My Favourite Painting: Lorna May Wadsworth

The artist picks a classic van Dyck portrait, whose 'flesh belies a beating pulse'.

Lorna May Wadsworth on Cornelis van der Geest by Sir Anthony van Dyck

‘A sure sign that I love a painting is when I’m drawn to do a charcoal sketch of it, in situ – but this beauty in the National Gallery is the only one I’ve drawn twice.

‘It always stops me in my tracks. He’s right there – this man who lived 400 years ago. His rheumy eyes are utterly commanding; his painted flesh belies a beating pulse. As a portrait painter, the magic of manifesting a human presence across the ages is my obsession.

‘I lost my first sketch of Cornelis when I left him in a carrier bag at a Soho restaurant. A year later, I drew him again, but I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that it’s not as good as the one that got away.’

Lorna May Wadsworth is an artist, recognised for her portraits of Rowan Williams and Neil Gaiman, among others, and her interpretation of the Last Supper in St Albans Cathedral 

John McEwen comments on Cornelis van der Geest

Van Dyck was born in Antwerp, seventh son of Franchois van Dyck, a cloth and silk merchant. His grandfather had been a painter and his mother’s family included artists: no surprise the boy’s prodigious talent saw him apprenticed at 10 to one of Antwerp’s leading painters, Hendrick van Balen. Van Dyck’s apprenticeship coincided with a revival in the fortunes of Antwerp.

A truce had concluded the war between Spain, whose empire included the southern Netherlands, and the now independent republic of the Protestant northern Netherlands. Albert of Austria and Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain, had been made regents by the King and proved their political ability with the long-negotiated peace. In Catholic celebration, after the iconoclasm inflicted by the war, new altarpieces were commissioned, notably from Rubens — now returned to his native city after a decade in Italy and appointed court painter to Albert and Isabella. His reappearance had a decisive impact on Van Dyck, who soon came within his orbit.

The year before this portrait of der Geest (1555–1638), Rubens referred to van Dyck as ‘the best of my pupils’. Der Geest was an Antwerp notable — a leading spice merchant, dean of the merchants guild and major collector and patron. It was he, as church warden of St Walburga, who arranged the commission of The Raising of the Cross, which, with The Deposition — both paintings today in the cathedral — confirmed Rubens as an artistic titan. On der Geest’s death, Rubens dedicated an engraving of the St Walburga altarpiece to ‘the best of men and the oldest of friends’.


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