was brought into Christie’s for sale. This is a portrait by Anthony van Dyck, the supreme master of seventeenth century British art, of Thomas Wentworth, a man whose life and death played a decisive role in the build up to the English Civil War.
A surprise find, that I discuss below, hidden on the back of the portrait, raises many fascinating questions about these turbulent years.
Here is the portrait. What gusto it has.
Van Dyck had real talent. He introduced a sophistication and panache to his portraits that makes everything else painted in England prior to his arrival look provincial. He was to leave a greater legacy than any other artist in British history. And this was not a painting Van Dyck delegated to his assistants. Look at the verve of his brushstrokes here – the sheer force of personality he manages to portray.
Hidden in Plain Sight
The painting had been hanging at Euston Hall, home to the Dukes of Grafton, for several centuries. It was very dirty, layers of smoke and dust from the house having accumulated over years, and so Christie’s recommended having it cleaned ahead of the sale. The picture had been re-lined at some point, which means that a new canvas had been attached to the back of the original canvas to add support, a common process with old pictures. During the cleaning the restorer removed the added support and was able to see, for probably the first time since the seventeenth century, the back of the original canvas Van Dyck painted on. Look what he found.
Remarkably, hidden on the back of the canvas was the collecting stamp of Charles I.
Why is this important?
Apart from being interesting in itself, the knowledge that this portrait belonged to Charles I is fascinating because of the man it portrays, the date it was painted, and that it was not included in any inventory of Charles’ possessions, which suggests Charles may have jettisoned the painting at the moment he was in real trouble.
To understand why we need to look at the man it portrays.
Who was Thomas Wentworth?
Wentworth was a ruthless man. As an MP in Parliament he started his career as an early opponent of Charles I. In 1627 he was imprisoned for a year because he refused to pay a forced loan that Charles had introduced to shore up his shaky finances. Wentworth could afford to pay it but he refused, as a matter of political principal. He became seen as a figurehead of Parliamentary opposition to the King.
However, in a remarkable shift Wentworth suddenly changed sides. From an opponent he became Charles’ chief advisor and confident. We now know that Wentworth was secretly pushing for a role at court for many years, whilst acting as an opponent in Parliament. Like Boris Johnson in the early stages of the Brexit Referendum, he was playing out both sides to see which would favour him. His open opposition to Charles made his subsequent transformation to Charles’ ally into a great political coup for Charles.
Wentworth was Charles I’s key advisor during several critical years of British history. He was an excellent administrator, often harsh but very effective. But he made enemies easily.
Turning a King into an Icon
As Wentworth arrived at Charles’ court, Van Dyck was in the process of reshaping Charles’ image through his portraits. He no longer looked enfeebled and full of doubt but strong and stately. Van Dyck made Charles look impressive and admirable.
Wentworth was friendly with van Dyck. He had won himself the most powerful position at court and had just been ennobled by Charles and was now called the Earl of Strafford. He saw what Van Dyck was doing to Charles’ image and wanted the same stardust. In the end, Wentworth was painted by van Dyck more times than any other individual outside Charles’ own family and these portraits are some of van Dyck’s greatest achievements during his time in England.
What is so interesting about this series of portraits is that you can see how Van Dyck was inspired by older paintings in Charles’ collection. It is almost as if Van Dyck and Thomas Wentworth walked round Whitehall Palace together choosing the poses for his portraits from a mood-board of some of the greatest Renaissance portraits ever painted.
Looking at the portraits that Van Dyck painted of Wentworth alongside celebrated paintings of the sixteenth century that Charles owned (see below), can you see the influences?
Van Dyck portrayed Wentworth as a supreme military commander, with natural authority. This was a political choice. Charles I and Wentworth thought that the best course of action in their power battle against Parliament was to show their military strength. They wanted Parliament to be scared of the consequences of overstepping.
This was a public-relations campaign that went very wrong indeed.
Instead of cowering Parliament this image-making emboldened them to try and cut the King down to size before it was too late. While they could not directly attack the King at this stage, for fear of provoking reaction in the country, they could go after his chief advisor. In 1641 Parliament spent considerable energy trying to derail Wentworth. They believed Wentworth was pushing the King into a hardline stance. This was true; when the King’s other advisors urged compromise with Parliament, Wentworth urged him to rely on force. He told the King to bring over an Irish army, under his command, to threaten Parliament. Parliament decided to destroy Wentworth before he destroyed them.
Wentworth was charged with treason. This made no legal sense as treason was defined as taking up arms against the king and the case collapsed when it was heard by the pro-monarchical House of Lords. But MPs weren’t going to give up. The country was in ferment and events were moving very fast. Rumours were spread amongst the general populace and plots were ‘uncovered’; people thought that the French were going to invade to help Charles and that Papists were planning to massacre protestants.
MPs tried again to impeach Wentworth and as they did crowds built up in London demanding change. With a mob outside Whitehall Palace, Charles’ stubborn will crumbled and fearing for his wife’s safety (who was French and Catholic) he gave his assent to the bill, effectively condemning his friend to death.
‘it was never accounted either cruelty or foul play to knock foxes and wolves on the head…because they be beasts of prey’Oliver St Johns justifying executing Wentworth in the House of Lords in April 1641
Two days later a crowd of 200,000 watched Wentworth’s execution on Tower Hill.
The Mystery of this Painting
There is a mystery surrounding the history of this portrait. Why did no one know before that this belonged to Charles I?
Charles’ painting collection was extremely well documented. Every painting that arrived in the collection was given a stamp (‘CR’ – Carolus Rex) by the Surveyor of the King’s Pictures Abraham van der Doort. They were then included in a meticulous inventory written by van der Doort in 1639, finished before his suicide in 1640. The portrait of Wentworth was stamped but then not included in the inventory, which suggests it was painted in the months between van der Doort finished the inventory and committed suicide.
At this stage Wentworth was a man with immense political power, as close to the King as anyone in the land. And yet within eleven months he was executed.
Did Charles discard the picture for political reasons?
At the end of the Civil War, extraordinary events led to the execution of the King at Whitehall in January 1649, close to the place where Thomas Wentworth had been executed eight years before. Charles blamed his fate on his earlier failure to prevent the execution of his loyal servant Wentworth;
“An unjust sentence that I suffered to take effect, is punished now by an unjust sentence on me.”Charles I in regret at his betrayal of Wentworth
Charles put his head on the block after saying a prayer and signaled to the executioner that he was ready by stretching out his hands; he was then beheaded with one clean stroke. According to an observer, a moan “as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again” rose from the assembled crowd, some of whom then dipped their handkerchiefs in the king’s blood as a memento. The King was dead.
With the monarchy overthrown, England became a republic or ‘Commonwealth’. Charles’ entire art collection, numbering around 1,500 pictures and 500 sculptures, was sold to settle the dead king’s enormous debts and raise money for the Commonwealth’s military forces. The sale was held at Somerset House and was open to the public. It was a moment like no other in art market history; stacks of masterpieces were available and the rulers of foreign powers sent (heavily-disguised) agents over to buy the cream of the collection, but there were so many riches that even ordinary Englishmen could get their hands on the King’s art for a nominal price.
Wentworth’s portrait was not included in this sale. Why? Charles had got rid of the portrait of his most loyal servant before his death. Most likely, Charles had got rid of it after Wentworth’s execution. Could you hang a portrait at home of a friend who you had knowingly betrayed and sent to his death?
Where had it gone?
We don’t really know. The portrait ended up in the collections of the Dukes of Grafton at Euston Hall in Suffolk. But this gives us a clue. Euston Hall was built by Henry Bennet, a smooth political operator and supporter of the King’s cause during the Civil War. After Charles’ execution Bennett fled England and joined Charles’ exiled family abroad.
Because of this, when Charles’s son, Charles II, was handed back power, Bennett was one of the first in line for royal favour. He became keeper of the privy purse and was made the 1st Earl of Arlington. His main duty was in the procurement and management of the new King’s royal mistresses (quite a job).
There is no documentary evidence that proves Bennett owned the painting, but I suspect he was given the portrait either for safe keeping or as a reward for his loyalty.
On the 8th July, Van Dyck’s portrait will be sold at Christie’s, probably for the first time in its history. It is an astonishing portrait and a combination of both artistic genius and historical importance. We may never know exactly what happened. But in its way the painting played a role in one of the defining moments in British history. Now it will be interesting to see what its future holds…
Sir Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford (1593-1641), circa 1640
Christie’s, London, 8 July 2021. Estimate: £3-5 million
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