My Favourite Painting: Adrian Lester

'It was only when I was lucky enough to see it in full years later that I was amazed by the skill of the artist.'

The Flight into Egypt, 1607, 10in by 14in, by Jan Bruegel the Elder (1568–1625), The Hermitage, St Petersburg. Bridgeman Images.

Adrian Lester says:
‘I remember my art teacher at school, Mr Malin, trying to explain to me how I should paint depth. He talked about the background having touches of grey the further it went back. I was puzzled. He then dug out a book and showed me this picture. The detail and handling of the technique he had explained was brilliant. Sometimes only half of the picture is shown in books. It was only when I was lucky enough to see it in full years later that I was amazed by the skill of the artist. It was then I learned of the picture’s religious imagery.’

Adrian Lester is an actor and director. The last series of his popular television programme Hustle, can be seen on BBC1 from Friday, January 13

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Jan Bruegel was one year old when his formidable father, Pieter the Elder, died. Following the death of his mother when he was 10, he was brought up by his grandmother, also an artist. Sometime as a boy, he may have been a pupil of Gillis van Coninxloo (1544–1607), the initiator of the forest landscape in Western art.

This painting, for all its biblical subject, falls within the forest genre, hence its other title, Edge of a Forest, which was imposed during the Communist aberration. The picture, which is painted on copper, entered the then royal Russian collection in 1772. Jan Bruegel went to Italy at a younger age and for a far longer time than his father, arriving about 1589 and leaving in 1596. He settled successively in Naples, Rome and Milan, where he worked for the Archbishop Federico Borromeo.

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On his return to Flanders, he eventually became dean of the important artistic Guild of St Luke in Antwerp and was appointed a court painter to the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella. He collaborated on several pictures with his younger Flemish contemporary Rubens; and there is a Rubens portrait of him with his family in the Courtauld Collection. To simplify categorisation, he has been called ‘Velvet’, ‘Flower’ and ‘Paradise’ Bruegel. As these names and this picture show, he was a gentler, more fanciful, painter than his profound and protean father, whose sinister, complementary, Massacre of the Innocents will soon be featured here.’

This article was first published in Country Life, January 11, 2012