Van Dyck and the Thames

Visiting the Van Dyck exhibition this morning I was surprised to find it very crowded. I forgot that it is half term week but this is a very good once in a lifetime exhibition.

The show is at riverside Tate Britain which is appropriate for many of the characters depicted lived along the Thames in London. Indeed Van Dyck’s studio was opposite Tate Modern.

The one disappointment of the exhibition is the rather poor Thames map which is vague about the exact location of the studio at Blackfriars. This is important for many went to the studio for their sittings. They were required to sit still for an hour at a time and afterwards colour approved by the master would be filled in by assistants whilst the next subject settled in the chair as if visiting the hairdressers.

Even Charles I, who paid for the house and its new landing stage, called several times. My understanding is that the building was just inside the mouth of the River Fleet which means that the Royal Bank of Scotland in New Bridge Street is the approximate site.

The King came on the Royal barge. Lord Arundel could have come on foot, crossing the Fleet by the bridge at the end of Fleet Street, for he lived just above today’s Temple Station.

The Earl of Northumberland and his sister Lucy both knew Syon House as home but probably came from the family’s London residence Northumberland House at Charing Cross where the garden ran down to moorings on the Thames.

Included in the show is the picture of Archbishop William Laud which fell off the wall in Lambeth Palace in 1640 and gave the Archbishop a fright. Queen Mary of Modena used the ferry outside to cross the Thames to exile in 1688. We see what she looked like thanks to a portrait by Peter Lely in the manner of Van Dyck.

The really famous pictures of Charles I are here having been borrowed from the Queen. In one group of Charles I and his family look as if they are posing for a quick snap in Hello! magazine. But it is a painting undertaken of course at Blackfriars rather than riverside Whitehall Palace although in the background is Westminster Hall rising above the water.

Van Dyck And Britain exhibition is at Tate Britain until Sunday 17 May; admission £12.20.

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