Close Encounters


6. Dutch Terminology in Artists’ Workshops in London

Ulrike Kern

Among the artists moving to Britain during the early modern period, the number of migrants from the southern and northern Netherlands was by far the greatest. The migration began in the late sixteenth century with religious refugees from the southern provinces and was followed by several waves during the seventeenth century, the last substantial one being artists from the Low Countries, following an invitation from Charles II (1630–1685) in 1672.1 The high impact of Netherlandish artists in Britain was already evident in the first attempt to compile an ‘English school of painters’ made by Bainbrigg Buckeridge (1668-1733) in 1706.2 More recent statistical investigations suggest that Netherlandish artists even outnumbered British ones in London in the 1680s and 1690s.3 They often moved to the same neighbourhoods, where they had relatives or connections who could help them to gain a foothold.4 This makes it likely that many immigrants from the Netherlands continued to use the Dutch language. Besides, even artists who were well integrated in the court circles such as Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Peter Lely (1618-1680), appear to have avoided conversations in English.5 Given the quantity of Netherlandish artists in Britain, let alone their impact on British art, one would expect that the language of art in England would be loaded with Dutch vocabulary, but this is not reflected in the written record.

Artistic terminology originating from the Dutch is only a small fraction of the English lexicon, while words from the French dominate, followed by those from the Italian (although many of the French terms originate from the Italian). Because of the high impact of Netherlandish artists on technical advancements in oil painting, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the Dutch words that entered the English vocabulary are related to tools or techniques. Examples of these terms are ‘easel’, ‘mahlstick’, ‘layman’, ‘manikin’, ‘stipples’ (small dots used in shading), and ‘to etch’.6 There are few conceptional art words deriving from the Dutch; the most well-known is probably ‘landscape’, which was introduced including a brief etymological explanation by the English schoolmaster and writer Henry Peacham.7 Terms related to pictorial composition were also rarely taken from the Dutch. One of few examples is ‘keeping’, deriving from the Dutch houding, but this fell into oblivion after the 18th century.8

Since the literary models which British art theorists used as guides for their writings were mainly French or Italian and less frequently Dutch, it is understandable that this is reflected in the roots of imported art terminology. Although the Schilder-boeck of 1604 by Karel van Mander (1548-1606) was an important reference work, it was mainly used for gaining overviews of artists’ biographies rather than for yielding theoretical insights.9 The Inleydinge tot de al-ghemeene teycken-konst of 1668 by Willem Goeree (1635-1711) was published in English in 1674, but it is uncertain whether this translation was well received by a British readership.10 Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678), too, who stayed in London for five years in the 1660s, does not seem to have succeeded in exchanging his artistic knowledge with his patron Thomas Povey (c. 1613/4-c. 1705) or any other member of the Royal Society, as I argue elsewhere.11

Given that Netherlandish artists operated, talked and chatted in their English workshops for more than a century, it is likely that there must have been more than a handful of art words originating in their native tongue. If there was a Dutch vocabulary, however, it does not seem to have become part of the circles of the British connoisseurs, amateurs or virtuosi, who were involved in writing about art. The reason why Dutch art terminology is so poorly reflected in English, as I hope to show subsequently, is that it was mainly transmitted orally and in a workshop environment.

The British Library holds a manuscript written by an unknown painter in London in the second half of the 17th century, which seems to have been an attempt to set down workshop talk and its Dutch terminology on paper [1]. The small book, stored as MS Harley 2337, bears the title Directions for Painting and Drawing. On 74 folios, it describes practical instructions and observations on portrait painting. The notes are arranged in paragraphs, separated by hastily dotted lines. While the beginning is introductive by giving explanations of what a perfect picture is, the text ends rather abruptly with a note on shading. The writing is repetitive and random, and has been described as ‘painfully redundant.’12 Indeed, the author clearly fell short of his literary ambitions, or at least would have had to revise the text thoroughly to turn it into a polished piece of writing. However, the directness of this manuscript and its lack of sophisticated language likely make it a rare documentation of the language used in a painter’s workshop.

The unknown writer of the manuscript frequently mentions his master as the reference for the advice and the statements about other London painters given in the text. Alas, he never identifies him by name. Of course, there has been speculation regarding the authorship, dating and the name of the master. In the 1759 catalogue of the British Library’s Harleian manuscripts the British portrait painter John Riley (1646-1691) is suggested as the writer, and Lely as the master, but of course, as the artists’ biographer Richard Graham (1648-1695) noted already in 1695, Riley’s masters in London were Gerard Soest (1605-1681) and Isaac Fuller (1620-1672).13 Following Kirby Talley’s argument that the manuscript dates from around 1655 rather than from later in the 17th century, as Charles Henry Collins Baker suggests, Riley would have been about ten at the time it was composed.14 Despite its anonymity, the manuscript does mention some names of living artists, all British: William Dobson (1610-1646), the above-mentioned Isaac Fuller, a painter called George Hodges, a Mr Watson and a Mr Wilson. However, the writer of the manuscript must have had a Netherlandish connection, because he used words from the Dutch and included a glossary introducing ‘The Dutch words in this Booke’. Perhaps the author’s master was this connection.

Cover image
Gerard Soest
Portrait of Alice Bankes, Lady Borlase (1621-1683), c. 1672-1675
Washington (D.C.), National Gallery of Art (Washington), inv./ 1977.63.1


Directions for Painting and Drawing
Courtesy of the British Library Board, BL MS Harl.2337, fol. 48v.


1 Curd 2010; Vermeylen 2014.

2 Buckeridge 1706.

3 Omrod 2001, p. 216-217, figs. 10.1. and 10.2. Buckeridge has not been considered in the assessment, but the artists mentioned by him are included via Walpole being part of the survey.

4 Sluijter 2003, p. 13-14.

5 On Lely, Dethloff 2012, p. 46; on Van Dyck, White 2021, p. 211.

6 See the entries for the terms in Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online. [8 September 2023]. For ‘easel’, on ‘easel’, Ayres 1985, p. 45; on ’manikin’ Chapman 2007–2008.

7 Peacham 1606, p. 28.

8 Taylor 2015.

9 Peacham 1622, p. 137; Levy 1974, p. 188; Semler 2004, p. 738.

10 Goeree 1674.

11 Kern 2023. See also John Loughman’s contribution in chapter 4 above.

12 Talley 1981, p. 397.

13 Wanley et al. 1759, II, n. p.; Graham 1695, p. 347.

14 Collins Baker 1912, p. 234; Talley 1981 suggests on the grounds of a print by Thomas Fairthorne which is mentioned in the manuscript and was made in 1655, that it must be dated earlier, rather to mid-17th century.

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