The identity of 'the famous paynter Steven': not Steven van der Meulen but Steven van Herwijck.

Author:Grosvenor, Bendor
Position:Critical essay

In the inventory of the Lumley collection taken in 1590, a number of pictures are noted as being by 'the famous paynter Steven'. (1) He is cited as painting the portraits 'Of the last Earle of Arundell Fitzallen, drawne twise'; of John, 1st Baron Lumley; of Lumley's first wife, Jane, Lady Lumley; and 'Of the County Egmond executed at Bruxels'. (2) These pictures can be dated to the early 1560s, but this Steven, given his appellation 'famous', was evidently still highly regarded over a quarter of a century later. How ironic then, that art history appears subsequently to have misidentified him, and has not only given him the wrong dates, but the wrong name.

'Steven' is known today as Steven van der Meulen. He is thought to have been practising in England from about 1560 onwards. An oeuvre has been proposed for him, by, among others, Sir Roy Strong in his pioneering work 'The English Icon', beginning in c1560 and continuing into 1567/8. (3) These pictures are painted in the well established Anglo-Flemish tradition, and follow on from the style practiced most recently in England by Anthonis Mot. The apparent arrival of van der Meulen in England coincides with the production of a number of high-quality Elizabethan portraits by a quite distinctive Flemish hand, which can be dated from the early 1560s onwards. However, the recent emergence of the Hampden portrait of Elizabeth I, a fun-length painted in c1563, has led to the discovery of important new evidence on 'Steven's' identity. The Hampden portrait (P1 1) has been attributed with general acceptance to the hand of Steven van der Meulen, and is the finest of what Sir Roy Strong called the 'Barrington Park' portraits of Elizabeth, after a half-length version of the Hampden portrait then at Barrington Park in Oxfordshire.

Wider knowledge of an accomplished Flemish portraitist working in England in the 1560s called Steven has been in existence since George Vertue observed some of his works in the possession of Richard Lumley, 2nd Earl of Scarborough, the then owner of the bulk of the Lumley collection. Vertue noted that 'Stevens, a painter who lived in the beginning of Queen Elizabeth', painted a portrait of Lord Lumley, and some other unidentified sitters then in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire. Vertue also, in his voluminous work, mentioned the medallist known to him as Stephen of Holland or Stephanus Hollandus from a number of signed medals marked 'Ste. H'. There then followed a temptation among art historians to link these two Dutch Stevens, or Stephens, as the same individual. GF Hill, for example, in his 1908 article 'Stephen H., Medallist and Painter', (4) was happy to combine the skills of a medallist and a portrait painter in the same person.

In 1922, however, Victor Tourneur showed conclusively in the Numismatic Chronicle that the medallist 'Ste H.' could be identified as 'Steven van Herwijck, Cornelissone', born in Utrecht in c1530. Van Herwijck appears, by the sitters of his recorded and dated medals, to have been in Utrecht in 1558, at Antwerp 1559-61, in Poland 1561-2, England in 1562-3, back in the Low Countries briefly in 1564 and early 1565, and then in England till his apparent death between 1565-7. He was clearly well regarded and known throughout Europe. He is described in the Guild of St Luke at Antwerp in 1558 as 'Steven van Hertwijck, beeldsnijdere' (that is to say, portraitist/sculptor).

But Tourneur presumed that a medallist could not also be the 'paynter Steven'. Casting about for a painter named Steven, he suggested the name Steven van der Meulen. This artist was apprenticed to Willem van Cleve in Antwerp in 1543, and the same artist was later apparently recorded in London in 1560. Van der Meulen was referred to as a 'pictor' in the records of the Huguenot church in London, with whom he got into trouble on a question of baptism. On 4 February 1562 van der Meulen became naturalised. We know little else about him. Nevertheless, the name van der Meulen has since entered the literature, and, despite there being no other evidence save the coincidence of two Dutch artists called Steven, has become firmly attached to the identity of the 'famous paynter Steven'. His name has since been repeated unquestioningly by art historians.

Matters were confused, however, by Elizabeth Drey's recent discovery of the will of one 'Stephen Vandermuelen', written on 5 October 1563 and proved in January 1564. This, it is now claimed, has 'dramatically narrowed the artist's oeuvre'. (5) Pictures once attributed to Steven van der Meulen and dated up to 1567/8 have therefore been rejected. But few questioned instead whether the discovery of Vandermuelen's demise ruled out the attachment of that name to the oeuvre of the 'paynter Steven'.

'Stephen Vandermuelen', living in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft in London made a nuncupative will, that is, he indicated his final wishes but died before signing a will...

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