Van Dyck and Britain at the Tate Britain: The Man Who Pioneered The English Look

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On August 2, 1788, Thomas Gainsborough lay dying. His last words, reportedly, were, "We are all going to heaven and Van Dyck is of the party." Of course, it is hard to know quite what was in the painter's mind as he slipped away from life, but it is evident that he felt a close link with the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), who had then been dead for almost a century and a half.

Gainsborough was not the only English artist to take his cue from Van Dyck. Reynolds, Lawrence, and the master of Edwardian swagger John Singer Sargent all painted at least from time to time in a Van Dyckian mode. The Van Dyck touch can be seen too in, for example, the photography of Cecil Beaton. With a change of outfit, Van Dyck's Dorothy, Viscountess Andover and her Sister Elizabeth, Lady Thimbleby (c1637) would be perfectly at home in the pages of Country Life.

It is not too much to claim that Van Dyck invented a certain English look, which you might call the Brideshead ideal: casually elegant, aloof, romantic, sometimes a touch dotty.

Consequently, he has been elected an honorary Brit. As the 18th-century writer Horace Walpole put it, "His works are so frequent in this country that the generality of our people can scarcely avoid thinking him their countryman." Suitably enough, the major exhibition Van Dyck and Britain, opening in a few weeks, will be at Tate Britain.

The interesting question is why a master of Flemish baroque who was resident in this country relatively briefly – from early 1632 to December 1641, with about a year back in his native Antwerp in the middle – had such a lasting impact. Part of the answer is that he brought romance to a nation that craved it, but in visual terms had not yet seen it.

The 18th-century painter-critic Jonathan Richardson remarked that, "When Van Dyck came hither he brought face-painting to us", which was a strange thing to say, since it ignores Holbein's sojourn at the court of Henry VIII. Holbein, however, did not have the persistent influence that Van Dyck did. His images of Tudor nobles – a cold-eyed, slab-faced and brutal-looking lot – are utterly convincing. But they lack a crucial ingredient that Van Dyck provided: glamour. Nobody ever fell in love with a Holbein (though Henry VIII was persuaded to marry Anne of Cleves, sight unseen, on the basis of one of his pictures)...

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