The 1999 exhibition at the Royal Academy celebrated Van Dyck the Antwerp prodigy, precocious master of the northern baroque, Rubens’s star pupil, a painter of mythologies and altarpieces – not just of portraits. In England, where Van Dyck spent most of the last decade of his 42 years, the demand for other genres was limited but the appetite for portraits was voracious. He became, like Holbein before him, a painter of the local aristocracy. It is that familiar aspect of his work that dominates the current exhibition, Van Dyck and Britain (until 17 May). It includes about a tenth of the 400-odd portraits that emerged from his studio – around one a week – during seven and a half years of court patronage.

In England a rare talent was diverted; what is more to the point, a portrait painter with an unequalled delicacy of touch ceased to exercise his uncanny skills of visual transcription. Compare Cornelis van der Geest in the National Gallery, painted around 1620 when he was just out of his teens, with the Metropolitan Museum’s James Stuart, Fourth Duke of Lennox, painted in 1633. The former is a small picture: you look at it close. Threads of white paint highlight the old man’s hair, beard, watering eye and damp lip. Paint and flesh exchange substance. The same is true of a picture in the exhibition of another old man – the Earl of Arundel – probably painted in 1620, during Van Dyck’s first visit to England. In the full-length portrait of James Stuart, on the other hand, the face, though neatly modelled, seems to have been painted at a remove: you don’t get the same sense of the look and feel of flesh. You stand back from it. The strength has passed from skills of representation to skills of arrangement. The pose, the soulful hound looking up at his master, the lace, silver and silk: all these say more than the face.

To give Charles I, a little man with a very ordinary face, regal presence, and to make his plain queen a beauty, was a gift the king knew the value of. In the exhibition the portrait of Charles by Daniel Mytens shows why Van Dyck ousted his competitors. Mytens, as the catalogue puts it, ‘conferred on his sitters considerable dignity in a formal, Netherlandish manner’. Van Dyck takes the stiffness out of it, suggests an ease and grace that somehow implies moral authority. The equestrian portraits of Charles owe much to Titian, but assert political power rather than bellicosity; the family pictures advertise gracious, formal, dignified amiability. A painting could suggest that nobility dwelled among the nobility, that handsome did as handsome was. Mytens went home and became a picture dealer.

Van Dyck, like many great portrait painters, came to tire of the job – or at least to look for more demanding work. A trip to France shortly before he died was made in the unsuccessful pursuit of a commission to decorate the Long Gallery of the Louvre. In the exhibition there is an oil sketch for a mighty series of tapestry designs showing the Garter procession that would have hung on the walls of the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Bellori, Van Dyck’s biographer, says he was asking too much for the work. Even had he lived longer, Cromwell and Charles II’s limited art budget would have stymied the project. But a decade or two free of portraits, or at any rate not dominated by them, might have produced wonderful things. Cupid and Psyche (1638-39) from the Queen’s collection – a discreetly sexy depiction of the episode in which sleeping Psyche is about to be woken by Cupid – shows that the habits of court portraiture only masked the natural painter.

What you wore, how you stood, the way a man dressed his long curls and a woman her ringlets: in the Caroline court these things announced status. They could also send a political message. Clothes were by any standards wildly expensive. A portrait by Van Dyck would cost from £30 to £50 but the king ordered around 30 suits ranging in price from £27 to £117 each year. Conspicuous consumption was not necessarily flashy – the king went for subdued colours and subtle variations of texture. He also revived the Order of the Garter and insisted that its members display its silver-embroidered star – it is there in the Lennox portrait, gleaming on the duke’s black cloak. Extravagant formal dress and the odd martial attribute emphasise a sitter’s place in the hierarchy: the Earl of Warwick is shown in orange and silver with his armour and marshal’s baton beside him. Lord George Stuart, on the other hand, assumes the costume of a stage shepherd to play the pastoral lover.

One of the finest portraits is that of Teresa, Lady Shirley, painted in Rome in 1622. The daughter of a Christian Circassian chieftain, she had married Robert Shirley in Persia and is shown draped in a kind of tent of gold fabric – the effect of her clothes is splendidly exotic. Her thin-lipped, quizzical half-smile is less contrived than those of many of the court beauties. Clothes like hers offer a break from the swags and swirls of drapery that Van Dyck used to articulate studied poses of courtiers: she is much less glamorous in the portrait in European dress in the Shah Abbas exhibition at the British Museum, though the pistol she holds there tells one that she was a goer.

In the case of the Earl of Denbigh, shown full length, it is his pink, gold-striped pyjama suit that is striking, as he is caught, fowling-piece in hand, beneath a very unbotanical palm tree. He looks up severely at the macaw being pointed out by a turbaned Indian boy. His clothes come close to being the subject of the picture – Denbigh held, appropriately enough, the post of Master of the Great Wardrobe (£4000 a year). The portrait seems to have been made to celebrate the fact that he was the first English nobleman to tour the Far East.

Portrait of Archbishop Laud by Van Dyck (1636)

Paintings of Thomas Wentworth and Archbishop Laud, men who had risen to power, show expressions closer to those of Holbein’s portraits of Henry VIII’s functionaries. Laud (the son of a Reading cloth merchant and, like the king, a short man) looks at the painter with raised eyebrows – maybe he will be glad when the session is over. In a double portrait, Wentworth appears determined; his secretary, pen in hand, looks at him wide-eyed, as though he is surprised at what has been dictated.

These male double portraits, derived like much else from Titian, extend the range. In the portrait of Thomas Killigrew and a friend in mourning, painted in 1638, the year Killigrew’s wife died, the acting out of status is replaced by an acting out of emotion, expressed in the mild disorder of the black and white clothes. As with the seriousness of the picture known as the ‘Greate Peece’, of the king, queen and two of their children, these are public projections of private feeling; modern celebrity culture has no equivalent – no convincing mode of elegant, public sincerity.

The exhibition is topped with examples of the stiffer portraits that went before and tailed with those that, right through to the early 20th century, picked up Van Dyck poses, Van Dyck costume and Van Dyck brushwork. The finest thing here is his contemporary William Dobson’s powerful portrait of Van Dyck’s friend Endymion Porter. Compare it with the self-portrait with Porter that Van Dyck painted ten years earlier and you see the thickening of age and weight of care descend on a man. Dobson died in poverty at the age of 36. Porter went into exile, returned destitute to London in 1649 and died in the same year.

In 1890 the professor of painting at the Royal Academy could write that English painting had no infancy, but ‘sprang at once’ from Van Dyck and the Venetians. It is a strand of British art that has not, more recently, been much in favour. The long line from Van Dyck to Lely, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence, Laszlo and Sargent has faltered; the National Portrait Gallery’s recent commissions prove that while the will may be there, egalitarianism, which has left economic gradients intact, has demolished the iconography of power. Many shorter lines – from Blake and Samuel Palmer, Rowlandson and Gillray, Girtin and Cotman or Turner and Constable – sustained the Englishness of English art until, in the 20th century, it once again looked abroad for stimulus and, eventually, gave its own flavour to international Modernism.

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