A remarkable thing: Charles Beale’s study of an unknown man. Record of a lost Van Dyck?

Looking through Van Dyck drawings on the British Museum website just now, I saw this one by Charles Beale (1660-1714). Charles Beale learned his trade as studio assistant to his mother Mary Beale (1633-1699). He and his brother Bartholomew (1656-1709) sitter painted draperies and the illusionistic stone ovals that frame her portraits. Charles Beale senior their father gave up his job as a civil servant (appears in Pepys’s Diary as a grumpy jobsworth) to became his wife’s supplier, buying and mixing pigments, keeping the books and documenting her work. Everything about the Beales is cozy and admirable. At a time when you dread any historical figure you like being caught off-message or having a flutter on South Sea stock, the Beales never put a foot wrong. They were a happy, industrious, gender-equal partnership in life and business (Mary wrote about this), charitable even when poor, virtuous but not boring (Lely liked them) loving, happy and they always sound terrific fun. Bart turned his back on art and became a doctor. Charles junior carried on as a painter. At first he did miniatures til it started to affect his eyesight. Then switched over to painting in oils on the scale of life, like this portrait of Margaret Darnell Lady Jenner (formerly with Philip Mould), signed and dated 1689.

(c) Philip Mould Ltd

As a record though, his most interesting work is a series of drawings in the British Museum done in red chalk and black graphite copying paintings by his mother and other artists, which she had borrowed to study. Some at least may be copies of earlier drawings by his mother. One shows an earlier design for Mary Beale’s Magdalene 1672 (formerly with Philip Mould), with the Magdalene in tears, not shown in the finished painting.

(c) Trustees of the British Museum
(c) Philip Mould Ltd

Then there’s this. Studio banter while the model – Mary’s studio assistant Moll Trioche – takes five. This drawing proves, as Philip Mould’s catalogue establishes, that some at least of Charles Beale’s drawings must be copies after lost originals by Mary.* Charles Beale’s Diary records a Magdalene painted in 1672, and the imp sticking the straw up Moll Trioche’s nose could be Charles junior at the age of 12.

(c) Trustees of the British Museum

It’s an incredible thing, such a total record of life in a painter’s studio at this date, front of house and backstage. I bang on about art that captures snapshots of real life and moments in time, but Mary Beale has more in common with Hogarth than anyone in her own time. The gobsmacking prices that Beale’s best paintings fetch at auction these days – £100,000 recently for a sketch of Bartholomew at Reeman Dansie -show that the market sees something quite remarkable in her.

It was this drawing that grabbed my attention.

It’s described on the British Museum site as A young man, after a figure in an unidentified picture, by Rubens
or Van Dyck (?)
The model looks very similar to the man Van Dyck has painted here, Study of a young man in profile sold Sotheby’s New York 20th January 2019 (lot 65) for $112,500.

(c) Sotheby’s

The Van Dyck sketch was made c.1618 in the years when Van Dyck had first joined Rubens’s studio. These head sketches were painted as stock, the raw material for later paintings. The poses would be rotated, adapted and reused for the background figures in large group compositions. Like Beale with Moll Trioche, the painters in Rubens’s studio must have used each other as models. They certainly used art-world friends, like Abraham Grapheus, Dean of the Antwerp Guild of St Luke, the painters’ trade-body. He had a very paintable face. He appears over and over again in paintings from Rubens’s studio – as the beggar in St Martin dividing his cloak (Royal Collection) or here in a detail from Jordaens’s St Andrew (with Klaas Muller, 2019).

(c) Klaas Muller/ Apollo Magazine 2019

Grapheus is magnificently ugly. Leonardo would have had to draw him. But as a wise friend of mine says, not everyone is as recognisable is Grapheus. We may never know what the lost Vandykian painting the Beale drawing comes from, or who the model is, or who the Sotheby’s Van Dyck sitter is. They look very similar. The Sotheby’s painting used to belong to the great Jordaens scholar Ludwig Burchard (1886-1960). I wonder who he thought it was.

[Edit: unless, as Dr Bendor Grosvenor suggests, many of them are in fact the original drawings by Mary Beale]

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