Family resemblances

you ever go to Wilton House, near Salisbury, seat of the Earls of
Pembroke, you will see the huge and magnificent portrait of the
Fourth Earl and his family. Painted by Van Dyck, court painter to
Charles I, it was executed circa 1635. Author Adam Nicolson describes
it as “the greatest painting of a family ever made in England”.


it exudes power, luxury and aristocratic self-confidence; the Herbert
family had made its irresistible rise in Tudor times, acquiring the
Earldom of Pembroke and the former Abbey of Wilton, and the Fourth
Earl holds his wand of office as Lord Chamberlain. Van Dyck here
depicts the romantic Cavalier ideal: the young men of the house, with
their flowing silken curls and their brilliant silk and satin
costumes, look more beautiful than the womenfolk. Their parents sit
as if enthroned on a dais while their sons adopt swaggering poses on
the steps below them; cherubs float on the clouds above, blessing the
family with quasi-divine status, and the fourth Earl’s armorial
bearings hang with magisterial authority in the background. Over 17
feet wide, the painting is designed to impress.

making his sweeping claim Nicolson has forgotten an earlier family
portrait, made between 1526-8, by another court painter: Hans Holbein
the Younger. The original is lost but painted copies survive, closely
based on Holbein’s finely-wrought sketch of the whole composition,
now in Basel. The painting shows a household in sober Tudor dress,
together with two pet dogs and a monkey. They obviously love flowers
(three full vases are visible), music-making and learning: six
members of the family are holding books, while a further pile lies on
a shelf with musical instruments. The group includes the family’s
domestic Fool, Henry Patenson, the only person to gaze directly at
the spectator. Vivid colour is provided by an elderly man sitting
left of centre, wearing the scarlet judicial robes of the King’s
Bench. His son, centre-stage, gazes into the distance with a grave,
preoccupied expression while a clock, symbol of the transitory nature
of life, ticks above his head. He, like Philip Herbert, wears his
emblem of office: the chain of the Lord Chancellor of England. For
this, as readers will doubtless have guessed, is the family of Sir
Thomas More.

the Herberts, the More family did not aspire to worldly
prestige but to intellectual pursuits and holiness of life. As the
Herbert dynasty rose under the Tudors, the More family fell; in July
1535, 100 years before Van Dyck took up his brushes, Sir Thomas More
died for his Catholic faith on the scaffold at Tower Hill. Again, in
contrast to the Pembroke family portraits, with their air of
ineffable superiority, the More family group looks studious, pious
and high-minded: Dame Alice, More’s wife, has a cross on her breast
and Cecily, sitting beside Margaret, More’s favourite daughter
whose husband, William Roper, was to write the Life
his father-in-law, is counting the decades of the Rosary on her
fingers (in the original sketch she is holding a Rosary).

March this year
that great actor, Paul Scofield, died, best known for his deeply
sympathetic portrayal of Thomas More in the film A
Man for All Seasons.
It is a safe bet that most people will know of the saint, scholar,
humanist, friend of Erasmus (and briefly of Henry VIII) through this
fine film. More was also a devoted family man, as the painting
suggests: obedient to his father, kindly to his servants,
affectionate to his wife (the Herberts were estranged at the time of
their portrait and the Countess, who looks stern and disengaged from
her surroundings, had to be painted in later) and a loving, watchful
parent to his children.

Holbein’s conception there is a subtle emotional interplay between
the members of the family circle that the Van Dyck portrait, with its
studied surface polish, quite lacks. Pace
Adam Nicolson, Holbein’s is the greater family painting.

Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.


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