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October 13, 2006

Three mysteries at The Wallace Collection: Willem Van de Velde the Younger's The Embarkation of Charles II at Scheveningen, Velasquez's Lady with a Fan, and Delacroix's The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero

Posted by Christopher Peachment

The Wallace Collection
Manchester Square, London
Daily 10am - 5pm

I recently went to the Wallace Collection in order to see the new exhibition of drawings from the Chateau de Versailles, entitled Pomp and Power (5th October 2006 - 7th January 2007). Alas, my newspaper had got the dates wrong and the show had not opened yet. But a trip to the Wallace Collection is never wasted, and so this was one of the few occasions I did not rip the paper up and vow never to buy it again. I would go to the Wallace every day of my life if I could.

There are two paintings there that are a continuing puzzle, and I often go straight to them, and look at nothing else. One is The Embarkation of Charles II at Scheveningen by Willem Van de Velde the Younger, a man who specialised in penschileringen drawings and paintings of ships. The subject is the moment when Charles, who had been in exile on the continent throughout Cromwell's wretched interregnum, was summoned back to London to take up his rightful claim to the throne and be crowned Charles II.

He embarked from the beach at Scheveningen, which, according to the painting, had no harbour or quay. Consequently the shallows are full of small yachts and sailing barges, which would ferry the royal passenger out to The Naseby, waiting with a squadron of larger English vessels on the horizon.

The Naseby was later renamed The Royal London, in recognition of its role, and Charles, a man generous with his money and favours, scattered gold and knighthoods among the crew. He would scatter gold and knighthoods among his twenty illegitimate offspring too, but that came later.

What can't be made out in the painting is exactly where Charles is. This is odd, given the title. There is a melée of people on the foreshore and in the surf, including two gentlemen on horseback, looking out to sea. They look as if they might be about to wave their monarch goodbye, but they are immobile, and where they are looking is indeterminate. One small vessel has a pennant hoisted, but it is hard to make out whether it is a British Royal one. Other vessels have pennants being raised, so it is possible that they are carrying the new King. Exactly where he is, though, is a mystery.

One figure in the shallows is giving another a pick-a-back, and I thought at first that this might be the King getting a lift across the water into the boats - especially as Charles was over six foot six and the man being lifted has the toes of his boots trailing in the water. But they are travelling from the boats back to the shore, and so are going in the wrong direction. If the painting was called The Disembarkation… then it might make sense.

I suspect that it is one of those paintings in which the main action has just taken place and what we are witnessing is the aftermath of a great event. Like the episode in Stendhal's The Red and the Black when the battle of Waterloo is briefly alluded to, taking place in the distance.

But it's a mystery.

Charles must have like it however because he made Van De Velde a court painter and installed him in a studio in the Queen's House in Greenwich.

For what it's worth, I like it too, so much that I put it into my second novel, The Green and the Gold, but I kept it as a mystery.

The second painting which has always been a mystery is Velasquez's Lady with a Fan. The fact that she is anonymous is the first mystery, although not a very important one. Art collections are littered with portraits of the once mighty, who have been long forgotten. As Alexander Pope said of one such in his Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady:

How lov'd, how honour'd once, avails thee not,
To whom related, or by whom begot;
A heap of dust alone remains of thee;
Tis all thou art and all the proud shall be!
She stands there, whoever she is, in a peppercorn green dress, with buckskin gloves, and a fan in her right hand. She has no great claims to beauty but she is giving the onlooker a bold stare with her large Hanoverian eyes, and I have always thought her very sexy.

It is what she is doing with her left hand which is the enduring mystery. She wears a black mantilla covering her hair, which falls past her shoulders. Her low cut dress reveals a lovely cleavage. Her left hand is just clasping the edge of her mantilla. But whether she is about to cover her breasts modestly with the veil, or whether she is in fact drawing it aside to increase the viewer's pleasure is a mystery. Wishful thinking suggests the latter. So much so that I also included her in The Green and the Gold as a dark-eyed seductress who inflames the poet Andrew Marvell on one of his spying missions to Spain.

I said that her identity was a mystery, but now I find from the Wallace Collection's website that the mystery might have been solved recently. New evidence suggests that she is the Duchesse de Chevreuse (1600-79), a French woman who, after incurring the wrath of Richelieu, fled to Spain disguised as a man.

I didn't get her nationality right in the book, but I got her dates spot on, and also the fact that she was in Spain at the right time, and could easily pass as a man. Which might be the triumph of long and hard looking at a painting over the dogged claims of art history, I don't know.

But I do know that I preferred it when she was anonymous. There are some mysteries which are best preserved. Now that we know who she might have been, she has lost a little of her allure for me. A friend of mine who is a historian cannot understand what I am getting at. Like most historians he can be depressingly literal when it comes to the pursuit of facts. He calls them "truths", but they are no such thing. Imagination and fiction give us greater truths than history.

There's another mystery painting at the Wallace, which is Delacroix's The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero, which refers to the only Doge to be convicted of treason and beheaded. He was driven to distraction by young aristocrats getting above themselves, and when one insulted his sexual prowess (he was over seventy, and still virile) he tried to dissolve the Republic and declare himself Emperor. Venice's Council of Ten took exception.

He was executed in 1355, yet Delacroix clothes his people in fashions of a later period. Moreover the Giant's Staircase, where the execution took place, is on the wrong side of the Doge's palace. And the Staircase was not built until 1483 anyway. And while the traitor's body is in the foreground, his head is nowhere to be seen. It might be under a crumpled cloak which has been thrown over the executioner's block, but there doesn't seem to be any tell-tale lump. I suspect it is decorating a pike somewhere outside the frame. I haven't put it in a novel yet, but I plan to.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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