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Worlds in the looking-glass  

09 March 2018

Nicholas Cranfield on Van Eyck’s influence on Victorian painters

© Tate, London

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1848-49

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1848-49

IN 1842, the National Gallery displayed for the first time a painting by Jan Van Eyck (d.1441). To this day, his 1434 Arnolfini Marriage is among the most well-liked works in Trafalgar Square. It is perhaps somewhat rich that, in a paying exhibition, the Director attributes this popularity to the fact that it was acquired to be seen for free.

The Treasury at first rebuffed demands for £10,300 towards purchases for the nascent gallery, but relented to provide 600 gns. for the Van Eyck, having “reason to believe . . . it desirable that the picture should be acquired”. This proves to be the somewhat dubious claim, now long dismissed, that Van Eyck was the father of oil painting in the West.

The late Carola Hicks told the vicissitudes of the painting’s ownership, and its meaning, in her immensely readable 2011 Girl in a Green Gown. It was seized in 1813 from the Spanish royal collection by a Scots officer, and hung for 13 years on a friend’s bedroom wall, where it was seen by many, “none of whom deemed [it] worthy of any particular notice”.

private collection © Photo courtesy of the ownerWilliam Holman Hunt, Il Dolce Far Niente, 1866  

But it was soon popular, despite a particularly dreadful woodcut of it, drawn by the sons of John Linnell, appearing in the in-house guide to the gallery in 1843 as Interior of a Room with Figures, a “perfect speci­men of the colouring of this old German [sic] painter”.

Art students who had come to reject the monumentality of the likes of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Sebastiano del Piombo found refreshing the equality of focus, in which individual brushstrokes could not be identified and in which every object portrayed was given attention worthy of emulation. They were fascinated by the colour, and by the inclusion of a mirror, as Velàzquez had been.

Members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood such as Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and Millais took up the style with enthusiasm. This was not always accepted without criticism, then or now; my cathedral stall is named for Charles Dickens, who, in 1850, dis­paraged the well-known painting Christ in the House of His Parents by Millais as “mean, odious, revolting and repulsive”, an antipathetic view I would share.

What would he have made of the 1848 Rossetti Girlhood of Mary Virgin (Tate), in which Joachim strains to pick grapes off a trellis while St Anne teaches the Virgin to embroider lilies? An angel has piously placed a pot of lilies on a pile of six worthy tomes, each labelled with a virtue (Faith, Hope, Prud­ence, etc.) for later instruction.

I enjoyed the satire of The Awakening Conscience, painted in 1853 by the 26-year-old Holman Hunt. It is tempting to see this as a young woman getting out of the clutches of her Harvey Weinstein. But the clue is in the music: the sententious song sheet of Tennyson and Edward Lear lies discarded on the ground, as they have been sing­ing the Scots air “Oft in the stilly night”, which looks back on the lost innocence of our twenties.

Visitors need to be aware that there is now a differential system for buying tickets, and weekend tickets cost more. How the Trustees can justify charging the disabled the steepest price-hike (20 per cent, taking the admission charge to a staggering £12) will make for interesting reading of the annual report. To add insult to possible injury, I reckon that all bar six of the pictures come from public collections, including the Tate, V&A, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and Manchester and Leeds Museums, which are free.

“Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 2 April. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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