Sir Anthony van Dyck is rightly regarded as one of the towering figures of European art. However, he had only one legitimate child, Justina, or Justiniana, and tragically, he died just days after his daughter was born, on 1 December 1641. She was baptised on the 9th, the very day of her father’s death, at St Ann’s church, Blackfriars, a few stones of which remain in an alley near St Paul’s Cathedral. Van Dyck’s widow, Justina’s mother, gave her an even more illustrious and tragic bloodline, for Mary Ruthven was the niece of John, third and last Earl of Gowrie, and Alexander, Master of Ruthven, both of whom had been killed on 5 August 1600 in deeply suspicious circumstances and in the presence of James VI, King of Scots, soon to be James I of England. James and his ministers claimed that the Ruthvens had attempted to assassinate the monarch, and used this as the legal justification for the confiscation of their estates; but many believed a diametrically opposite story, one that had James ordering the deliberate destruction of a noble dynasty that had become rather too powerful for his liking.
Mary’s father, Patrick, the rightful Earl of Gowrie, spent nearly twenty years in the Tower of London for no other crime than being the brother of two dead traitors, but following his release, he became a noted medical practitioner and alchemist, as well as a minor figure at the court of King Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria. By the late 1630s, his daughter Mary was one of the ladies-in-waiting to the queen. Although she had no fortune to bring to any marriage, her status, high birth, and obvious friendship with the queen made her an attractive proposition for the eligible bachelors who thronged the court. Better still, Mary was undoubtedly very beautiful. That much is certain from her portrait, painted by the man who won the contest for her hand; and few would dispute her new husband’s ability to record a face on canvas.
On the frosty morning of 27 February 1640, Mary Ruthven, aged about 17, married Sir Anthony Van Dyck, aged 40, in Queen Henrietta Maria’s private Catholic chapel at Somerset House. On that day, Patrick Ruthven, ‘of St Martin’s in the Fields’, assigned £120 of his pension to Mary, perhaps in lieu of the dowry that he could not afford. Mary Ruthven had a small dowry all the same; it was provided, not by her father, but by King Charles himself; the days when the Ruthvens had been seen as a threat to the monarchy were long gone, as were the days when the family had been counted among the most loyal adherents of the Presbyterian Kirk. Sir Anthony was a devout Catholic, the queen’s chapel was the only legal Catholic place of worship in England, and the glorious portrait that he painted of his young wife shows her delicately fingering her rosary. At some point Van Dyck also painted a double portrait of himself with his new father-in-law; this was seen at Knole in Kent in about 1785 by Joseph Gulston, who married one of Patrick’s great-great-great-great-granddaughters. Gulston described ‘the Earl of Gowry’: ‘hand very fine, glove on the other. Full front breastplate. Melancholy. Long hair hid and white slash’d habit. Leans on his sword. Green sash, buff apron’. The painting has disappeared long since, as has the extraordinary and unprecedented group painting that Van Dyck made of himself, his new wife, and their closest friends: the King and Queen of Great Britain.
When Van Dyck died at his home in Blackfriars, he was surrounded by unsold and unfinished artwork; an inventory of his possessions apparently totalled some £13,000-worth of jewels, paintings, and ‘rich household stuff’. Under the terms of Van Dyck’s will, the infant Justina Mariana became the co-heiress with her mother of Sir Anthony’s very substantial fortune, and in due course, she would also become the heiress of the Ruthvens, Earls of Gowrie.
In July or August 1642, as England and Wales slid inexorably into civil war, Mary Ruthven married again, this time to Sir Richard Pryse of Gogerddan, a few miles outside Aberystwyth in Cardiganshire. When the new Lady Pryse went down to Wales, her inherited wealth caused much Cymric jaw-dropping: she brought with her the likes of a £400 pearl necklace, a rich Arras hanging and a damask bed. But before the end of 1644 Mary, Lady Pryse, formerly Lady Van Dyck, née Ruthven, was dead, aged no more than 21. An orphan at the age of three, Justina was left in the care of her stepfather, miles behind Royalist lines, while most of the fortune to which she was now sole heiress was still in her father’s house in Parliamentarian London. But she still had one person who could speak out for her in the capital: her grandfather. In March 1645 Patrick Ruthven petitioned the House of Lords on behalf of his ‘fatherless and motherless’ granddaughter Justina. He claimed that one Richard Andrews had been removing Van Dyck’s paintings from his house at Blackfriars, under-valuing them to pay off Sir Richard Pryse’s creditors, and then sending them abroad, where he sold them on at huge profits. Other of Pryse’s creditors were simply wandering into the Blackfriars property and taking what they wanted. Ruthven asked the Lords to order a halt to further exports, which they seem to have done, but in February 1647 he had to go back to them, complaining that Andrews had flouted their order and was continuing to send Van Dyck’s possessions abroad.
There is evidence suggesting that Sir Richard Pryse was not quite the innocent party in all of this that he initially seems to be. Years later, a former employee of his testified that, although the story of the Blackfriars paintings was correct as far as it went, it was also true that Pryse was systematically siphoning off for his own and his son’s use that part of Van Dyck’s inheritance that he and Lady Mary had managed to get out from London before travel between the capital and Cardiganshire became well-nigh impossible because of the war. The civil war and its aftermath made it virtually impossible to prevent Andrews and Pryse doing what they liked. Patrick probably never saw his grand-daughter again, for she was brought up by her stepfather in Cardiganshire. A witness later testified that Sir Richard Pryse could not have spent very much on her education, ‘for he only gave her diet and clothes as a gentlewoman ordinarily [has] in the country … [but] that she had a maid for most of the time to wait on her’.
In 1653, aged thirteen, Justina made a superficially unlikely marriage to a relatively obscure Welshman of minor gentry status, namely John Stepney. This was a remarkably illustrious match for Stepney, and in later years it was to give his and Justina’s descendants grounds for believing that they were the rightful heirs to both the lost Ruthven titles and the equally lost fortune of Sir Anthony Dyck. Stepney family tradition held that the romance of John Stepney and Justina Van Dyck was a case of ‘love at first sight’ when John was a student at Christ Church, Oxford. However, the truth must have been rather more prosaic. As noted above, she was effectively brought up by Sir Richard Pryse of Gogerddan, and her availability would thus have been well known to John Stepney’s uncle Charles, who was married to Pryse’s daughter and might well have been the key figure in facilitating the marriage.
Justina was said to be dark-haired, blue-eyed and round-faced. Much of the fabulous inheritance that should have come to her had gone ‘missing’ from her father’s studio in Blackfriars during the confusion of the civil war. Her grandfather Patrick Ruthven, the claimant to the lost earldom of Gowrie, appeared before the House of Lords in March 1645 on behalf of his ‘fatherless and motherless’ granddaughter Justina. He claimed that many of Van Dyck’s paintings had been removed from his house at Blackfriars, under-valuing them to pay off Sir Richard Pryse’s creditors, and then sending them abroad, where they were sold on at huge profits. A temporary embargo on exports was ordered, but this proved ineffective. However, it is possible that Pryse was not quite the innocent party in all of this that he initially seems to be. Years later, a former employee of his testified that, although the story of the Blackfriars paintings was correct as far as it went, it was also true that Pryse was systematically siphoning off for his own and his son’s use that part of Van Dyck’s inheritance that he and Lady Mary had managed to get out from London before travel between the capital and Cardiganshire became well-nigh impossible because of the war. Patrick probably never saw his grand-daughter again, for she was brought up by her stepfather in Cardiganshire. His intervention on her behalf had been to little avail, although some limited recompense did eventually come the way of Justina and her new Stepney relations. In 1656 the Earl of Northumberland paid John Stepney and his father Thomas, then of Sandy Haven, Pembrokeshire, the sum of £80 to establish that he had been briefly the legal owner of Titian’s great painting, Perseus and Andromeda, which ‘disappeared’ from the collection of Sir Anthony Van Dyck in the 1640s, eventually ending up in Northumberland’s possession rather than passing to his heiress Justina, as Van Dyck’s will had specified. After all of these vicissitudes, perhaps the only item which Justina actually inherited from her father was an item alleged to be his paint box.
Even if it was true that Sir Richard Pryse did not spend very much on Justina’s education, he evidently complied with the wishes of her dead parents in one crucial respect: she was brought up as a Catholic. Indeed, in 1660 she and her husband went through a second, Catholic, marriage ceremony at the St Jakobskirk in Antwerp, subsequently living in her aunt Susanna van Dyck’s house. John Stepney’s conversion, if such it was, was markedly mistimed; the restoration of the monarchy shortly afterwards made it essential that a man in his position should be a Protestant, especially if he wished to hold the offices that would naturally come the way of a future baronet. He seems quickly and quietly to have concealed this inconvenient truth, and duly joined King Charles II’s Horse Guards. Meanwhile Justina became an eminent artist in her own right, giving her aunt Susanna a painting of the Crucifixion by her own hand and being considered important enough for Cornelis de Bie to include her in his study of women painters in Het Gulden Cabinet, published in 1661. In 1662 Justina was granted a pension of £200 per annum by the restored monarchy of King Charles II. This was kept up for the rest of her life, although like so many similar obligations of Charles’s permanently impoverished regime, it was often in arrears – by nearly five years in 1673, by over six in 1684. She also returned to Antwerp in 1665 in order to claim the half share of Susanna’s estate that was left to her, so despite the loss of much of her father’s inheritance, Justina was hardly left in poverty.
John Stepney became the fourth baronet of Prendergast, Pembrokeshire, when his uncle died in 1676. But John did not enjoy the title for very long: he was buried at Kidwelly on 1 July 1681, so the baronetcy devolved to his son Thomas, aged about thirteen. Justina’s life, too, was drawing to its close. She made a second marriage, to Martin de Carbonnel, a French Huguenot, but this was childless. Thus when Justina died in 1688, the bloodline of both Sir Anthony Van Dyck and the Ruthven Earls of Gowrie continued solely in her Stepney descendants, initially through her only son Thomas, the fifth baronet of Prendergast. They became the owners of Llanelly House, a glorious and recently restored Georgian town house, became the friends of princes and prime ministers, and had more than their fair share of scandals and bizarre vicissitudes. Several members of the family believed that they had inherited artistic talent from Sir Anthony van Dyck, although the efforts preserved in their sketchbooks usually suggest otherwise! The family continued to own land in west Wales until 1998, and descendants still live in Cumbria, Scotland and Italy.
(Taken from the relevant sections of my book Blood of Kings: The Stuarts, the Ruthvens and the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’, and the current draft of my unpublished book on the Stepney family of Prendergast and Llanelli. The latter is currently on ‘indefinite hold’, in part due to the disastrous situation at the Carmarthenshire Record Office, the main repository of manuscript material on the family.)