There is no doubt that Christopher White’s recently published catalogue of the seventeenth-century Flemish paintings in the collection of H. M. Queen Elizabeth II fills an important gap in the series of outstanding catalogues of the various sections of what can certainly be considered the world’s greatest and most important private collection. This book gives a full and very detailed account of every Flemish painting preserved in the various residences of the British queen – with the one great exception of Sir Anthony van Dyck. The impressive ensemble of Van Dyck’s works belonging to the Royal Collection was already discussed in 1963 by Oliver Millar in his two volumes on paintings acquired during the Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian periods. Indeed, Millar also included works painted by those Netherlandish painters who had resided in England during these years as artists working for the court, which is why the oeuvres of Marcus Gheeraerts, Paulus van Somer, Daniel Mytens, and especially Anthony van Dyck, Charles I’s foremost court painter, were dealt there at length. It nevertheless remains regrettable that the omission of Van Dyck lends a feel of incompleteness to White’s panorama of Flemish seventeenth-century painting in the Royal Collection.
The British Royal Collection was formed over the centuries by several generations of kings and queens. This is especially true of the Flemish works, though only a few of the paintings acquired by Charles I, the greatest British royal patron of the arts, remain today in the Royal Collection, as most were sold off in the Commonwealth Sale of 1649. An important part of the collection was compiled during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the monarchs of the House of Hanover. This is made clear in the lucid and very well documented essays preceding the catalogue raisonné proper. Here Christopher White has done a great job by illuminating, in part using hitherto unpublished archival material, the specific role of the various rulers in the acquisition of the magnificent ensemble of Flemish art that still can be seen in Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle.
The catalogue itself is in every respect an outstanding example of erudition and accuracy thanks to the author’s wealth of information, his fine and cautiously formulated attributions as well as his subtle and thoughtful dealing of iconographic aspects. The entries on Rubens alone cover 105 pages, i.e. one fourth of the entire book! Because of the considerable attention paid to technical aspects these entries are among the most important recent contributions on Rubens’s oeuvre. There is really not much to add to this book, the solid scholarly content of which is well served by a marvellous lay-out and good quality colour plates. But just for the sake of completeness, I would like to present minor additions to two entries:
The Head of a Bearded Peasant (n° 25) is attributed to Joos van Craesbeeck. However, Karolien De Clippel has recently plausibly suggested that another version of this picture (whereabouts unknown) is a copy after a now lost (?) work by Adriaen Brouwer that represents Gula and which originally formed part of a series of Seven Deadly Sins(see K. De Clippel, ‘Adriaen Brouwer, portrait painter: new identifications and an iconographic novelty’, Simiolus, 30, 3/4, 2003, pp. 196 ff., fig. 12).
Gerard Thomas’s Collector in his Cabinet (n° 127) is a very characteristic late seventeenth-century interpretation of the typical Antwerp genre of the konstkamer. It has been overlooked that the two pictures in the background representing Faith and Hope are after compositions by Jan Boeckhorst (1604-68) and are probably identical with the Faith and Hope by Boeckhorst listed in the 1691 probate inventory of the Antwerp painter Jaspar Tielens, who was the executor of his estate and who also possessed a great many paintings by the artist (see J. Denucé, De Antwerpsche “Konstkamers”. Inventarissen van kunstverzamelingen te Antwerpen in de 16e en 17e eeuwen, Antwerp 1932, p. 353). Originally both works must have formed a set together with Charity, a version of which by Boeckhorst is mentioned in the 1678 inventory of Erasmus Quellinus’s estate (see J. Denucé, op. cit., p. 274). A complete set of these Three Christian Virtues (canvas; each 56 x 76 cm.) is preserved in the Terninck Foundation in Antwerp: the Faith and Hope belonging to that set are exactly like the compositions in the background of Gerard Thomas’s Collector in his Cabinet (see comment on and reproduction of these three paintings in H. Lahrkamp, ‘Der “Lange Jan”. Leben und Werk des Barockmalers Johan Bockhorst aus Münster’, Westfalen, 60, 1982, p. 118, nos. 71-73).
There is no doubt that Christopher White’s brilliant study of the seventeenth-century Flemish paintings in the Royal Collection is a landmark in art historical cataloguing. For a long time to come, this book will remain the essential and fundamental standard publication on that important ensemble.