The arrival of Anthony van Dyck in England in April 1632 heralded a new era in portraiture in Britain. In van Dyck King Charles I had found an artist whose abilities fully matched his own ambitions for the Stuart monarchy. The remarkable series of portraits that van Dyck executed of the King and members of his family not only convey a deep sense of the King's personal vision of his royal authority but immortalise the tenderness of the relationships that bound the royal family and the elegance of their court. Notwithstanding the scale of royal patronage that he received, van Dyck was able to execute portraits of many of the leading figures in Caroline England, most of whom were closely linked to the court. Lady Carnarvon was connected to the court by both birth and marriage. Her father Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke (1584-1650), and her husband Robert Dormer, 1st Earl of Carnarvon (?1610-1643) were both prominent figures in King Charles I's court. This elegant and remarkably well-preserved portrait, executed circa 1633-5, exhibits all the artistic sensibility and skill with which van Dyck transformed royal and aristocratic portraiture in England during the fourth decade of the 17th century.
Lady Carnarvon's father Philip, 4th Earl of Pembroke, had attracted the attention of King James I as a young man, and served in his court as a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber (1603-25). He retained royal favour in the reign of King Charles I, escorting the King's bride, Henrietta Maria, from Paris to England in May 1625, and serving in the hugely influential role of Lord Chamberlain (1626-41), the principal officer of the royal household, as well as Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Cornwall. In this he was following a courtly career path already trodden by his celebrated elder brother William, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, famously described by Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon as 'the most universally loved and esteemed of any man of that age' who had served the Royal household as Lord Chamberlain (1615-26) and Lord Steward (1626-30) before his untimely death. However, before the outbreak of the Civil War, Pembroke was to throw in his lot with the King's opponents and later held a number of important offices on behalf of Parliament. At Wilton, the Pembroke family's country seat in Wiltshire, renowned among contemporaries as the 'Apiarie, to which Men, that were excellent in Armies and Arts did resort and were caressed', Pembroke frequently entertained both King James I and King Charles I. He used much of the wealth derived from the royal favour that he enjoyed to rebuild Wilton House and adorn it with an impressive collection of paintings and sculpture, including some which he had exchanged with the King. His artistic patronage was greatly facilitated by his well judged dynastic marriage to Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676), suo jure Baroness Clifford, a celebrated northern heiress, although the marriage itself was unhappy.
Lady Carnarvon's husband Robert Dormer, 1st Earl of Carnarvon, whom she married in 1625, was the heir to a considerable fortune and was to become a prominent courtier greatly aided by his father-in-law's influence. The Dormer family had risen to power and influence under the Tudors, and were allied by marriage to many of the leading midland and northern Catholic families. Carnarvon had inherited while still a minor and the King had sold his wardship to the 4th Earl of Pembroke who advanced the marriage between his ward and his eldest daughter for dynastic reasons. Hereditary Chief Avenor and Keeper of the King's Hawks and Falcons (a post to which his grandfather had first been appointed), Robert Dormer was created Viscount Ascott and Earl of Carnarvon in 1628, and lived at Ascott House, in Buckinghamshire, and was described by Clarendon as 'wholly delighted with hunting, hawking and the like'. Although much of his early life was devoted to pleasure, he served on the Royalist side with skill and courage during the Civil War raising and commanding a regiment of horse, until he was killed in the first battle of Newbury in 1643.
The 4th Earl Pembroke was one of van Dyck's most important early patrons. Among a series of portraits of himself and other members of his family, he commissioned from the artist a monumental portrait of his own family (the largest surviving picture in van Dyck's oeuvre) which is believed to have cost him the then enormous sum of over £500 (Wilton House, Wiltshire; Millar, op. cit., p. 572-3, no. IV.184). This monumental composition was intended to assert the Herbert family's dynastic achievements and ambitions and in particular to celebrate the alliance forged between the Villiers and Herbert families, sealed with the advantageous marriage between Pembroke's eldest son and heir Lord Charles Herbert and his godfather the Duke of Buckingham's daughter, Lady Mary Villiers on 8 January 1635. Pembroke's position at court gave him early access to the artist and Oliver Millar suggested that van Dyck may have started work on the family group as early as late 1633, although it was completed in 1635.
In this portrait Lady Carnarvon appears to be a little younger than in the celebrated Pembroke family group, in which she is shown standing beside her elegantly attired husband to the right of her parents, suggesting a date of execution before 1635. It is thought likely to have been executed for Sir Edmund Verney, with whose family Lady Carnarvon was on friendly terms. The Verneys were also closely connected to the Caroline court. Sir Edmund Verney (1590-1642) had been in the household of Charles I's elder brother Henry Prince of Wales, and after the latter's death was appointed a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to King Charles I, in whose suite he went to Spain in 1623, and he dutifully supported the Royal cause during the Civil War, bearing the King's standard at the Battle of Edgehill where he was killed. He also sat to van Dyck for a three-quarter-length portrait (O. Millar, op. cit., nos 230-1).
The contemporary diarist Bulstrode Whitelocke described Lady Carnarvon as 'a Lady of excellent Witt & Discourse' and she performed regularly in Queen Henrietta Maria's masques. In this portrait van Dyck conveys her refined character with his sensitive and restrained handling of paint. The rich textures and tonality of her dress and the sumptuous curtain that provides the backdrop of her portrait not only underline her elevated social status but give a glimpse of the elegance of the courtly world in which she moved.