Save Van Dyck!
November 25 2013
I went to the launch this morning (below) of the National Portrait Gallery's campaign to save Van Dyck's last self-portrait for the nation. The picture has been sold to an overseas buyer, and the NPG has 8 months to try and raise £12.5m to keep the painting in the UK.
It's the largest such campaign ever mounted by the NPG, and so far their determination to succeed is both admirable and encouraging. Regular readers will know (as I posted last week) that I work for the company which has sold the picture, so I'm in something of a predicament. But of course, the Van Dyck fan in me (he's my favourite artist) wants to see the picture remain on public display in the UK.
A large part of whether the campaign to save the picture succeeds will come down to how the public reacts. Funding bodies like the lottery will want to know whether the picture is not just an important work of art, but also whether it's something the public really relates to. That's why the NPG are taking the picture on tour round the country, and cleverly pitching it as one of the greatest 'selfies' ever painted (which it is).
So if you'd like to see the picture stay here, spread the word as far and wide as possible. Take your kids to see it. Tweet #savevandyck endlessly. Watch the video above and share it. And most importantly of all, donate!* Which you can do here, on the Art Fund's 'Save Van Dyck' website.
Update II - excellent reaction on Twitter already, including this helpful Tweet from Derren Brown, just sent to his 1.7m followers:
Update III - a fine piece from Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, who asks, is the picture worth it?
Absolutely. I think this is one of the most worthwhile campaigns in years to "save" a work of art for the nation. Van Dyck's Self-Portrait would make a spectacular addition to the National Portrait Gallery. Quite frankly, it could make the place. It would give a gallery stuffed with pictures of primarily historical interest a true artistic masterpiece, by the man from Antwerp who gave birth to British art.
Van Dyck was fascinated by the English face. His paintings are full of pale faces, with quirky physiognomies and flaccid skin – the faces of the English upper class in the reign of Charles I. You can see how intrigued he was by this northern island just by looking at his portrait of the art collector George Gage doing business in Italy. Van Dyck shows this elegant art lover as a quintessential Englishman abroad, his long white hands and face looking raw and even sickly in the light of Rome.
Charles I ruled over an art-loving court and Van Dyck, a painter who could and did work all over Europe, came to Britain to get paid for portraits. His images of Stuart ladies and gentlemen have immense panache and cavalier style. They are at once real and down to earth – those pasty faces – yet magnificent in their silken garments and rich settings.
When British art took off in the 18th century, it was Van Dyck that artists like Gainsborough looked back to as the father of British painting – Gainsborough's painting The Blue Boy is his tribute to his art hero.
The painting the National Portrait Gallery wants to buy is the last known self-portrait by Van Dyck. He was very conscious of his talent – this portrait shows it. He stands sideways to the mirror he is looking at while he paints, and turns his head lightly towards it in a nonchalant, aristocratic pose.
Yet his world was falling apart. This was painted in 1640 to 1641 as Britain descended into a civil war that would leave many of Van Dyck's subjects and patrons, including Charles I, dead.
Meanwhile, Van Dyck himself had died by December 1641. The king said – as praise – that he spent all his money living "more like a prince than a painter".**
Van Dyck was Britain's first art star. For once, a campaign to save a painting is not just hype. This gifted Flemish student of the English face belongs in this country, at the National Portrait Gallery, among all those people whose bad skin and bad teeth and cockeyed smiles he had such a good eye for.
Update V - an overseas reader writes:
Not my business (as a Canadian, although we did recently nick your General Wolfe letters...), but I couldn't agree more with you and J.Jones et al: it is a superb portrait, with a great historical meaning, in a marvellously "right" frame too. So best wishes for successfully keeping it in Britain!
Update VI - More Twitter action. Celeb endorsement from Mary McCartney. And this great Tweet from Deborah Larbi:
If #Movember was a competition, Van Dyck would win. Let's win this for him.
Meanwhile, Waldemar is mounting a one-man campaign to have my employer donate the picture to the NPG...
Update VII - on the last point, a reader writes (helpfully!):
In defense of capitalism and the art market, Mould & Co are entitled to profit from 1) saving the Van Dyke four years ago by taking the risk of purchasing it at auction during a very difficult economic period 2) holding the painting for four years with a lot of someone's capital in it 3) researching the picture to add to its value all that is now known about it.
I haven't seen Waldemar suggest that Sotheby's or Christie's or Bonham's (they will appreciate inclusion here) return or contribute their buyer's premium and commissions in similar circumstances. I know that his tweets are good natured pricing to help raise some funding. Aren't they.
Having said all that, some contribution from Mould's profit to the NPG would be nice, however that is in fundamental conflict with Mould & Co.'s duty to its client who is trying to purchase the picture and carry it to foreign shores.
*yes, I'm doing my bit.
** I'm not sure Charles I did say that, I think it was said of Van Dyck when he was in Rome.