I had a letter this morning asking me about the story that, when Bernini received the triple portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck as the model for the bust which the King had commissioned, he is said to have declared, ‘Never have I beheld features more unfortunate’. The question was: what is the source of this anecdote and is there any truth to it ?
It’s surprisingly hard to trace. The story is repeated by Horace Walpole in his Anecdotes of Painting as if it is already too well known to bear repeating. The earliest reference to it that I have so far found it is in James Welwood’s Memoirs of the most material transactions in England, for the last Hundred Years (London, 1718) in which he describes how Charles I ‘had something in the Lines and Features which Physiognomists account unfortunate: And it’s commonly reported, that his Picture being sent to Rome to have a Busto done by it; a famous Statuary, not knowing whose it was, told the Gentleman that brought it, He was sorry if it was the Face of any Relation of his; for it was one of the most Unfortunate he ever saw; and according to all the Rules of Art, the Person whose it was must die a violent Death‘ (p.68).
Does anyone know its origin ?