One of the most interesting paradoxes in British art has been the involvement of so many immigrants. Foreigners, foreigners, everywhere. It really is remarkable. Holbein was German. Van Dyck was Flemish. Lely was Dutch. No other important national school can boast this much aid from abroad. Before the arrival of modern times, I cannot think of a single French artist who was not actually French. And, to this day, the Italian school is fiercely and exclusively Italian. Britain, on the other hand, has remained stubbornly international. And the national school has duly experienced more difficulty than other national schools have had in finding itself.
These are the issues that swirl across the background of Van Dyck in Britain, a surprisingly chaotic attempt to remember Van Dyck’s magnificent contribution to British art. What did he do here? Where did it lead? These are simple enough questions. So shame on Tate Britain for failing to answer them properly.
That said, the show needed to happen. Believe it or not, there are still people out there – decent art critics among them – who do not rate Van Dyck. The tedious accusation that he was an unthinking flatterer, a slick pedlar of off-the-peg elegance for the rich, continues to be made against him. And because we tend, these days, to favour rough-and-tumble art, with lots of capital letters in it, Van Dyck’s silky skills can sometimes be mistaken for unctuous effortlessness. It’s foolish thinking. But people think it.
He arrived in Britain from Antwerp in 1620 for a short visit and returned in 1632 for a long one. By 1641, he was dead, at 42. So the first thing to note about his talent is that it was of the fiery, comet-like variety that flashes through an epoch at a cosmic lick. Raphael had a career like that; Van Gogh, Seurat. These are exceptional achievers in whom marathon amounts of accomplishment have been pulled off at 100-metre speed.
British art was in a clunky state when Van Dyck disembarked. The most important artist in the land, Robert Peake, the king’s official painter, was essentially a medieval limner who had somehow managed to survive into the 17th century. His portrayal of James I’s eldest son, Henry, Prince of Wales, applying the coup de grâce to the stag he has just hounded down is a charming piece of international gothic that would not look too out of place on the back of the Wilton Diptych, painted 200 years earlier. Impossible anatomies.
Frozen timescales. Heraldic coloration. Peake’s best effort went into evoking the rich clothing he traced so assiduously: the results are closer to good needlework than great painting.