Symposium Report: A Collector of Secrets. Sir Balthazar Gerbier in cultural diplomacy and the arts.

The Victoria and Albert Museum. June 2015.


The Symposium that took place at the V&A was probably the first event to be devoted entirely to Gerbier’s life and career. He has always hovered on the edge of history, living in the margins and footnotes of the 17th century, mainly through his connections with the people at the centre of things. We catch a glimpse of his shadow in the collections he assembled for others; the projects that did not endure, and the books that were quickly forgotten. There are echoes of his conversation – his extensive correspondence has been partially explored – but until now it has been hard to find anyone who took him seriously.

Happily, the situation has changed. In June 2015, a group of historians from a variety of disciplines assembled for the first time to consider different aspects of Gerbier’s varied life and work. Organised by Lisa Skogh of the V&A, with Nadine Akerman and Vera Keller, the two-day symposium arguably put Gerbier studies on a completely new footing, and was essentially the event I had long hoped to see.

As a brilliant networker, whose varied activities brought him into contact with almost everyone of note, Gerbier’s cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial outlook led him into many of the important circles of his time. The papers given at the 2015 event opened up quite a few of those milieux, and the interdisciplinary approach was undoubtedly the right one, since Gerbier’s life offers fascinating opportunities for historians of art, science, politics, architecture, diplomacy, society, exploration, education and literature. Scholars who perhaps knew him as artist or picture-collector shared a platform with those who study him rather as a political propagandist, or New World projector. The resulting overview of his long life brought some new perspectives on Gerbier: only a few decades ago, he was too easily dismissed as a ‘dubious’ or ‘colourful’, minor figure. The fact that contemporary historians now perceive him as worthy of serious re-evaluation is obviously encouraging, and may also result in new insights into the people, the events and the contexts in which he was active.

The Symposium began with a paper from Lucy Whittaker, of the Royal Collection Trust, who discussed the visit of Rubens to London – a visit for which Gerbier acted as his “inn-keeper” – and Rubens depictions of the Gerbier family. For Gerbier himself, this was clearly a testing time: despite hosting the painter-diplomat at York House, he felt excluded from the political discussions that he had worked to bring about. But presumably he and his family spent a good deal of time with Rubens, whose drawings of some of the older children survive, as well as depictions of them in large-scale oil paintings in the Royal collection, and the National Galleries of London and Washington. Lucy’s paper was followed by my own contribution, of which I shall not say much here, as it will be the subject of a future posting on the website. The subject was a sometimes overlooked autograph manuscript in the National Art Library; a volume put together by Sir Balthazar as a legacy for his children. The genealogical information it contains enabled me to reconstruct the family tree compiled for Gerbier in the 1630s, and to verify some of the claims he makes for his origins in his self-justificatory writings.

Katherine Coombs, Curator of Paintings at the V&A, then spoke on ‘Gerbier as a Gentleman Limner’, with a paper that discussed his connections with engravers and miniaturists, his possible training in this area, and the concept of limning itself. The associations between illumination and limning were also explored, and Gerbier was seen in the context of miniature-portrait painters, courtly amateurs, heralds and writers on painting materials and techniques. A fascinating area, and one that emphasises Gerbier’s known links with men such as Norgate and Sanderson, as well as inviting further research into his connections with the de Passe family.

The Master of Ceremonies and his Manuscript’ was the title of Lisa Skogh’s paper, which focussed on Gerbier in one of his major roles at the court of Charles I. It was a post for which he was well qualified, through both his diplomatic experience and his knowledge of court protocol. An understanding of the symbolic function of court ceremony, and appreciation of the niceties of precedence were essential when dealing with foreign ambassadors and other high-status guests, as well as in the public-relations aspect of the role. Projecting the correct image of the Monarch and his Court was equally important, and Lisa discussed Gerbier’s manuscript in the Pepys Library; a reference work designed to guide the Master of Ceremonies through the often subtle distinctions of rank and position. One of the highlights of the whole two days was Lisa’s discovery of a recently-auctioned oil painting – a still-life featuring a depiction of the Pontius portrait print of Gerbier from van Dyck’s Iconography, together with a sword in an ornamental belt, a silver tazza and some fruit. There is clearly a possibility that Gerbier commissioned this picture himself, perhaps to celebrate his new court post. The engraving shown in the painting appears to be the final state of that print, of which Gerbier himself had a copy. (He also owned a dish made by a member of the van Vianen family. It was reported stolen, among other valuables, after the opening of the Academy, and it’s tempting to ask if this may be the same tazza.)

The keynote speaker, Linda Levy Peck, brought the first morning to a close with a survey of ‘Gerbier’s Worlds: Artist, Courtier, Projector, Spy’. Her overview of his career demonstrated  the way in which his career exemplifies the cultural trends and practices of Stuart society. In that world, connections between Art, the art market and the self-image of the Patron were developing alongside an influx of ideas of taste from mainland Europe. Travel and the import of luxury goods broadened the horizons of the wealthy consumer, creating opportunities to enhance his reputation, as well as providing a new creative stimulus to artists and connoisseurs. The development of interest in the empirical sciences, and the expansion of trade in both eastern and western directions combined to make the wider world more accessible. This growth is mirrored in the wide range of projects pursued by Gerbier. A great synthesiser, with numerous contacts in many fields, he was to see his career, and ultimately much of his life, seriously dislocated by war and instability.

Gerbier’s arrival in London as a young man coincided with that of the Italian pictures collected by Dudley Carleton for Robert Carr, the earliest plans for the marriage of Prince Charles, and the release of Raleigh from the Tower to pursue the dream of El Dorado. These events also reflect a new, broader outlook taking hold in London, and set the scene for Gerbier’s work over the next few years, as he built up Buckingham’s collection. Art became a medium of exchange, and part of the pattern of ingratiation and obligation that characterised the emerging relationships of patrons and clients. A global trading network opened up for the acquisition of the rare and the curious, while overseas expeditions brought new plants and animals to English shores, as as well as works of art. Linda Levy Peck referred to Gerbier’s activities as a projector in the fields of finance and administration,education and exploration, and clarified many of the external influences – the unpopularity of Buckingham, Utopian aspirations, economic and political collapse – which unfortunately negated many of Sir Balthazar’s attempts to be of service, and to support his family. The impact on him of such men as Raleigh, Hartlib, and Rubens was immense, and in drawing our attention to the significance of such influences, this paper gave an invaluable perspective on Gerbier’s life and its context. It also suggested a number of themes for future study.

After lunch, attention was focussed on his diplomatic career. Toby Osborne’s paper ‘Balthazar Gerbier and Alessandro Scaglia: a Diplomatic Friendship?’ provided an insight into one of Gerbier’s most intriguing diplomatic relationships. Like his relationship with Rubens, Gerbier’s connection with Scaglia was underpinned by artistic interests and ultimately perhaps by professional disappointment and a certain political cynicism. The letters between Gerbier and Scaglia reflect mutual respect and a guarded friendship: they were not always on the same side politically, but had much in common, including a sense of their personal worth. Gerbier seems to have found diplomatic life deeply frustrating, but he seems to have taken naturally enough to the collection of ‘Secrets’, and the techniques that kept them secret. Thomas Cogswell then spoke of him as ‘A Man of Secrets’ and described him as the ideal man to be Charles I’s representative in Brussels during the 1630s. Brussels was a major crossroads in European diplomacy; a good listening post for anyone who wanted to keep an ear to the ground politically, and a place to which official representatives and disaffected elements from foreign courts seemed to gravitate. In addition to Marie de Médicis and members of the House of Lorraine, these refugees included George Eglisham, whose pamphlet ‘The Forerunner of Revenge‘  caused such disquiet in the years following the death of James I. His career was examined, as well as his dealings with Gerbier, whose reputation in Whitehall was damaged by his attempts to mediate in the bitter dispute between Eglisham and Buckingham.

Thomas Cogswell’s wide-ranging paper also looked at Gerbier as a ‘monetariser’ of secrets, and at some of the problems he faced in the 1640s and ’50s,  as reflected in some of his writings. In the 30 years between Buckingham’s secret agreement with Gustavus Adolphus, and Gerbier’s own project to found a colony in Guyana, Sir Balthazar had been obliged to defend himself against charges of treachery. He had also been stripped of his illusions as to the moral and political consistency of the great and good. The publication of ‘The None-Such Charles’ – still widely attributed to Gerbier – requires further investigation, and so do the efforts he invested in rejecting the accusations of authorship.

A substantial shadow has also been cast over Gerbier’s reputation by events surrounding the plot of the Flemish Rebels in the early 1630s; a topic examined by Patrick O’Neill in his paper ‘Blood Money: Balthazar Gerbier and the Free Catholic states, 1632-1634‘. It is well-known that a group led by members of the nobility of the Spanish Netherlands conspired to throw off Spanish rule shortly before the death of Archduchess Isabella, and just a few months after Gerbier’s arrival in Brussels. In search of protection and support from a third party, they approached Gerbier with a request to sound out Charles I as a potential ally. Charles of course declined to offer any practical support, but was willing to endorse the enterprise in principle. But as Dutch military success declined, and Flanders began to look more secure from invasion, the King and his advisors – Lord Cottington among them – began to distance themselves from any involvement. An influx of Spanish troops to Flanders, and the arrival of the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand left the putative ‘revolt’ dead in the water, but the conspirators had already been betrayed. The Spanish Archives leave us in no doubt that Gerbier had sold information about the plot to the Spanish authorities. Diplomatic intrigue was apparently accompanied by the payment of a large sum of money: Gerbier’s reputation in Brussels never recovered, and several years later, in a damaging outburst, he blamed Cottington for the whole debâcle. (There is undoubtedly more to this episode than meets the eye!) In his diplomatic life, Gerbier was more than once caught out by changes in the direction of political policy, which could potentially negate months of work on his part.

Nadine Akerman, whose monumental edition of the letters of Elizabeth of Bohemia includes her solution of some of Gerbier’s diplomatic codes, then spoke on ‘The Private Ciphered Letter Books of a Spy’. Considering the volume – and detail – of Gerbier’s diplomatic correspondence, it may surprise us to see how little use he often made of the ciphers he was provided with as Charles I’s Resident in Brussels. (I recall seeing a letter to the Secretary of State in London in which he apologised for not ciphering his text, on the grounds that he did not have time, if he were to catch the post!) Nadine suggested that Titian’s portrait of Georges d’Armagnac and his Secretary could be seen as a mirror of Gerbier’s relationship with Buckingham, for whom Gerbier bought the painting. As Nadine observed, it is a Secretary’s job to keep secrets, and certainly Gerbier later claimed to have had the keeping of his Master’s ciphers. (When I saw the Titian a few years ago, I was struck by the presence of a wheat-sheaf in the decorative panel to the left of the figures. This image is a feature of Gerbier’s heraldic shield, and I wondered if its inclusion in Titian’s  design had resonated with Sir Balthazar himself.)

The widespread use of ciphers, by diplomat and spy, as well as in private letter writing, was of course not new. Their simplicity may surprise us though, as many were simple substitution ciphers, using numbers for letters. But these were often augmented by a system of nomenclature, in which specific symbols were used to represent individual people, places or whole words. A single cipher was often used for many years. Was this laziness on the part of those who used them, or was ciphering more of a formality? The use of a cipher between correspondents seems also to have had the function of creating exclusivity within the relationship: the sharing of a code implied trust and a privileged bond between the writers.

A different kind of secret was considered by Vera Keller in her paper ‘Gerbier and the Secrets of Nature‘, in which she examined his projects in the areas of education  and exploration. The search for gold and precious substances in foreign lands was complemented by the investigation into alchemical means of making them Here again we see the influence on Gerbier of Buckingham and Raleigh – the latter a friend of Gerbier’s godfather, Balthazar de Moucheron. Gerbier’s own collection of secrets was intended to bring in much-needed funds, either by following them up himself, or by making them available to discerning patrons. The problem lay always in finding backers for his projects, and he even tried to find support in his original home city of Middelburg, which had he been successful might have seen a version of the Academy established there. As for the Academy in London, the ‘Interpreter of the Academy’ includes ‘Experimental Naturall Philosophy’ in the curriculum, although one suspects he had a limited grasp of what this actually involved. Nevertheless, the presence of such ideas suggests an interest in progressive thinking, and Gerbier’s obvious interest in the Secrets of Chimie, alchemical recipes and cures for a variety of ailments show that he was not afraid to embrace new ideas.

Gerbier’s scientific interests were linked with those of Rubens in Tine Meganck’s paper, ‘Collecting Secrets of Art, Nature and State: Gerbier and Peter Paul Rubens‘. As well as the celebrated connections between the two men in the fields of art and diplomacy, the correspondence of the two contains a number of references to their shared interest in the natural sciences. Tine also provided the second new discovery of the day: a previously unknown miniature painting by Gerbier, which she had found in the Royal Library of Belgium, in Brussels. Despite some damage, it is possible to make out the design of this little Vanitas picture, which depicts Venus and two other figures, and is clearly signed BGerbier fecit, in a similar script to some of his other works.

The second day of the Symposium began with a paper from Olivia Horsfall Turner, of the V&A. Her subject was ‘The Phrase of Mechanicks to Capitall Principles: Balthazar Gerbier as Architectural Writer and Architect’. Because so many of the buildings with which he was traditionally associated have been lost, it is difficult to assess his contribution to architecture. There seems little doubt that was responsible for – at the very least – a good deal of re-building and modifying of houses, as well as some garden and interior design. But the few artefacts that remain – the York House Watergate for example – tend to be controversial. He clearly had aspirations as an architect, and sought the reversion of the surveyorship, held by Inigo Jones. His writings imply a real familiarity with the practicalities of building: the workmanlike comments in his books on the subject include recommendations for the design and construction of staircases and chimneys, as well as a set of costings for materials. (The latter would do credit to any builder’s merchant.) Olivia considered the domestic buildings in which Gerbier is known to have had some involvement: Lord Portland’s house, York (or Buckingham) House and Lord Craven’s house at Hamstead Marshall; the fascinating designs for Charles II’s triumphal arches, and his ‘military’ architecture. The fortifications which he had obviously studied as a young man, and which he drew in some detail for publication, reflect an extensive interest in the subject. (I wonder about the possible influence of Wenzel Coeberger in Gerbier’s architectural knowledge.)

Gerbier had clearly absorbed the works of Vitruvius and Serlio, and this may be a field to which he could have made a lasting contribution, had other areas of activity not taken precedence in his life. His writings  – unfairly dismissed by Pepys – found a gap in the market for a practical manual of building, and leaving aside the obvious self-promotion, and numerous dedicatory epistles, we can see that he really wanted to improve the standard of building in England. If he had managed to attract more support from patrons after the Restoration, it is certainly not inconceivable that he might have done so.

During his lifetime, Gerbier’s loyalty was often questioned. His apparent willingness to change employers as circumstances changed around him attracted criticism from his contemporaries, although some of them had also been obliged to revise their political positions at the Restoration. His writings make it clear that he understood loyalty in terms of service to his current patron, and thought himself a ‘humble, obedient and loyal’ servant. Marika Keblusek considered this theme in relation to the skill-set he offered to his patrons in her paper ‘A Camelian-like Spirit. Balthazar Gerbier’s Self-Promoting Strategies in Manuscript and Print’. Arguing that it was initially his abilities as Penman and miniaturist that made him employable, she noted that while there is no record of a formal entry to the service of Prins Maurits, Gerbier received the reward of 100fl. from the States General in 1615 for his miniature of the prince, and the survival of drawings from these years suggests his skill was recognised at this relatively early date. Gerbier noted in his Eer Ende Claght-Dicht that he had learned calligraphy as a boy, and his penmanship may have been a significant factor when he sought work in England. (Sanderson famously – and condescendingly – describes Gerbier’s “first rise to preferment” as having come when he produced an illuminated set of the Ten Commandments for the Dutch Church at Austin Friars.) He also advertised himself to Buckingham as a ‘Penman’, and his ornamental hand is reminiscent of those advocated by the celebrated Dutch fijnschrijvers and engravers of his day. The ‘Masters of the Pen’ (-and of course it was in this capacity that Gerbier expressed his admiration for Goltzius-) included engravers, glass painters, calligraphers and heralds, some of whom – for example Michel le Blon – found that such skills also led to work as diplomats and cultural intermediaries.

Gerbier included calligraphy in the prospectus of his Academy, as well as double-entry book-keeping, art and languages, so that he would be training his students not just as Gentlemen, but as potential secretaries and merchants too. And it was from an educational viewpoint that in the 1650s he dedicated works to the young Prins Willem in the Hague, with public speaking and military architecture as significant elements of a princely schooling. If Gerbier’s first allegiance was to God, he does not seem to have felt that he had failed in the lesser duty of loyalty to his patron du jour. His self-justifying ‘Manifestations’ imply surprise that others did not share this approach, and his writings suggest that the inconsistencies of others disappointed him. His motto of ‘Heureux qui en Dieu se confie‘ (-Happy is he who trusts in God-) stands in contrast with the ‘Nolite confidere Principibus...’ (Put not your trust in Princes…’) inscribed in the Album Amicorum of Cornelis de Glarges.

The final paper of the two days was that of Jason Peacey, who spoke on ‘Balthazar Gerbier and European Print Culture 1637-41′. As a result of his years in Brussels, Gerbier was keenly aware of the impact of printed polemics, and realised how easily political libels and tabloid-style rumours could influence the way in which England was perceived abroad. He sent home copies of some of them to Secretary Windebank in the hope that steps would be taken to counter their effect. He also complained to the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand about disinformation in the Spanish gazettes, and received similar complaints himself regarding English pamphlets circulating in Brussels. In effect. dealing with such issues was part of his job as Charles I’s Resident, and Gerbier’s response came in the form of both a public ‘Remonstrance‘ aimed at a Brussels audience, and a series of newsletters that he wrote and sent to prominent men in England. Although at first a wary propagandist, Gerbier was well aware of the potential impact of the printed medium, and in the troubled times of the 1640s and ’50s devoted considerable time and effort to a substantial series of books and pamphlets designed to promote his principles and projects, as well as defending himself against the criticisms of others.

Marta Ajmar of the V&A brought the Symposium to a close with an excellent summing up of all that had gone before, and suggested that we should now consider the next steps to be taken. It was clear that many questions still need to be answered about Gerbier, whom she memorably described as a ‘Polyartificer’. With such a varied range of skills, he saw vernacular language as a medium for moving between areas of knowledge, and his identity as ‘artisan-gentleman’ qualified him to promote a ‘humanistic, mercantile and courtly education’. (A combination that I suspect owed much to his essentially ‘Dutch’ upbringing.) She noted that Gerbier’s ability to bridge theory and practice marks him out from most of his contemporaries, and also suggests areas for further investigation. In the discussion that followed, ideas were put forward for the analysis of his vast network of contacts, and for considering him in relation to other Agents of the time,

The event left us all with much to reflect on. We now had a useful overview of the current state of Gerbier studies, and I think a good vantage point from which to re-appraise the man in all the varied activities that he undertook. It was encouraging to find that Gerbier has ‘friends’ among historians from a range of disciplines, interested in engaging with him. And while many questions about him remain, hopefully we shall now be able to explore Gerbier and his works more generally, recording and publishing the results. Taking the project forward could certainly make a useful contribution to our understanding of the 17th century world in which Gerbier involved himself in so many ways. It would certainly be very satisfying to maintain the conversation that began across those two days at the V&A, and to develop a continuing programme with Gerbier as its focus; the central point of a multi-dimensional, interdisciplinary investigation, encompassing the wide range of interests that he himself pursued.