Fiona Donovan has written a trail-breaking survey of Rubens’s relationship with England, centred on the nine paintings he provided to decorate the ceiling of the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace in London. Her book grew out of a doctoral thesis submitted to Columbia University in 1995, but is to a very great degree mercifully free of seminar jargon.
Design and content seem at odds in that the text is well researched with up to date references, while the layout, with one wide margin on each page, a liberal number of illustrations and plentiful, good color reproductions, suggests a coffee table destination. As Rubens had his fair share of English admirers from mid-career onwards, it is extraordinary that Donovan’s is the first book to take as its theme this important aspect of his professional life. And as one who has worked in the same vineyard, I salute it. [Ed.: see review by Christopher White of Gregory Martin’s Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard volume on the Whitehall Ceiling in this issue.]
Donovan begins by telling the story of English – or rather as it should be described – British patronage of Rubens from the first contact made on behalf of Sir Dudley Carleton, King James I’s ambassador to the Estates General in The Hague, in 1616. She opens with a discussion of the importance placed by Carleton and others on the authenticity of paintings leaving Rubens’s studio. This English pre-occupation with authorship – widely and legitimately indulged still today – was most likely fuelled by the artist’s openness than by the perspicacity of his early admirers. Perhaps not enough is made of the falling-out over Lord Danvers’s attempt to foist a damaged Creation of the Animals by a member of the Bassano family on Rubens. Equally, more could have been said about the artist’s later disgust at the Spanish offensive alliance with France against Great Britain that put a temporary stop to his negotiations with the Duke of Buckingham. The Spanish envoy, the Marquis de Leganès, who finalized the alliance in Paris, was on his way to Brussels and, of course, not to The Hague.
The view advanced by Donovan that Rubens’s famous paragraph in his letter of 12 September 1621 arose from his ‘decision to lobby on his own behalf’ for the Banqueting Hall commission is curiously Madison Avenue-ese, and ignores evidence of careful, British diplomatic preparation. And the initiative concerning the gift of the Crucifixion, on which Albert J. Loomie has thrown much light (Burlington Magazine, 138, 1996, 734 ff; 140, 1998, 680ff), came not from the Archduchess but from the recipient of the painting, Sir George Calvert. The picture which arrived was much bigger than had been specified and evidently had just been extracted from the artist’s stock.
The story that ends with the artist’s arrival in London in June 1629 is a rich and complex one; it is nicely told here with only a few slips along the way. Similar is the exposition of Continental Culture and the Early Stuart Court, her next chapter, although perhaps culture is too wide in scope for the matter in hand. Condensed are accounts of the impact made by leading personalities, who have been treated at greater length elsewhere: Henry Prince of Wales, Inigo Jones, the Earl of Arundel, the Duke of Buckingham and, of course, Charles I himself.
Like others before her, Donovan contrasts James I and his son Charles. James, whose reputation is still here thought to be appositely described as that of a buffoon, gets the old stick for hunting too much – the only monarch of the time to be so criticized. More seriously James is taken to task for not acting in a way he would never have dreamt of: his “court lacked the direction necessary to direct cultural reform. There was never any controlled supervision from the top.” In another context, contemporaries would have been nonplussed by her assertion that the “Vatican … relaxed restrictions on Protestant visitors.”
As is shown in her next chapter, Envoy and Artist, Rubens afforded his Spanish masters with a sharp analysis – still ignored by historians – of the British court during his stay in the capital in 1629-30. Donovan gives a good idea of the problems Rubens faced as he accomplished the diplomatic task he had been entrusted with. Contrary to what she says, the artist had nothing but admiration for the King; it was his advisers that were criticized for fickleness. To give an idea of the tension of the situation, she might have dwelt on the artist’s agitation at having borne the brunt of Lord Weston’s anger (Weston then the most powerful of the King’s ministers) at Spanish prevarication. And when so much else is covered, it is a pity that absent is a report of the great day in January 1630 when Rubens accompanied the Spanish Extraordinary Ambassador on his formal reception in the Banqueting Hall.
Of course her theme is greatly enriched by the art Rubens produced when diplomacy did not absorb his time. And it is a curious fact, to which Donavan draws attention, that he painted no formal portrait of Charles I, with whom he was in quite frequent contact, although he conveyed a clear likeness of the King in the guise of St. George in the sublime St. George and the Dragon (Royal Collection). How the don Joseph Mead (recte Mede), who was never knighted pace Donovan, got wind of the work so soon after it was executed, remains a mystery. Donovan might have mentioned the artist’s erratic diplomatic behaviour in the weeks immediately before his departure.
Of the ceiling decoration itself, Donovan sums it up as projecting “an impression of the authority, prestige and sanctity of the English court.” The point would have been well made if for ‘English court’ she had written ‘the house of Stuart.’ On the whole a perceptive guide to the iconography is given; it is seen as both generalized and polysemous, for the true meaning of the “less readily identifiable figures is multifaceted.” The account of the outside compositions is less sure-footed: the long processions are misplaced and despatched in the wrong direction. The monstrous head of Minerva’s victim is not spotted, so she is identified as personifying sedition rather than ignorance. Similarly is missed the garment torn away by temperance’s victim, which allows her identification as intemperance, while the object displayed by temperance in the bozzetto is wrongly read as a rudder.
If memory serves me right – I hope it does – there is a memo in the archive of the Ministry of Works from a Government minister, who had accompanied King George VI round the Banqueting Hall at its re-opening after the War in 1951, in which he complained that he had not been properly briefed about the paintings. He would not have had to complain so much had he had Fiona Donovan’s book to hand.