Although the text, as the author tells us, was completed at the end of the last century, Gregory Martin’s two volumes on Rubens’s paintings for the Whitehall Ceiling is the most exhaustive and up-to-date study of this major work, and, apart from possible interpretive refinements, is unlikely to be superseded. This magnum opus in the artist’s oeuvre is particularly significant for being the only major decorative scheme by him to remain in situ; only relatively recently, with the clutter of the museum of the Royal United Service Institution removed, the room refurbished and the canvases on the ceiling restored and correctly reordered, can it be seen in all its glory. It is sad that more people do not come to visit it. It is of course physically difficult to study, an exercise in neck-bending which is made all the more demanding by the wealth of meaning we now know to be present in each canvas. As far as scholarship is concerned, it is only within the last half century with the publications of Oliver Millar, Per Palme and Julius Held that the ceiling has received its due. Martin builds on this base – Fiona Donovan’s study on Rubens and England (2004) appeared too late to be considered [Ed.: See review by Gregory Martin in this issue] – the importance of which he fully acknowledges, and is able to add new facts and much detail and discussion. There is, however, a good deal we do not know about the whole project, and the author is ever ready to speculate quite widely, but he is always punctilious in separating fact from supposition. He offers the reader a stimulating and highly satisfactory analysis of the commission.
The substantial introduction offers a very wide-ranging examination of the history of the project, starting with the architecture of the Banqueting House and ending with the influence of the canvasses on later artists. The early history of the commission, that is between Rubens’s reference in a letter to the commission in 1621 and his arrival in London in 1629, remains tantalisingly unclear, despite the amount of existing correspondence about the English court and the artist. Although there is neither correspondence nor recorded contacts with Rubens during these years, it is clear that something was going on, and Martin suggests that George Gage and Tobie Mathew, both resident on the Continent at the time, were the English contacts deputed to deal with the artist. He also interestingly infers the involvement of Charles I, when still Prince of Wales, in the scheme from the beginning, which provided a highly desirable element of continuity when James I died in 1625. It would have been, as Martin points out, an unusual collaboration between the king and his heir.
The important new evidence about the commission consists in the two programs, or ‘projects’ as they were called, relating to the ceiling, which were discovered in the British Library and were published by Martin in 1994. The first was probably drafted before but edited after the death of James I and the second therefore taking account of his heir’s changed perception of what the ceiling should show, moving from a celebration of the life of the king to being ‘dessigned to the memory of King James’. Both show the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in the central oval rather than the Apotheosis and therefore composed before the ‘Multiple Bozzetto‘ (see below) and before the final program was settled with Rubens. The authorship of the ‘Projects’ remains unknown and several candidates, including Inigo Jones, the most obvious choice, and Balthasar Gerbier are considered.
In discussing the iconography, Martin stresses the importance of the image of the king, who appears in all three central canvases, and the royal regalia. Although no drawings for the ceiling are known and, it has been surmised, none were needed in view of the numerous oil-sketches, Martin argues that drawings for the king’s appearance, his dress and regalia must surely have been made. In this context one can recall the several drawings of the head of Maria de’ Medici made as an aid to the Medici cycle.
A matter of continuing debate has been the degree to which the artist was personally involved in the execution of the final canvases, with opinions varying from entirely by Rubens to largely by the studio and retouched by Rubens. Martin accepts the participation of the studio but thinks it likely that, before ‘signing off’ each canvas, the master reviewed each figure and its clothing, retouching where necessary. He develops the interesting notion that the hand of Jan van den Hoecke, who seems to have been one of Rubens’s chief assistants in the 1630s and who certainly played a role in the execution of the decorations for the Introitus Ferdinandi, can possibly be recognized in certain details.
In a long account of the ceiling after about 1637 up to about 1970, two recurring themes stand out. The first relates to the physical survival and the frequent campaigns of restoration and cleaning of the canvases. Discolouration was a particular problem since, following the destruction of Whitehall Palace by fire in 1697, the room served as the Chapel Royal for nearly two hundred years. The first campaign of restoration already carried out in 1687 and since then no less than seven have taken place, the last, a surface cleaning in 1994-95. As a result of the installation of scaffolding and the removal of the canvases from their setting on a number of occasions, their correct installation on the ceiling became an issue, which was only satisfactorily resolved in 1972.
The second recurring theme is the artistic reputation of the ceiling, a subject which attracted surprisingly contradictory opinions over the course of three centuries. Lauded by such visitors as Cosimo de’ Medici III in the century of its creation, it was praised in later centuries by such figures as George Vertue and William Seguier, who thought it was the ‘finest ceiling in the world’. Others held far less flattering assessments of quality. Sir Christopher Wren perversely thought Robert Streater’s ceiling in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, was better. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who, following his visit to Flanders, became a Rubens admirer and the owner of what he thought were two sketches for the ceiling, totally ignored the work in his Discourses. Perhaps most damaging for their reputation at the time were the highly critical opinions of that great German connoisseur, Gustav Waagen, who saw nothing to esteem.
The catalogue raisonné of the canvases and the preparatory oil-sketches offers as thorough and detailed an examination of each work connected with the scheme as one could hope for, covering in extensoiconography, physical make-up and execution, authenticity and style. Beginning with the Multiple Bozzetto with subjects for seven compartments (No. 1), that marvellous oil-sketch, unique in Rubens’s oeuvre, now on loan to the National Gallery in London, the catalogue moves on to the lost Overall Modello (No. 2), described by Van der Doort as having been sent to Charles I for approval, and subsequently displayed in the ceiling of the Cabinet Room in Whitehall. Rather than identifying it, as is sometimes proposed, with the oil-sketch of the Apotheosis of James I (No. 4e), in St. Petersburg (see below), which in fact only represents one of the nine subjects/compartments, Martin persuasively argues that it was likely to have escaped being sold at the time of the Commonwealth by remaining in situ at Whitehall, and that it was later destroyed in the great fire of 1698.
Of the generally accepted oil-sketches, Martin rejects three as the work of Rubens. Following Oliver Millar he is clearly right to take a stand against the Hermitage sketch of the Apotheosis of James I, just mentioned, and his arguments about its lack of quality were confirmed, at least for the present writer, when it stood out like a sore thumb among unquestionably genuine oil-sketches, exhibited at the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House in 2003-04. Less convincing is his dismissal of the Mercury and Argus (nos. 3g/5g), in Boston, an unusual work in containing studies for two different subjects. Although Martin deploys some subtle arguments, tentatively attributing it to Jan van den Hoecke, it stood up well in the exhibition of Rubens’s sketches at the Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connectiticut in 2004, an event too recent to have been recorded here. On the other hand, his strictures against the other Whitehall sketch in Boston, Hercules Crushing Discord (No. 6b), already criticized but nevertheless accepted by Held, are fairly persuasive.
Overall Martin’s volume stands out by virtue of its perspicacity and precision as one of the best in the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard series. As usual, the volume is very fully illustrated, but with the addition, for the first time in a volume of the Corpus Rubenianum, of colour reproductions. Fourteen plates, of the interior of the Banqueting Hall, sections of the ceiling with its elaborate moulding, as well as details of some individual canvases, give Corpus readers a good impression of Rubens’s use of color throughout the series, but are, as always, no substitute for the real thing.