Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Likely Lads

National Gallery, London
Anthony van Dyck
Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart  (c. 1638)

This pair of aristocratic siblings, cousins to King Charles I, were immortalised by Van Dyck in one of his superb life-size double portraits.  They were the youngest sons of  Esmé Stuart, third Duke of Lennox.

They sat for Van Dyck in 1638, when they were 17 and 18 years old. The paint was still wet when they left  England to make a three-year tour of the Continent: the traditional "Grand Tour"  that was de rigeur for scions of the nobility and wealthy landed gentry.

The boys came back from their quest for European culture just in time to join their regiments in the King's cause, at the start of the Civil War.

Lord John was given command of a cavalry brigade under the the Earl of Forth. On 28 March 1644 the Earl's army engaged the Parliamentarians at Cheriton Wood, near Winchester. In the ensuing battle, Lord John was slain.
Bernard was Commanding Officer of the Guards Regiment raised by King Charles I when civil war loomed. He distinguished himself at the battles of Newbury and Naseby, for which the king decided to create him Earl of Lichfield. Sadly, he did not live to receive the earldom: he was killed while leading a sortie against besieging forces at the Battle of Rowton Moor, on 24 September 1645.

Lord George Stuart
An older brother, George, whom Van Dyck had also painted, died of "grievous wounds" received in a pitched battle at Edgehill on Sunday 23 October 1642. All three brothers were 24 years old at the time of their deaths.

Anthony van Dyck was a dab hand at silk, lace and satin. Just look at his portrait of Rachel de Ruvigny, Countess of Southampton, in the NGV.  Those billows of shimmering blue satin! He was known to use hand models for the elegantly tapering fingers he invariably gave his sitters, but he was very good at depicting his subjects' facial features accurately, even if he sometimes flattered them a little. Have to please the paying customers!  

The Countess of Southampton
Antony van Dyck, NGV
The family resemblance here is unmistakable. The simple background sets off the young lords' aquiline features, confident poses and opulent garments. This picture puts me in mind of Stubbs' Whistlejacket, where he depicts the beautiful thoroughbred horse, with his rich, glossy chestnut coat, against a plain background. Van Dyck does the same with these two lads, who are just as beautiful, rich, glossy and highly pedigreed as the horse.

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs
National Gallery, London
They are the epitome of romantic, long-haired, swaggering cavaliers - Lord Bernard, on the right, looks down his nose in snobbish disdain. Lord John, a more introspective figure, is posed on a step to make him appear taller and more important than his junior.

Lord John's gold and bronze complements the silver and blue garb of Lord Bernard, just as his  smooth, long hair sets off the other's curls. Bernard turns back his cloak to display the silk lining, and he casually shows his kid gloves – both items were hideously expensive and a hallmark of wealth. An interesting fashion note is the flat sole connecting the high heels to the front of the shoe, to prevent sinking into the mud when walking outside.

Seeing these young men so arrogant and confident in the prime of their youth, it is tragic to know that they had only five years to live – despite their foppish appearance, they both died fighting bravely for King Charles.
To me, their portrait is just as poignant as the photographs of young Diggers on the eve of departure for Gallipoli, for Vietnam or for Afghanistan. Young, eager and confident ... at that age, they know they are bulletproof.  All the anxiety and apprehension is left to the mothers!

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