Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Lord Bernard Stuart (1622-1645), c.1750 

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Lord Bernard Stuart (1622-1645), c.1750, Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
The collection of the Barons Fechenbach, Laudenbach am Main, Germany; Freiherr von Fechenbach sale Heberle (H. Lempertz Sχhne) Cologne May 29th 1889 (lot 21 ill.) as ''The Duke of Pomfret'' by Van Dyck. French Private Collection.
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The existence of a further study by Gainsborough after Van Dyck's famous Portrait of Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart (London, National Gallery) is further confirmation, if any were needed, of the effect that exposure to the very best of Van Dyck's works in English aristocratic collections had on Gainsborough in the 1760s. A duplicate of this composition is already known (Gainsborough's House, Sudbury) and a copy of the whole portrait on the scale of the original (Saint Louis Art Museum) is listed by name in the Schomberg House sale of 1789.

The influence of Van Dyck on Gainsborough's painting is immediately apparent in his work of the 1760s. The opportunities provided by the collections of noble patrons accessible from his studio in Bath were eagerly exploited, and the portraits of this decade show the immediate results of the close study that Gainsborough was able to make of Van Dyck's technique and composition. The smoothly finished, creamy draperies in clear rococo colours that were characteristic of his painting in the previous decade are replaced by dazzling effects of light and shading, to suggest shot fabric and shimmering silks, and the doll-like figures redolent of the St Martin''s Lane school give way to ambitious and elegant poses, exploiting the full dramatic possibility of whole-length portraiture.

The existence of three known studies after Van Dyck's Portrait of Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart shows how deeply Gainsborough was impressed by the possibilities of the seventeenth century master''s work. They are both a homage and an exercise I self-instruction through emulation. There has been uncertainty over when in Gainsborough's oeuvre these studies should be dated. During Gainsborough's lifetime the Van Dyck portrait was in the collection of the Earl of Darnley at Cobham in Kent. Gainsborough painted the 4th Earl of Darnley in 1785 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), and the St Louis copy has been dated to this period of association with Lord Darnley's family. Several commentators1, however, have rightly noted that stylistic evidence would suggest an earlier date by some twenty years, and Belsey2 dates the Gainsborough House study of the head of Lord Bernard Stuart to c.1765, when Gainsborough was painting the portrait of the 1st Earl of Darnley's granddaughter, the Countess of Clanwilliam (Ulster Museum, Belfast).

Although there is presently no documentary proof that Gainsborough first saw Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart at that date – either at Cobham, or perhaps at the Darnley's London house3 – the evidence contained in his painting suggests overwhelmingly that he did so. Portrait of Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart is perhaps the Van Dyck par excellence. It is difficult to suggest another painting that more perfectly encapsulates the qualities that are summed up in the term ''Vandyckian.'' It employs contrapposto, attenuation of figure, and shimmering draperies in a dazzling harmony of metallic hues that shine out against a brown background. A suggestion of noble architecture indicates the rank of the sitters, otherwise all is artfully restrained except in the persons of its subject. It is perhaps the best known of Van Dyck's English portraits to a modern audience – more so than those of King Charles – and to Gainsborough, when he encountered it for the first time in the 1760s, the impact of this exercise combining noble profusion with restraint must have been intoxicating.

Considering both the present painting and the study of Lord Bernard Stuart at Gainsborough's House, it is apparent – even if the condition of the latter may make it seem thinner in the painting of the face than might originally have been the case – that they are studies foremost in drapery. The silver-grey sleeve and lining to the cloak that Lord Bernard reveals allow Van Dyck to show bright silks with characteristic virtuosity. Gainsborough was sufficiently impressed by the execution to repeat his version of this in two paintings. Each of the studies shows how he translated what he understood of Van Dyck's method in his own idiom. In both the composition does not follow exactly the form of the original. Gainsborough reproduced the head and hand of Lord Bernard on a canvas approximating to the three-quarter yard (30 x 25 inch) portrait canvas, which required him to raise the hand and bring it in to the body more tightly. He also corrected Van Dyck''s mannered elongation of the body, whereby the area of Lord Bernard''s shoulder and upper arm is extended by a head''s length. In his treatment of the drapery he adapts Van Dyck's technique to his own. He creates the bright sheen of the silk by following Van Dyck's large areas of white impasto, but where Van Dyck employs solid lines in the folds, Gainsborough demonstrates his own preference for the more energetic, nervous effect of broken lines, where the light is caught in large, single dots and dashes of pigment. In a departure from his technique of the 1750s for creating the main colour of the drapery, he creates the colour from separate areas of pigment painted directly onto the brown ground. Light and mid grey represent the mid tones, with the shadows painted in dark grey. In the present portrait far less of the ground is visible, which may be a consequence of its superior condition to that at Gainsborough's House.

The hypothesis of such an early and dynamic impact of Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart upon Gainsborough would require some direct pictorial evidence, in which the painter employs these newly-appreciated methods in a portrait commission. Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux, (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) which the artist exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1769 appears to be such a picture. It has always been recognised as a consummate translation of Van Dyck's repertoire into the idiom of contemporary eighteenth century portraiture. The sitter is shown at full-length, her left hand clutched to her breast in a Van Dyck pose (suggesting, immediately, William 5th Earl of Pembroke, which Gainsborough had seen at Wilton) in a silver-grey dress and black shawl against a landscape executed almost entirely in shades of brown. As in Portrait of Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart the effect of the portrait lies in its commanding and imperious pose (in the case of Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux almost too commanding, perhaps, for a woman's portrait in 1769, where the effect is almost masculine) and the bold contrast of bright silver against brown. The dramatic effect shows too explicitly the lessons learned from the Van Dyck double portrait not to provide, this cataloguer suggests, a terminus for Gainsborough's exposure to that painting. Lord Bernard's drapery appears to be the source for Lady Molyneux's dress in shades of mid grey and silver on a brown ground, now fully digested and reproduced in Gainsbrough's rapid, flickering manner.

The portrait of George Lord Vernon (Southampton City Art Gallery) exhibited at the Society of Artists two years previously also supports the suggestion that Gainsborough had seen the double portrait by this date, as the sitter's nonchalant pose leaning against a tree reproduces very closely that of Lord John Stuart leaning against the plinth. The influence of Van Dyck's poses and drapery upon Gainsborough''s grandest portraits form the late 1760s onwards are, of course, too numerous to mention here, but the direct influence of the portrait of the Stuart brothers seems too compelling to discount. Particularly in our Portrait of Lord Bernard Stuart – as opposed to that at Gainsborough's House, where it was either rubbed away or never completed – there is evidence of Gainsborough's interest in Van Dyck''s treatment of flesh. The pearly skin of the Caroline courtier is reproduced in Viscountess Molyneux as the ''refined pallor''4 appropriate to a Georgian society lady.

The early history of Lord Bernard Stuart is unclear. The portrait in Gainsborough's House has been identified with a lot sold from Gainsborough Dupont's sale April 10th 1797 (lot 34), but the hiatus in its provenance before its acquisition by the Earl of Darnley has not been fully resolved, and it is not impossible that the present picture was in fact the lot bought by Bryan for £3 5s in 1797 – or indeed, that neither of the pictures was at that sale, since although the St Louis copy was fully catalogued, no copy of Lord Bernard's head was described as such in the sale catalogue. The authorship of each is unquestionable, however, both on independent considerations of style and in comparison with the St Louis copy. Each also reproduces exactly the same, characteristic interpretation of Van Dyck's drapery technique, with its broken lines of impasto, and each employs the same truncation of the sitter''s upper body.

It has yet to be discovered how the present portrait entered the collection of the Barons Fechenbach. The 1889 sale in Cologne disposed of a large collection of Old Master paintings, without suggestion of their original sources before they entered the Fechenbach collection. The painting had been misattributed to van Dyck himself, and the sitter had been curiously identified as the Duke of Pomfret, an obvious canard which may yet throw some light on the painting's provenance and the source from which it entered the Fechenbach collection. The title of Earl of Pomfret was held in the eighteenth century by the Fermor family, but there is no particular connection between the Fermor family – who were patrons of Reynolds - and Gainsborough conveniently to explain the later saleroom error. This is not important, however, as far as recognising the authorship of this painting is concerned, since it is confirmed by its very close similarity with the example at Gainsborough's house and by its conspicuous display of Gainsborough''s stylistic idiosyncracies. The importance of this painting rests not in establishing that Gainsborough as a portraitist was indebted to Van Dyck, which is abundantly demonstrated in his work of the late 1750s onwards. It is important in documenting an instance in which a single painting, pre-eminent in its composition and its execution, worked so powerfully on Gainsborough as a commercial painter and as a connoisseur that it exerted a direct and demonstrable influence on his work.

1.Christine Riding in Gainsborough ed. Marvin Myrone and 2.Michael Rosenthal Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue 2002 p.168
3.Hugh Belsey Gainsborough and Gainsborough''s House Paul Holberton 2002 p.32 and p.32 n.6
4.Christine Riding op. cit. p.110, also noting that the composition may have been influenced by Rubens's portrait of his wife (Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon) which was believed in the eighteenth century to be by Van Dyck.
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