Et in Arcadia…Van Dyck’s landscape watercolours

I’ve been reading Martin Royalton-Kisch’s The Light of Nature, Landscape drawings and watercolours by Van Dyck and his contemporaries, the catalogue to a superb exhibition at the British Museum back in 1999.

It’s exciting to look at a drawing from nearly four hundred years ago, and know that the artist was there. The exact location of Coastal landscape with trees and shipping (dated to later 1630s – 1641) is unknown. Van Dyck was in England and Flanders during this period, and some of the drawings might have been made in either country, but this may well be from a hill above a busy port on the South Coast of England.

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(c) Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Artists are thrifty with their motifs, and Van Dyck’s landscapes provided him with elements to use in later portraits. Painters are always on the look out for a particular ‘something’ that would be interesting in a painting. Gainsborough’s friends said he was forever pointing out the way a shadow fell, or the reflection of light on a gate hinge.

In Wide landscape with a tall tree 1630s at the Getty, it’s the magnificent lone tree in the middle that seems to have grabbed his attention, but it’s the white gable to the right that he adapts it for the portrait of his mistress Margaret Lemon as Erminia putting on Tancred’s armour late 1630s at Blenheim Palace.

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(c) Getty Museum

The left-hand tree in A study of trees in the British Museum reappears in the background of King Charles I on horseback c.1636/7 in the National Gallery, but perhaps the trees came before the portrait, motifs in search of a subject.

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(c) British Museum

One of my favourites, Farmhouse near a brook with cattle 1630s in the British Museum may not have been drawn with use for a later work in mind. The highlights on the white cow to the left are created by leaving the original colour of the paper, like the sunlight on the building. Like all of these studies, it’s such a vivid snapshot of a moment of life four centuries ago that you can hear and feel it.

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(c) British Museum

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