Art, history and natural history
The town of Delft in the Netherlands is plastered with images of the most famous painting by its most famous son, the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer. During a recent stay my wife and I took a tram to the Hague to visit the Mauritshuis, one of Holland’s premier art galleries, partly to see the original of this iconic picture but also to admire works by other Dutch masters, Rembrandt, Rubens and Brueghel among them.
I could not help but view some with a naturalist’s eye and marvel at the accuracy of the wildlife reproduced by these 17th Century artists from Holland’s golden age. “The Goldfinch”, a tiny painting by Carel Fabritius, may achieve the status of Vermeer’s masterpiece given its central importance in the book of the same name by Pulitzer Prizewinner Donna Tart. “A Vase of Flowers” by Jan Davidez de Heem, typical of many still-lifes of the period, included faithful renditions of swallowtail, small tortoiseshell, peacock and orangetip butterflies.
I spent a while in front of a collaboration by Jan Brueghel and Rubens, trying to identify the diverse range of mammals and birds in their “Adam and Eve in Paradise.” Rubens apparently painted the couple on the point of consuming the forbidden fruit, while Brueghel supplied the panoply of creatures surrounding them. Apart from the inevitable serpent and domestic animals I identified heron, goldeneye, velvet scoter, purple gallinule and hoopoe as well as more exotic blue-and-yellow and red-and-green macaws. Appropriately, at Adam’s feet is a greater bird-of-paradise, specimens of which had been brought from New Guinea, later part of the Dutch East Indies, as early as the sixteenth century.
The paintings that most caught my eye, however, were two portraits by a German, Hans Holbein, court artist to Henry VIII. One showed Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. Next to it was a painting of Robert Cheseman (pictured), chief falconer to the king and a minor court figure whose fortunes apparently rose on the coat-tails of Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s. Cromwell was of course also memorably portrayed by Holbein. Cheseman carries a hooded falcon on his fist which I took at first glance to be a peregrine until closer inspection of its rufous nape and sparsely speckled underparts revealed it to be a lanner falcon, native to parts of southern Europe and Africa and a favourite with falconers for they usually hunt in horizontal pursuit rather than in a stoop like a peregrine.
For a fan of Hilary Mantel’s books on Thomas Cromwell and their subsequent television adaptation this glimpse into court life was irresistible. Art, history and natural history combined.