The recent re-emergence of this beautiful portrait of Lady Katherine Stanhope, later Countess of Chesterfield, by van Dyck provides a rare insight into the complexities of the artist's professional and private life. Dated to circa 1635-6, it is the first of a series of three portraits that van Dyck painted of the sitter and possibly the only one which he executed ad vivum.
Katherine, the daughter of Thomas, 2nd Lord Wotton of Marley, was baptized on 19 December 1609. On 4 December 1628, she married Sir Henry Stanhope, styled Lord Stanhope, the son and heir of Philip, 1st Earl of Chesterfield. They had three children who survived infancy, Mary, Catherine and Philip (b. 1633). However, Henry died on 29 November 1634, leaving the 25-year-old Katherine widowed and exposed to the intrigues of the Carolingian court. Following his father's death, Philip became a royal ward and Katherine was obliged to pay £2,000 for the grant of the wardship to herself, money which she claimed later to have had to borrow after her husband died in debt and her father-in-law refused to help. Katherine divided her time in the 1630s between Boughton Malherbe, part of the Wotton estates in Kent and her house in Covent Garden.
Katherine quickly attracted a number of potential suitors and she was linked with both Lord Cottingham and Carew Raleigh, the son of the famous explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh. At around this time she sat to van Dyck for the present work, the first and certainly the most intimate of the images that he painted of her. She is depicted in the unusual format of an oval canvas, which van Dyck seems to have reserved for a small number of personal works, including the informal Portrait of the artist (private collection) and The Artist with Endymion Porter (Prado, Madrid). Katherine is wearing what might be a riding hat with a jewel and a fur stole over a russet silk dress. The subtle contrasts of the textures of hair, skin, fur and silk appear deliberately sensual. Although exactly what happened during these sittings is open to speculation, it is well documented that the artist was enamoured of his sitter.
In a letter, dated 22 January 1636, Edward, Lord Conway wrote to Sir Thomas Wentworth:
'It was thought that the Lord Cottingham should have married my Lady Stanhope. I believe there were intentions in him, but the lady is, as they say, in love with Carey Raleigh. You were so often with Sir Anthony Vandike that you could not but know of his gallanteries for the love of that Lady; but he is come off with a coglioneria for he disputed with her about the price of her picture and sent her word that, if she would not give the price he demanded, he would sell it to another that would give more' (quoted in Blake, op. cit., pp. 314-5).
Conway's letter is unequivocal in its statement about van Dyck's 'gallanteries for the love of that Lady' and the 'coglioneria' or balls-up might be interpreted as a reluctance to part with her portrait at all. Van Dyck's apparently unrequited love for the aristocratic, widowed Katherine Stanhope is especially poignant since her pedigree and background contrast sharply with that of the woman at the centre of his domestic life at this time, his mistress, the courtesan Margaret Lemon. The printmaker Wencelas Hollar told John Aubrey that she was 'a dangerous woman' and 'a demon of jealousy who caused the most horrible scenes when ladies belonging to London society had been sitting without chaperone to her lover for their portraits'. Indeed, a well-known story relates that Margaret Lemon threatened or even attempted to bite off the artist's thumb, his most useful digit to paint with, if he was ever unfaithful to her.
Katherine also appears in a double portrait with her relation, Lucy, Countess of Huntingdon (Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; fig. 1). However, the head in this work and that in a single figure full-length, formerly in the Wharton collection (Barnes, op. cit., no. IV.75), appear to be based on the present work and it seems unlikely, given the falling out between the artist and the sitter, that there were any more sittings.
In early 1641 with Charles I's support, Katherine married secondly Jehan van der Kerckhove, Lord of Heenvliet (1594-1660), a Dutchman who had come to the English court to sound out the King on a possible marriage between William, the son of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange and one of Charles's daughter, Princess Mary. Katherine became Mary's governess at the Hague and shortly after gave birth to a son, Charles Henry (b. 1643). The birth of an heir had concentrated Heervliet's mind on the complex issues of inheritance and over the course of the next decade the couple put considerable effort into ensuring that neither he nor Charles Henry would suffer any disadvantage for their claims on the Wotton estates through their Dutch nationality. Indeed, Katherine purchased the Chesterfield estates for £20,000 for her son in 1651 when they were being sequestrated owing to the enagagement of the 1st Earl in the Civil War. Katherine remained extremely close to Princess Mary during the lead-up to the Restoration and Charles II, in recognition of her services to his sister, created her Countess of Chesterfield for life. Heenvliet died in 1660 and Katherine was widowed for the second time. From this time she lived in England and despite her frequent complaints about her financial state, she was already a wealthy woman and this position improved with her marriage sometime before October 1662 to her old friend Daniel O'Neill. He built Belsize Manor in St. John's Wood for her, 'with vast expense' according to Evelyn, and when he died in 1664, she was extremely rich, having inherited his lucrative pensions and his monopoly on the manufacture of gunpowder for the Crown. She continued to live at Belsize with her son, Philip, until her death on 9 April 1667.