A helping hand

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Behind Jan van Eyck's 15th-century masterpiece is a story of intrigue as fascinating as the painting itself. Colin McEvedy reveals how a soldier at the Battle of Waterloo rescued it from obscurity

What makes the painting previously known as "The Arnolfini Wedding" so amazing is not just that it is one of the earliest oil paintings known, but that it shows such complete mastery of a medium that had been invented only a few years earlier. Obviously, this owes a lot to the fact that inventor and painter may have been one (no one is quite sure) and the same person, Jan van Eyck of Bruges, Belgium. But even so, the confidence with which van Eyck takes the art of painting into totally new territory is astonishing.

The early 15th century saw a revolution in the way pictures are made. Up until that time the only medium available was tempera, which essentially consisted of pigments suspended in a watery glue, usually egg-white. All this changed with the invention of oil-based paints, which used the same pigments, but suspended in oil.

Take the question of detail: the mirror on the back wall not only shows the back view of Arnolfini and his wife, but, standing in front of them, the witnesses to the portrait, van Eyck and a companion. A virtuoso trick like this would have been impossible in tempera. Equally impossible to achieve with tempera, but effortlessly accomplished here, is the hair by hair treatment of the fur trimming of Arnolfini's coat, the lustrous nap of the bride's green velvet dress, and the magic quality of the light that falls on her face from the window on the left. The only false note is the pooch, which looks more like a stuffed dog than a real one.

The story behind the painting's acquisition by the National Gallery is as fascinating as the image itself. Not many soldiers are credited with having an eye for a good painting, though the tradition of the soldier-poet is a long and honourable one, stretching back from Wilfred Owen to Sir Philip Sydney. One such soldier - and he deserves to be remembered for it - is Lieutenant-Colonel James Hay, who found and later sold to the National Gallery, "The Arnolfini Portrait".

Severely wounded at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Hay was convalescing in a lodging house in Brussels when he noticed a work of exceptional quality hanging among the pictures on the wall. A closer, perhaps clandestine, examination revealed a signature "Johannes de eyck fuit hic" (Johannes Eyck made this) and a date, 1434.

There was no doubt about it: here was a work by the man credited by writer and painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) with the invention of oil painting - one of the few northerners to rate an entry in his seminal Lives of the Painters (1550), with its otherwise exclusive focus on the masters of the Italian Renaissance. The short journey from Bruges, where van Eyck had his studio, to Brussels, and the passage of three and a half centuries, had proved enough to deprive van Eyck's masterpiece of its identity. Hay controlled his excitement, paid the asking price and took the painting back to England. In 1842, he sold it to the National Gallery for pound;630. Its market value today must be of the order of pound;25 million.

The obscurity into which "The Arnolfini Portrait" had fallen is perhaps understandable: it was too quiet, too self-effacing to make a splash in the world of tumbling gods and nymphs created in the next century by another equally great Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Yet the lost years are not without interest. We now know that for most of this period the painting was not in the Netherlands at all, but in Spain. It had passed from Arnolfini's widow to a local courtier, who gifted it to the regent of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria. She bequeathed it to her successor, Mary of Hungary, who, when the time came for her too to retire, decided to take it with her to Madrid. On Mary's death a couple of years later, it entered the Spanish Royal Collections. There it remained for the next 200 years.

By 1700, its true nature was so completely forgotten that it was catalogued as "a pregnant German lady... who is giving her hand to a man". It makes its last appearance in the catalogue in 1789, leaving a blank period of 26 years, during which the painting somehow got back to the Netherlands in time for its rediscovery by Lieutenant Colonel Hay in 1815.

It's easier to answer the question of how "The Arnolfini Portrait" made this journey if we split it into two. When did the painting leave Madrid? And when did it arrive in Brussels?

The first part can be answered with some confidence. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte deposed the reigning Spanish monarch Ferdinand VII and put his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne in his place. This precipitated the Peninsular War in which the Duke of Wellington gradually got the upper hand over the French army of occupation. By 1813, things had got so bad for the French that Joseph decided to abandon Madrid and head back to France. He didn't move quite fast enough: his baggage train, swollen by cart-loads of furnishings from the Royal Palaces, was caught by Wellington's forces before it could reach the safety of the Pyrenees. The night that followed was enlivened by spontaneous auctions, in which the delighted British soldiers sold off whatever they could lay their hands on. Among those present was Lieutenant-Colonel James Hay of the 16th Light Dragoons.

This suggests a very different story to the one Hay later told about the Brussels boarding house. "The Arnolfini Portrait" came into his possession in the aftermath of the French rout: it went in his luggage to England, and was never actually in Brussels at all, either before or after Waterloo. It was his by right of conquest, not by purchase from a Belgian innkeeper.

But was right of conquest enough in the new, peacetime world? Much better, he must have thought, to establish a clear title based on a supposed purchase in another country, at another time. There's no point clucking over Hay's tall tale when fabricated provenances are part of every art-dealer's stock-in-trade, and much worse sins of fraud and forgery abound. Instead, we should praise the wit of a man who was able to perceive the superb quality of an unfashionable painting, on a chaotic night, by the light of a dancing candle.

Colin McEvedy, a leading psychiatrist, demographer and historian, died on August 1. His books include The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History

Jan van Eyck Probably 1395-1441

Jan was taught how to draw and paint by his brother Hubert van Eyck. He worked at the courts of Duke Johann of Bavaria and Philip the Good of Burgundy as diplomat and artist, before earning his living painting freelance in Bruges.

Jan perfected - although he did not, as widely believed, invent - the newly developed technique of oil painting. His masterpiece is the altarpiece in the cathedral at Ghent, "The Adoration of the Lamb" (1432), probably begun with his brother, but finished by Jan alone after Hubert's death in about 1426.

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