THE VAN DE VELDES: GREENWICH, ART AND THE SEA at the Queen’s House
Updated: Mar 2
Everyone’s heard of Rembrandt, so why isn’t his compatriot and contemporary Willem van de Velde, who was recognised in his day as a near-equal of the Dutch genius, just as well-known today?
It’s a measure of his reputation when he was alive that he and his artist son Willem junior were invited to work in England by Charles II, even though the Netherlands was an enemy at the time. The pair brought a new realism to maritime painting that not only came to define our sense of being an oceanic island but also inspired our own homegrown seascape genius JMW Turner.
So let’s pose the question again: Why is van de Velde not a household name?
A brilliant new exhibition entitled The Van de Veldes: Greenwich, Art and the Sea sets out to right this wrong. And it does it in the very building where for two decades Elder and Younger created some of their greatest work - the Queen’s House in the heart of the World Heritage Site.
There are more than 100 paintings and drawings by the two Willems. And in a nice touch, Royal Museums Greenwich curators have given the Dutchmen’s oeuvre valuable context by interspersing their artworks with coeval portraits by the likes of Kneller and Lely, 17th century artefacts such as medals, silverware, books, globes and marine equipment, and some fine pictures offering a Dutch perspective of the same events the van de Veldes were portraying.
Visitors begin in a scene-setting anteroom containing a 1680 view of Greenwich showing the relatively new Queen’s House near the first phase of what would become the Old Royal Naval College, a gorgeous Rembrandt religious painting and a bustling harbour scene by the Elder. It’s a tantalising taste of the treats in store.
From there you proceed to a huge, magnificent and beautifully-restored tapestry of the Battle of Solebay (top) designed by Willem the Elder to mark a historic Anglo-Dutch engagement off the Suffolk coast. It’s awash with incredible and realistically grisly detail which the van de Veldes would have witnessed first-hand because they thought nothing of sketching from a small boat in the thick of any action. Indeed, many of their battle images place their own vessel in the foreground.
The same room includes a fine Netherlands’ oil of the Dutch commander, a large Gascar portrait of the English admiral, the king’s brother James in an wildly OTT pink toga, and a terrific Lely portrait of the Earl of Sandwich who drowned during the battle.
In the following rooms – one of which is the studio the van de Veldes were given to use by Charles II - there are many more astonishing examples of the van de Veldes as war correspondents, sketching in ink and graphite as warships trade cannonades all around them before returning to their studio where the Younger worked up the drawings into breathlessly vibrant oil paintings of events such as the battles of Lowestoft, Texel, Scheveningen and Schooneveld.
Away from warfare, the two men established a new genre in English art – an unromantic portrayal of the sea in all its sublime but awesome glory.
One of my favourite works in the whole exhibition is the Younger’s An English Ship At Sea Lying-To In A Gale (above) - it’s so realistic you can almost feel the queasiness of its storm-tossed crew. Even a relatively calm sea, like the one pictured in The Royal Escape (below), manages to suggest the sense of menace that always lurks beneath the gentlest of swells.
Another favourite is A Royal Visit To The Fleet (pictured), also by the Younger, which is almost four metres across and captures both the majesty of the occasion and the yet more glorious majesty of the sea and the sky.
By contrast, a further section of the exhibition focuses on the Elder’s gift for the everyday as well as the epic – a suite of small pen and ink drawings of ordinary working people toiling and at rest. They are exquisite.
The show, which runs till 14 January 2024, ends with a look at the van de Veldes’ legacy. Among the examples included at the Queen's House are three peerless Turners (natch), Kehinde Wiley’s marvellous Ship Of Fools and an epic new painting by Finn Campbell-Notman, who was awarded the £10,000 RMG commission given to the winner of this year's Sky Arts' Landscape Artist Of The Year TV competition.
All of them illustrate the unrepayable debt we owe to the Dutch father and son who settled in Greenwich 350 years ago and changed English art for ever.
Further exhibition details and visitors’ info at www.rmg.co.uk/van-de-velde
Pictures ©️National Maritime Museum