385 The Dutchness of English art

In the second half of the seventeenth century, Dutch artists swarmed all over Europe in search of earnings that were drying up at home. They virtually annexed the art scene of Great Britain, giving shape to much of what we think of as English culture. Schwartz’s view of British Baroque.


In those long-gone early March days before the lockdown, I was able to relish the exhibition British Baroque: power and illusion at Tate Britain. Sadly, after it was forced to close on 18 March, it could not reopen. All that is left is the catalogue, which fortunately is excellent. The exhibition curator, Tabitha Barber, introduces the subject thus:

The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 was greeted, initially at least, with overwhelming public joy. An outpouring of royalist literature eulogised Stuart monarchy and presented the King’s return as miraculous and his majesty as God-given. […] The return of the King necessitated a practical restaging of monarchy. Magnificence and splendour, the essential indicators of power and authority, had to be reinstated and the court re-established as the brilliant epicentre of not only politics and government but also cultural life. The sumptuousness of the King’s physical surroundings and the pomp and ceremony that accompanied his daily actions were requisites for impressing upon  people respect and engendering reverence.

And so the court made itself reliant on artists to project all that grandeur. And to whom did they turn? There was a model sans pareil for portraiture and religious paintings, and that was the English production of the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Had he not died so young, van Dyck would have been 61 years old at the Restoration, and would undoubtedly have taken charge of imagery for the court of Charles II as he had for that of his father. But there were followers, British and Netherlandish alike, to enter if not to fill the gap.

The image of the king himself was paramount, and was actually put in charge of full-fledged royal officials.

Peter Lely, succeeded by John Riley in 1681, held the post of the King’s Limner and Picture Drawer (later known as Principal Painter), while Samuel Cooper, followed by Richard Gibson (1672), Nicholas Dixon (1673) and Peter Crosse (1678), was the King’s Picturemaker in Ordinary (miniature painter). The holders of these two posts were responsible for establishing the face pattern of the King, to be used in all official contexts necessitating his image.

Peter Lely (1618-80), “acknowledged as the best artist in Britain,” painted not only the king but, with a large studio at his disposal, a myriad of aristocrats, most strikingly the fashionable, sexy wives and mistresses of the king and his courtiers. Lely was born in Soest, Germany, to Dutch parents, and had his training in Haarlem. The modes in which he worked after moving to London in his early twenties, were Dyckian, and were followed by English painters as well. It is not too much to say, then, that the image of the British royals and their favorites was the creation of Netherlandish artists.

In Restoration England, they showed marked agility in adapting their Low-Country training to the demands of the Stuart high court. An Antwerp artist like Jacob Huysmans (1633-1696), when called upon about 1680 to paint a group portrait of the children of John Coke of Melbourne Hall, could draw on a Netherlandish tradition that saw the creation of a painting like Jan Mijtens’s family portrait of Willem van den Kerckhoven and his family, and turn it into what Monty Python would have called something completely different.

Jan Mijtens (ca. 1614-1670), Willem van den Kerckhoven and his family, 1652, 1655
The Hague, Haags Historisch Museum

Jacob Huysmans (1633-1696), The children of John Coke of Melbourne Hall, ca. 1680
Lord Ralph Kerr, The Melbourne Trust

When Charles was succeeded, after the fated three-year reign of James II, by the Dutch stadholder William of Orange and his consort Mary Stuart, the tendency to rely on artists from the Low Countries for propagating the royal and state image reached even higher heights. The Battle of the Boyne, which cemented William’s reputation as a hero of Protestant Britain, was immortalized in print after drawings by the Haarlem-Hague artist Dirk Maas (1656-1717). The main painter of battle scenes and military equestrian portraits was another Haarlemer, Jan Wyck (1652-1700). English glory was the creation of fortune-seeking immigrants.

Favorite still-life specialties – the current events trompe l’oeil, the domestic luxury picture, the flower still life – were practiced at their best by Edwaert Collier of Breda (1640-1708), Pieter van Roestraeten of Haarlem (1630-1700) and Simon Verelst of The Hague (1644-1721). The best topographical paintings of the royal palaces were by Hendrick Danckerts of The Hague (1625-80); monumental bird’s-eye views of country houses – nearly a hundred of them – were drawn and engraved by Leonard Knyff of Haarlem (1650-1722) and the Amsterdamer Johannes Kip (1652/53-1722) and published as Britannia illustrata, giving “the houses of the aristocracy and gentry the same visibility as royal palaces for the first time.”

Leonard Knyff, Bird’s-eye view of Hampton Court from the south, ca.1702
London, British Museum

For sculpture, the English called on French artists and the Fleming Arnold Quellin (Artus Quellinus III); for wall and ceiling paintings French and Italian masters. Germans and Swedes made signal contributions, as well as one Hungarian, Jacob Bogdani. The foreigners outnumbered local talents (with miniature portraiture as the only native contribution) by more than two to one. The single largest group of artists in the exhibition were the Dutch, even without counting Godfrey Kneller, a prolific portraitist from Lübeck who had his training in Holland and forged a sterling career under Charles II, William and Mary, and George I, who made him a baronet. Remarkably, the exhibition catalogue does not even mention Willem van de Velde the Younger of Leiden (1633-1707), whose maritime art for the English set a standard for centuries to come. Seen in this perspective, when at the end of the year Britain leaves Europe, it will be turning its back on itself.

Why did all those Dutch artists cross the Channel? As irony will have it, in large part because of the sea wars Holland was fighting with England in those very waters. The outbreak of the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1651 set a downward art-buying spiral in motion from which Dutch expenditure on contemporaneous painting never recovered. The largest and best-trained cohort of visual artists in Europe found its home market collapsing under its feet. Those who stayed put competed with each other in domestic niches like the household paintings of Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer. In the expansive atmosphere of Restoration England, emigrant artists could earn bigger bucks while cultivating higher genres.

The above is intended not only as a corrective to whatever overly insular self-image some Brits may cherish. As colleagues will have known from the title, it is also a polite rejoinder to ideas implicit in the titles of lectures by two art historians I admire a great deal, Nikolaus Pevsner (“The Englishness of English art”) and Christopher Brown (“The Dutchness of Dutch art”). In opposition to the spirit of these axiomatic titles, I see all of European art – and in large measure world art – interwoven so inextricably that national essences simply do not exist.

© Gary Schwartz 2020. Published on the Schwartzlist on 27 July 2020. 15 August 2020: see the sequel, Schwartzlist 386.


Last week I crossed what is still the national border of the Netherlands for the first time since returning from England on 5 March. Something I would have taken for granted before this year became a rare treat – spending a week doing research in Weimar, Germany. I was grateful for being admitted to the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, the Landesarchiv Thüringen, the Stadtschloss Weimar, the Goethe-Nationalmuseum, and the Museum Neues Weimar, in search for traces of a portrait of Rembrandt that passed through the city between the 1880s (I still know not when) to April 1921, when it was stolen. I met with colleagues from the museums, the archives and the cultural umbrella organization for Thüringen, and enjoyed myself thoroughly, even though the documentation of the painting continues to elude my grasp.

Not enjoyable was my visit to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, within hiking distance of Weimar. (I took the bus.) It brought into sharp focus unanswered, unanswerable questions I generally keep hazy. What am I doing on this continent? How can I love it so much here? Should I move to Britain?


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12 thoughts on “385 The Dutchness of English art”

    1. Thanks, Richard, for posting the link to my late, dear friend Lisa Jardine’s book. There is indeed much more to be said about this subject, but I was glad to have British Baroque as a delimiter of the scope of the column.

      1. A Dutch Treat!! [but really much more. You keep on having ideas and sharing them with us, thank heavens].

  1. Enjoyed this! The Huysmans is truly amazing.

    The path of the Dutch artists had of course been paved by pre-Van Dyck Flemings, like Eworth and Gheeraerts and Paul van Somer and even the Horenbouts and Levina Teerlinc. Honestly, England would have been even more of a pathetic visual wasteland than it was in the 16th century without the Netherlanders.

    And don’t move to Britain. Hoping to see you some day again in Maarssen, when I’m allowed to travel there again.

    1. The catalogue calls it the most Baroque portrait in Britain. Some of these lowlanders kicked on going over the top.

      OK, I won’t move. Do come back soon.

  2. Your essays are always a joy and, just now, a precious reminder that the talents of artists at any time correct our imagined idea that we are separate, alone, and without resources. Thank you so much; your optimism is infectious.

  3. What’s new? That’s why we migrate! Lovely article.

    I haven’t visited Buchenwald, but I have visited Auschwitz. It’s sobering, but a visit to Berlin also showed that the Jewish community is thriving there. Enough of us somehow outlived all that madness.

    1. Dutch and Flemish artists were notably aggressive emigrants, and often, as in England, preferred to native talents. Their numbers too were exceptional, so it’s worth singling them out.

      About the Holocaust – let’s hope that our great-grandchildren will be better able to cope with it than we. Although to judge from BLM, starting a century and a half after abolition, this might be too soon. Our two groups are related, in this case intimately. Alicia Garza, who gave birth to the phrase Black Lives Matter, grew up as Alicia Schwartz, the stepchild of a fellow religionist and even a namesake, yetzt.

    1. There’s an appendix on its way, Jean-Marie, with images and links that I think you will like. Thanks and greetings, Gary

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