My Favourite Painting: Sir Tim Laurence

Sir Tim Laurence, husband of HRH The Princess Royal, on a haunting Rembrandt portrait.

Sir Tim Laurence on A Man in Oriental Costume by Rembrandt van Rijn

‘In 1981, sailors from HMS Sheffield were visiting sites in and near their home city. I drew Chatsworth: the park, gardens and setting appealed to me most. In those days, interiors and works of art meant less to me. But I suddenly caught sight of a strangely clad figure looking intently at me.

‘After a double take, I realised it wasn’t human; it was a painting — and such a brilliant painting at that. It introduced me to the genius of great art. English Heritage’s Rembrandt self-portrait at Kenwood is equally superb, but that damascene moment at Chatsworth will always stay with me.’

Sir Tim Laurence is chairman of English Heritage

John McEwen on A Man in Oriental Costume

It is said that, if ever an artist was born in the right place at the right time, it was Rembrandt. His birth coincided with the flowering of the recently formed Dutch Republic’s golden age, which was based on Dutch domination of world trade. The traditional markets of Baltic grain and North Sea fish were combined with a naval and mercantile strength that controlled the Mediterranean and New World trade routes; to these was added the new Asiatic trade via the Dutch East India Company. Market power was centred on the unrivalled banking house and stock exchange of Amsterdam. Together with bulk goods, there was a rich trade in luxuries, exported and imported, to which this portrait bore witness.

It was painted at the height of Rembrandt’s artistic output. Having learned his trade, including etching, in his hometown of Leiden, the second city of the Netherlands that was renowned for its Protestant university, which he briefly attended, he moved to Amsterdam in 1631. He joined the city’s Guild of St Luke, established a burgeoning workshop and was quickly recognised as the leading painter, not least with portraits of Amsterdammers of all religious persuasions.

Trade brought foreign merchants to the city and encouraged exotic dress among their Dutch equivalents. With art a consumer luxury, artists, too, boasted success with trappings of wealth. Rembrandt himself enjoyed dressing up and had a lifelong taste for eye-catching headgear. This unknown sitter, his turban pinned with an aigrette or pin decorated with a tuft of ornamental bird feathers, is sometimes catalogued ‘Rembrandt van Rijn and workshop (probably Govaert Flinck)’.