by Lita-Rose Betcherman
eBook release: August 2010
The famous art collection he assembled for the first Duke of Buckingham at York House in London was instrumental in moving English taste from stiff ancestral portraits to the art of the Italian cinquecento.
His special friend in the world of art and diplomacy was the great Flemish painter, Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Their secret negotiations laid the groundwork for the treaty that ended the Anglo-Spanish War in 1631.
After the assassination of Buckingham, one of the great charismatic figures of the century, Gerbier found a new patron in King Charles. During eleven years in Brussels as the English Resident, Gerbier, an unabashed scoundrel, lied, dissembled, and conducted intrigue in the best Machiavellian style.
When the English Civil War began, Gerbier showed no allegiance to King Charles and departed hastily for France where he so impressed the Regent, Queen Anne, with a scheme for a state-run bank of loan that she named him governor of the enterprise. But the animosity of exiled English royalists in Paris turned the Queen against him, and he returned to England. His career culminated in a bizarre expedition to South America in search of El Dorado, sponsored by the Dutch.
Gerbier was important in introducing continental ideas into an insular England in areas from art and architecture to banking.
AN IMMIGRANT PAINTER IN LONDON
His name indicates his Huguenot ancestry and, in fact, his parents had fled the religious persecutions in France, settling in Middelburg in Zeeland where Balthazar was born in 1592. Not by chance did Balthazar’s father, Antoine Gerbier, choose the Dutch town of Middelburg. Like all refugees and immigrants he wished to start a new life where he had well-established relatives to smooth the way. In Middelburg he had a family connection in Balthazar de Moucheron, one of the most important businessmen in the United Dutch Provinces.
A half century before Antoine Gerbier arrived with his family, his grandfather, a Bordeaux wine merchant also named Antoine, had moved to Middelburg, the centre of the wine trade in the Netherlands. Drawing on his Bordeaux connections, his business had thrived and he had later expanded into the cloth trade. At that time, Middelburg had the cloth staple, which gave it the exclusive right to import raw English cloth, dye it, and re-export it to England as finished goods. Prospering as a wine and cloth merchant, he built an impressive house and advanced the family’s status by marrying his seventeen-year-old daughter Isabel to Pierre de Moucheron of the Norman nobility. De Moucheron had come to Middelburg around the same time as Gerbier and had likewise prospered in the wine trade. In the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam there is a painting of Pierre and Isabel with their eighteen children, seated around a table laden with fruit and rich dishes while a daughter plays upon a virginal. It is the picture of Dutch prosperity. In 1545 Pierre transferred his trading house to Antwerp, but he himself remained in Middelburg with his large family, taking over his father-in-law’s business when old Antoine died. 1
In 1567 Pierre de Moucheron too died and Balthazar, one of his younger sons, became the head of the family’s trading house. Although the Netherlands was in open revolt against its Spanish overlords by this time, Balthazar de Moucheron was making a fortune. A proto-capitalist, he was a shipowner and a promoter of joint stock ventures that financed trade routes to Russia and the East. When Antwerp fell to the Spaniards in 1585, de Moucheron moved the trading house back to Middelburg. Thus when the younger Antoine Gerbier arrived with his pregnant wife and several children, Balthazar de Moucheron was on hand to assist his co-religionist and relative on his mother’s side. At the christening of Antoine’s youngest son in the Walloon church in Middelburg on March 12, 1592, Balthazar de Moucheron stood up as witness. Naturally, the baby was named after this affluent relative.
There were no members of the Gerbier family left in Middelburg when the newcomers arrived. On old Antoine’s death, his son Lewis had quarrelled with the widow over his inheritance and had moved to Antwerp where the younger Antoine was born. At some point, Antoine made his way to France, the homeland of his grandfather, and there he and his family remained until driven out by the religious wars.
In Middelburg, Antoine went into the wholesale cloth business like his grandfather before him. He had the reputation of a successful, upstanding merchant, and little Balthazar would have spent his early childhood in a spotlessly clean, comfortably furnished household presided over by a good wife and mother such as we see in Dutch genre paintings of the period. But in 1598 Antoine Gerbier died bankrupt, owing a great deal of money to his de Moucheron relatives. The fatherless family, virtually penniless now, broke up, scattering to parts unknown. At six years of age, a footloose existence was thrust upon Balthazar. With his mother’s blessing, he was taken in tow by an elder brother, and the two set out on travels that took them first to Antwerp, then to Bordeaux, and finally to Gascony in southwest France.
As time went on Balthazar Gerbier would conceal his bourgeois beginnings, claiming that he came from French or Spanish nobility, to suit the occasion. He went so far as to appropriate the de Moucheron genealogy, asserting that his father was “a gentleman born with a barony in Normandy.” His mother’s name was Radegonde Blavet and, as his pretensions grew, he would claim that she was “daughter in heir to the Lord of Blavet in Picardie.”2 The unvarnished truth is that he came from a family in trade that had fallen on hard times.
Turbulent Gascony was a rallying point for adventurous youths of the Protestant faith. Since the 1560s French Protestants, known as Huguenots, had been in revolt against the Catholic monarchy. Gascony, the birthplace of the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre, was a hotbed of resistance and Balthazar’s elder brother may well have gone there to join in the Protestant struggle for religious freedom in France.
The long drawn-out Wars of Religion in sixteenth-century France were sporadic and regional. Fighting would die down in one region only to flare up in another. These domestic wars were carried on without great loss of life until August 24, 1572, when the French king, Charles IX, ordered a slaughter of Huguenots in Paris that became known as the St.Bartholomew Day Massacre. The massacre spread across the country, resulting in the exodus of thousands of Huguenots to Protestant Holland and England. Nevertheless, the Huguenots’ armed revolt continued unabated. To stop the bloodshed in the war-torn country, Henry of Navarre converted to Catholicism in 1593 and ascended the French throne as Henri IV. His promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1598 granted the Huguenots freedom of worship and established Protestantism in two hundred towns.
Thus when the Gerbier brothers arrived in Gascony in 1600, the religious wars were over for the time being. No drums were beating to raise troops nor were any new fortifications under construction. However, the defences from the war years still encircled Navarre and the other Gascon cities, and young Balthazar developed a bent for military engineering. By the time he left Gascony in 1612, he could boast of expertise in “Fortifications and in the Framing of Warlike Engines.” Of more practical use from his years in Gascony was acquiring the tools of the painter’s trade. He learned the art of limning – the making of miniature portraits on vellum – and drawing in pen and ink on parchment.
At twenty, Balthazar Gerbier was back in the land of his birth. For a time he apprenticed at the Haarlem studio of the master draftsman and engraver, Hendrik Goltzius.3 But he soon set out to gain a position in the service of Maurice of Nassau, the Stadtholder or chief of state of the de facto Dutch republic. Maurice, the triumphant general who had driven the Spanish out of the northern Netherlands, did not stand on ceremony. He was known to answer all petitions and “to shake hands with the meanest Boor of the country,”4 and Gerbier had no difficulty obtaining an interview. His knowledge of military engineering proved to be his passport to Maurice’s good graces. Although there was some satisfaction in knowing that Maurice “thought well” of him, because of a truce with Spain the Stadtholder had no present use for his knowledge of fortifications. He did, however, take Gerbier into his service as a calligrapher.5 Every court had need of penmen to produce official documents, and good penmanship was particularly prized by the House of Orange. For the ambitious Gerbier this was a lowly occupation and he was none too grateful.
After some months spent embellishing capital letters, he conceived the idea of making a miniature portrait of the popular Maurice and presenting it to the States General – the body of deputies from Zeeland and Holland and the five lesser provinces of the Dutch Netherlands that met at The Hague. The little picture was well received for in February 1615 the deputies voted him an honorarium of a hundred guilders6– not a bad reward compared with the two hundred guilders that was the going price for a full-length portrait. But to succeed as a painter in a land of painters required more than a minor talent. The newly independent Dutch provinces were swarming with painters, and although the town burghers and the country boors bought art as an investment, selling paintings was a highly competitive business. The guild shows presented an embarrassment of riches, while at the big, jostling fairs there were as many paintings for sale as cheeses. Restless, ambitious, and mindful of an astronomer’s prediction at his birth that he would not tarry in his native land but would find princely patrons abroad, Gerbier determined to follow his star and resume his travels.
At The Hague, he had gravitated quite naturally into the company of the English volunteers who lingered in Holland after the truce with Spain. As a child in Middelburg, he had listened to the talk of the English cloth traders who did business with his father, and later in the Huguenot cities of France he had become acquainted with many travelling Englishmen. He had picked up a more than adequate English that allowed him to converse freely with the people at the English embassy. The ambassador was Sir Dudley Carleton, an affable diplomat who dealt in art as a sideline. Carleton not only sent paintings and tapestries to English patrons; he also sent over Dutch artists. He would have encouraged Balthazar Gerbier to go to England.
A home visit by the Dutch ambassador to London, Noel de Caron, provided the opportunity. To travel with an ambassador guaranteed safe conduct on the way and introductions on arrival. Gerbier turned to Maurice who recommended his under-employed servant to de Caron and when the ambassador returned to England, Gerbier went in his train.7 He hoped that de Caron would find him sufficient patrons until he could better himself in his adopted country.
Without means or family, Balthazar Gerbier stepped foot on English soil in 1616, confident of finding patronage. His first sight of London was bound to be disappointing. Instead of the broad, clean streets, paved with brick or stone, and the well-kept buildings of Amsterdam and The Hague, here were tenements of timber or wattle with penthouses leaning crazily against each other across narrow dirt lanes running with effluent. Picking his way around the drunken bodies lying on the streets, he could be excused for comparing the English capital unfavourably with the cities of his native land where beggars were unknown. But on the broad thoroughfare called Cheapside were the goldsmiths’ houses with elaborately carved gables and mullioned windows, as fine as the stepped roof buildings that served the Dutch burghers as warehouses as well as living quarters. Strolling down the Strand, he passed by the palatial town houses of the nobility that backed on the River Thames. Towering over the slums and the mansions were the steeples of fifty-seven churches and the crumbling square tower of St. Paul’s Cathedral. To the east were the docks and the Tower of London and to the west, the palace of Whitehall.
Gerbier’s first employment in London called upon his skills as a calligrapher. A contemporary recorded that his “first rise of preferment” was as “a common Pen-man, who pensil’d the Dialogue [Decalogue] in the Dutch Church London.”8 (Two wooden tablets with the Ten Commandments written in gold in a florid script remained on the altarpiece of the Dutch Church at Austin Friars until the church’s destruction in the Blitz of 1940.) As that employment shows, he lost no time in introducing himself to the Dutch immigrant community. Nevertheless, he had not come to London to swill beer with other newcomers and trade stories of life in Amsterdam or Leiden. Each day he hurried down to London Bridge and arranged with one of the watermen to row him to the King’s palace of Whitehall that was open house to visitors and subjects alike.
King James had come to the English throne in 1603 on the death of the great Queen Elizabeth. Famed as the Virgin Queen, she had left no children to inherit the throne and her cousin James, then King James VI of Scotland, was the legitimate heir. The supreme irony was that James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s mortal enemy whom she had executed. As James I of England, he and his consort, Anne of Denmark, introduced the new dynasty of the Stuarts. Although a terrible tragedy had befallen them in 1613 when their elder son, Prince Henry, died of typhoid at eighteen, a younger son, Charles, was on hand to secure the succession.
King James was very different from the approachable Maurice. Gerbier soon learned that to have an audience with him was impossible without bribing a favoured courtier to act as intermediary. At first, he could do no more than observe the king. What he saw was a middle-aged man of medium height, with brownish hair streaked with white and a wisp of a beard of the same pied colours, clothed not unlike a Dutch burgher in a padded suit with ballooning breeches. In contrast, his courtiers paraded like peacocks in tight-fitting, richly embroidered doublets and long hose.
Wandering around the sprawling buildings and gardens of Whitehall, Gerbier might come upon a rehearsal for a masque in the Banqueting House or a joust in the tiltyard. Sometimes the dashing George Villiers, the new royal favourite, was to be seen in glinting armour charging an opponent with a blunt lance or riding at the ring. At the palace the courtiers in the Long Gallery paced slowly in twos or threes in whispered discussions. It behooved an ambitious newcomer to know which of these men were in the King’s favour. Seeing Holbein’s great mural of King Henry VIII and his family in the Presence Chamber, Gerbier like all hopeful young painters would have dreamed of playing Holbein to James’s Henry, but he soon learned that art would not open the door to this king’s patronage. Although a learned man (his subjects flattered him by calling him the British Solomon), James was indifferent to the visual arts and frankly antagonistic to French and Italian fashions. His tastes ran towards rowdy buffoonery and the outdoor life of the hunt.
While taking in the sights at court, Gerbier listened to even the most trivial talk of the courtiers. Gossip, fantastic or factual, fascinated him. He carefully stored the bits and pieces in his mind against the day they could prove useful. Security was loose at court. Gerbier heard that diplomats came home from abroad to find their unanswered despatches stuffing the urinal in Secretary of State Winwood’s chamber. In James’s court there was no shortage of gossip.
As well as resident ambassadors in their embassies, special ambassadors and foreign legates came and went continually. The parochialism of Elizabethan England had all but disappeared. Diplomatic relations were resumed with Spain, maintained with Venice and Turin, precariously balanced with France and the new Dutch republic. Foreigners abounded in Jacobean England. Gerbier had arrived at the propitious moment. This milieu provided infinite possibilities for a young man acquainted with foreign lands and with a knowledge of several languages. He talked to everyone, hoarding what they had to say like gold. Each courier arriving from distant parts found himself buttonholed by a little man eager to hear the latest news from Venice, The Hague, Madrid, Turin, or Paris. Gerbier piled all this on top of his own experiences in Holland and Huguenot France. He was becoming a mine of information. In later years he would say that “the many secrets he had gathered from diverse rare persons made him pleasing to the Great Ones.”
If gossip was more than a hobby with him, painting was less than a vocation. Though known around the court as a painter, in practice he made very few pictures. The British Museum has a pen and ink drawing on parchment, the size of a playing card, of Prince Maurice signed by Gerbier and dated 1616, and another of James’s son-in-law, Frederick V, the Elector Palatine: both are taken from well known engravings. The miniature of Prince Maurice shows him astride a prancing unicorn, with an array of troops massed in the background. Below the cartouche the versatile Gerbier has composed a poem lauding Prince Maurice’s military prowess. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a minia ture on vellum of an unknown young man by Gerbier dated 1616. He soon discovered that Nicholas Hilliard and the Oliver family enjoyed a virtual monopoly in his own specialty of miniature portraits.
Since Gerbier could look to no one but the Dutch ambassador to find him patrons, he haunted Caroone House across the Thames in South Lambeth. De Caron was an aged and eccentric bachelor who lived in great style, entertaining the nobility at his half-timbered mansion. He was an art collector, and the house boasted “a long and beautiful airy gallery, hung throughout with precious and fine paintings” - a pleasant place for Gerbier to cool his heels until the ambassador would see him. No doubt eager to rid himself of the importunate fellow wished upon him by Prince Maurice, de Caron discharged his obligation by presenting him to King James.9
We know that King James posed for the young painter introduced to him by de Caron because a 1638 catalogue of the royal collection lists “a picture of King James with a Hat by Sr. Balthazar Gerbier.”10 The cataloguer was the Dutchman Abraham Vanderdort; he would have known Gerbier and the attribution must be accepted. The king’s portrait has been lost but the Victoria and Albert has two miniatures by Gerbier of the heir to the throne, Prince Charles. One is a watercolour on vellum, the other a stippled drawing in pen and ink. The watercolour is signed and dated “Gerbier fecit 1616″ and the drawing is signed “Balthazar Gerbier.”11 A Latin inscription in the cartouche surrounding the watercolour portrait identifies the sitter as the Prince of Wales. This illustrious commission would seem to have come to Gerbier through the good offices of the Dutch ambassador but another possibility will shortly be explored.
It was a sixteen-year-old beardless youth who posed for Gerbier. Charles had just been invested as Prince of Wales, and he has a bemused expression as if fearful of the future kingship awaiting him by the death of his elder brother. As Gerbier portrays him, he is far from handsome, with a high forehead and a rather large nose. He is clean-shaven, with short hair brushed behind his ears and sporting a large pearl earring. In the coloured miniature he wears a small stand-up ruff, but in the pen and ink monochrome he has the lace-trimmed, falling collar that was replacing the ruff. Gerbier’s miniatures are bust portraits only but in full-length portraits of this period Charles stands awkwardly as if he did not know what to do with his teenage arms and legs. There was in him none of the easy bearing and unconscious distinction of the English aristocracy so apparent in the elegant person of George Villiers. Moreover, the Prince suffered from a speech impediment.
It did not take Gerbier long to realize that this stammering youth was not to be the second of the princes promised him by his horoscope. Having sat to Gerbier for his portrait, Prince Charles had no further use for his services at that time. Unlike his late brother Prince Henry, Charles showed no precocious interest in the arts. At this stage his attendants were the young sportsmen who hunted and hawked with him. Gerbier could not have foreseen that when Charles became king he would assemble one of the greatest art collections in history.
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Praise for Court Lady and Country Wife
“…an intimate view of Stuart England” The New York Times
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“Having reached adulthood on the eve of Charles I’s succession, the sisters lived through one of the most turbulent periods of British history…a fascinating introduction to two closely united lives—housewife and public figure—all the more interesting because of the contrast between them.” Times Literary Supplement