When writing about historical figures in my novels, it’s an honor and privilege to use actual portraits of them for book covers, especially when the portraits are the work of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641).
For the cover of my upcoming novel, The Earl in Black Armor, I licensed the portrait of the Earl of Strafford, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Thomas Wentworth, from the National Portrait Gallery. In this portrait, Wentworth wears full armor blackened by a special heating process, a style that was popular among the wealthy nobles of the time and worn by King Charles I of England.
Wentworth arrived as Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1633, and was later named Earl of Strafford and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His administration in Ireland and the events leading up to his demise in London provide the timeline and historical backbone of my story, inspired in part by the portrait. In the face and in the eyes, Van Dyck managed to capture the man’s resolve as well a his fear. Once you know Strafford’s Icarus story you can recognize it all, but the artist perceived it and revealed it with his brush, particularly in his subject’s eyes.
“No portraits painted by Van Dyck in England more brilliantly demonstrate his penetrating powers of perception than those of Charles I and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, two sharply contrasting personalities.”
~ Judy Egerton, Anthony van Dyck, 1599 – 1641
At the time this portrait was painted, probably 1636, Van Dyck had been knighted by King Charles and enjoyed the lucrative business of painting many of the highest-ranking nobles in England. During a plague outbreak in the city—when most of the nobles fled to their country houses—Wentworth took advantage of reduced rates for a full size portrait.
Wentworth would soon rise to become the king’s chief advisor. He could not have known what would befall him, but he certainly knew he had many enemies, and that Charles I’s court was a most treacherous place. He had left his post in Dublin to see the king and restore the favor that had been damaged by his London-based detractors.
The 19th century essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay described the powerful portrait: “…that fixed look, so full of severity, of mournful anxiety, of deep thought, of dauntless resolution, which seems at once to forebode and defy a terrible fate, as it lowers on us from the living canvass of Vandyke.”
We have no way of knowing how accurately Van Dyck's painting depicts Wentworth. The artist was known to improve the looks of some of his subjects, painting them in their best light—no doubt to keep the customers happy. But I did stumble across the following quote in my research, which casts a shadow of doubt.
"Van Dyck's handsome portraits had given me so fine an idea of the beauty of all English ladies, that I was surprised to find that the Queen, who looked so fine in painting, was a small woman raised up on her chair, with long skinny arms and teeth like defence works projecting from her mouth..."
~ Sophia, later Electoress of Hanover, 1641
The Earl in Black Armor will be available through online retailers by mid-February. If you are a reviewer and subscriber on NetGalley you may download it now:
Thanks to the National Portrait Gallery of London for use of the portrait image,