Shedding New Light on an Old Master

A very good 17th century portrait by Theodore Roussel came my way recently which got me delving through many books. It’s the head and shoulders of a gentleman (above) after an original by Van Dyck, (below) but in this case the gentleman is just that, merely “a gentleman”.

Portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck c.1638

Van Dyck’s work has been studied in detail quite a lot over the years and the last survey which discussed the original painting from which this head portrait is derived concluded that it was of an unknown individual. But given previous ideas about whom the sitter might be Sotheby’s, in 2008, went on to sell this original as being of John Hay, 2nd Earl of Carlisle (c.1612-1660).

Oliver Millar, the leading expert on van Dyck’s work, four years before in 2004, dismissed this idea, quite rightly pointing out that the sitter cannot possibly be a man of 24 years. However, Millar at the time decided not to take this further and it languished as an unknown sitter in publication. Sotheby’s clearly decided going with the old identification of Hay was best to secure a sale when the picture came their way.

But sometimes the more obvious a thing can be the more it is ignored. After looking more closely at the known provenance certain things began to make a lot of sense. The painting spent most of it’s time in the collection of the Viscounts of Cobham. Henry, 3rd Viscount Brouncker on his death bequeathed all his goods and chattels to Cobham in 1688, including, it’s thought, this picture. It seems to have been first recorded when the antiquary George Vertue mentions the picture in 1745 as being of Hay. There is no link between Hay and the Earls’ of Carlisle and the Cobham’s, and it would have been an odd portrait for them to have.

Henry Brouncker’s father Sir William Brouncker (1585–1645) was a man closely associated with the kings of England and had fought against the Scots in 1639. He served Charles I as one of his privy chamber and acted as vice-chamberlain to his son Charles, Prince of Wales. He was basically at the heart of the court, a court that was fashionably portrayed by Van Dyck. During the English civil war he was honoured by Oxford University whilst the exiled court was in residence there and later made Viscount Brouncker in 1645.

To me then, it seems this could be a simple process of inheritance. The son on his death merely gifting to Cobham, a friend, his worldly goods, one of which is the portrait of his father by van Dyck. Certainly the dates fit. As Millar suggests the picture seems to be the work of Van Dyck in the late 1630’s which puts the sitter at about 53 years old which seems likely given his appearance. Given the world his father inhabited he would have known Van Dyck and seen his pictures of other members of the aristocracy and court. To commemorate his position what better than a full length portrait by the artist to whom the royal family regularly sat for and for whom he worked so tirelessly.

Sir William Brouncker by Theodore Roussel (1614-1689)

But there is another decisve aspect. The portrait copy by Theodore Roussel which started all of this is actually the version mentioned by Millar in his catalogue on Van Dyck’s work as the copy at Littlecote House, sold in 1985. We delve further to discover that an Edward Long (1555-1622) married Ann Brouncker, the sister of Sir William Brouncker and that their son Gifford Long married Amy Warre, the grand daughter of Sir John Popham, the owner of Littlecote.  This vital family connection explains why the picture by Roussel, of Gifford Long’s illustrious uncle, would be on the walls at Littlecote and corroborates the belief that the original painting by van Dyck on which it is copied does in reality depict Sir William Brouncker and not the Earl of Carlisle or indeed any other gentleman.

Reflecting on all of this is that we knew the facts all along….only it all needed to be joined up. And this can so often be the case…..