Foreigners in London 1520-1677:
artists who changed the course of British art
Review of the talk by Leslie Primo on March 28th 2018
Our lecturer Leslie Primo has a B.A. in Art History and an M.A. in Renaissance Studies from Birkbeck College, University of London. He has over 10 years’ experience of lecturing in Art History and giving guided tours and presentations at major institutions such as the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Maritime Museum and The Courtauld Institute. His theme was how art and artists from different cultures added to the richness of British art in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Leslie began by reminding us that his chosen period spans the dates of death of great artists of the Italian renaissance - of Raphael in 1520, da Vinci in 1519, Michelangelo in 1574 and Titian in 1576. He explored the concept of a later London ‘renaissance’ by examining the earliest example of an oil painting in England. This diptych was the work of Gerlick Flicke who came to London from Germany in 1546. What was popular here at the time were miniatures as found in the work of Lucas Horenbout brought his family over and was employed by Henry VIII. Leslie drew on court records to showing details of the high status and salary given to Horenbout who by 1526 had become painter to the king and by 1534 was given that position for life. Crucially he was made a denizen which gave him naturalised status. He set up a workshop here and employed 4 foreign assistants. Though records fail to reflect any payment to her, there are examples of outstanding work by his sister who was a talented illustrator and calligrapher.
During the period 1524-28 Horenbout worked on portraits of the king. Some of these roundels are now in Hatfield House. They are the earliest surviving ‘ad vivum’ depictions of Henry VIII and were done to help the king decide whether to shave off or keep his beard! It is a reflection of the regard Horenbout was held in that the king was prepared to sit for him. Records show that by the time of his death the artist was paid more per annum than Holbein. There are other portraits of the king at this time such as that by Joos Van Cleve from Antwerp, but they do not rank as highly as those done ‘ad vivum’.
Many members will be familiar with Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII. The artist came to London in 1527 and his 1537 portrait became a standard way of depicting the king. Holbein had practised by doing miniatures under the tutelage of Horenbout before moving on to concentrate on portraits such as the six he is known to have done of Erasmus, his portrait of Thomas More and his work The Ambassadors painted in 1533. This was a critical time for Henry VIII who was trying to secure his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In 1543 Holbein died of the plague and Horenbout died the following year. The gap they left in talent here was filled by an English man, Nicholas Hilliard. He was familiar with the work of both men and by 1570 he was a goldsmith and miniaturist to Elizabeth I. He trained the likes of Isaac Oliver, a Huguenot, in painting miniatures and it is a measure of his success that figures such as Drake and Raleigh sat for him.
In the latter part of the 16th century London experienced the influx of talented Huguenot refugees. The Return of the Aliens Register was set up in London in 1568 and its records enable researchers to track the movements of foreign workers in the city at the time. Talent came that outshone the English artists. Painters like Marcus Gheeraerts whose greatest work is his portrait of Elizabeth I. Depicting the monarch standing on the globe, it became known as the Ditchley portrait as the village is under her foot! It is at this time that Gheeraerts introduced the concept of placing the subject of the painting in a natural setting such as a country idyll. By the 1590’s portrait painting was being influenced by the architecture of the time and the full-length portrait became popular. They were painted on a large scale and easily accommodated by the large halls and galleries built by the aristocracy who wanted portraits of themselves and friends to hang in their homes. Gheeraerts also at around this time introduced to London the concept of the group portrait, an example of which is his portrait of the family of the Countess of Leicester in 1596. It is to foreign artists also that we owe the introduction of using oil on canvas instead of wood panels at this time.
By this time there was a thriving community of painters all living near to each other in London and forming a growing group of exiles with bonds strengthened through marriages within their community. The homegrown talent that did exist such as Robert Peake and George Gower resented the frequent supervision by foreign artists and sought to curtail the power and number of foreign artists through their guilds. They petitioned the queen to curb the flow of foreigners and the 1581 royal charter introduced positive discrimination in favour of English talent. However as by then many foreign artists had achieved denizen status this limited the impact of the charter. Whilst some in English society regarded painters as little more than tradesmen, well below the status of gentlemen, several prospered like Gheeraerts who was a denizen by 1619 and admitted to the guild.
As the 17th century opened out so the status of painters changed and with the arrival of artists such as Rubens and van Dyck, London witnessed the era of the celebrity artist. Rubens arrived in 1630 and was knighted soon afterwards, an honour not bestowed on an English artist till the 18th century. His ceiling painting for the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall is his sole work in situ in Britain. Van Dyck became the king’s painter and was given a high salary and a home. He ushered in a new wave of flamboyant portraiture and did several of the royal family as well as what became known as friendship portraits in which the commissioner of the portrait also wished to be in the picture. Whilst the patronage of the monarch may have enhanced van Dyck’s status, it did not make him immune to the financial troubles Charles I brought on himself after buying the art collection of the Dukes of Mantua. Accountancy records of the time show he received no pension for 5 years and went unpaid for 25 of the painting done for the king.
Leslie brought us to the end of his chosen period by drawing on the work of Wenceslaus Hollar who came to London from Bohemia. He was a detailed chronicler of all that was happening in the British school of art as this time and his etchings provide remarkably detailed images of for example London before and after the Great Fire of 1666. One worrying final piece of information Leslie shared with us is that pigment changes over time and eventually fades completely. Within two hundred years many of the paintings such as those in the current exhibition ‘Charles I: King and Collector’ at the Royal Academy will have lost their colour.