Van Dyck: The inspiration behind Viper Wine

  • 13 March 2014
  • By Hermione Eyre
  • Author and journalist

Hermione Eyre writes about how Van Dyck's work sparked the idea for her novel, Viper Wine, and explains why his final self-portrait should hang in a public collection.

When paintings hang in public galleries, they have untold power. Hundreds of people pass by, some absorbing them, others walking straight past, many going on their way enriched, or just with new sense of their insignificance in the long scheme of history. Seeing Van Dyck portraits in the Tate and and Dulwich Picture Gallery inspired me to write my novel Viper Wine, about Van Dyck and his friends Venetia Stanley and Sir Kenelm Digby. If their portraits had been in private collections my interest would never have been sparked in these 17th-century courtiers and their gilded, tragic lives.

Venetia was a great beauty of her age, feted by Ben Jonson and painted as a ravishing miniature by Peter Oliver. A duel was fought for her honour in a spit of land purchased for the purpose in the Low Countries. Her increasingly rackety reputation was redeemed in 1625 when she secretly married to Sir Kenelm Digby, the alchemist, courtier, scholar and all-round Renaissance hero. They were a celebrated golden couple and they had two healthy boys, Kenelm and John. And then, on May morning 1633, calamity.

Her maid discovered that she had died unexpectedly overnight. Sir Kenelm would never forget the moment ‘when the shrill and baleful voice expressing her heavy plight strook my eares’, as he later wrote in a letter. With typical flamboyance, he had the presence of mind to send for Van Dyck to paint her on her deathbed. It is an extraordinary painting, serene and intimate, referencing the formal Tudor English deathbed painting, yet full of the new fluidity and naturalism that Van Dyck brought to England. Van Dyck placed a rose on the coverlet as a romantic memeto mori, but also the hem of her coverlet twists like green-gold snake.

This could be a clue. Venetia was known to have consumed the beauty potion viper wine, and contemporary gossip said that this had killed her. Suspicion also fell on her grieving husband, who as a Catholic – and the son of the gunpowder plotter Sir Everard Digby, no less – was then treated with suspicion. Spiteful women would say it was a viper-husband who was jealous of her, that she would steal a leap, wrote John Aubrey.

But Van Dyck vindicated Sir Kenelm with a moving portrait of him in mourning, dressed in melancholy black, his hair long and his beard unshaven (then a radical gesture – no courtier would have let his beard grow almost over his lips). His eyes are tired from crying. Next to him, a sunflower shares his sadness, blasted and withered.

It is probably the same sunflower that appears in Van Dyck’s mid-career self-portrait with golden chain. It was clearly a totem or touchstone for the two men. A golden sunflower also features in the ornate auricular frame that surrounds the last Van Dyck self-portrait which is the focus of the National Portrait Gallery’s campaign. What did it mean to Van Dyck?

Self-portrait by Van Dyck, 1640/41 © Philip Mould & Co.

Self-portrait by Van Dyck, 1640/41

The sunflower had only just arrived in England. It was a New World flower, known as the Peruvian Chrysanthemum or Indian Marigold and it was invested with all the glamour of the new-found land, the Americas. The outward-looking intellectuals of the day – John Donne, Francis Bacon – were obsessed by the new horizon of the world, and in the 1630s men and women were setting sail there from England in huge numbers. The sunflower was therefore very much of the moment. Unlike most flowers it did not come already laden with Greek references, as it did not feature in the classics at all. It was a symbol that belonged to Digby and Van Dyck and their world.

Sir Kenelm was a natural philosopher who engaged in many profound speculations about the hidden sympathies between everything from the spheres to the atoms. He would have noted the sunflower’s sympathetical relationship with the sun; he would possibly have heard that the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher claimed that he had devised a clock which was powered by a sunflower seed. Van Dyck got to know Sir Kenelm during his sojurn in England, and he would have listened to his conversation, which was one of Digby’s famous characteristics, described by John Aubrey as ‘his gracefull elocution and noble addresse’.

Van Dyck was an extraordinarily sensitive painter and he imbued his work with the personalities and culture of the places in which he found himself. The atmosphere of his work changed and adapted itself to Rome, to Genoa, to England. He was a mercurial character and didn’t stay put for long. But he lived in England longer than anywhere else. He seems to have absorbed Digby’s philosophy of the sunflower and made it his own. He married here, and his daughter Justiniana was baptised in Old St Paul’s on the same day his funeral rites were read. His last portrait ought to stay in this country. If we lose it we lose a part of our heritage, and we lose the web of friendship and communication between this painting and his other works.

Viper Wine (Jonathan Cape) is out today.

The Art Fund and the National Portrait Gallery are fundraising to save Van Dyck's final self-portrait for the nation. Please visit our Save Van Dyck microsite to donate.

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