British Baroque: Power and Illusion @ Tate Britain

British Baroque: Power and Illusion covers art and architecture (and gardens and gimmicks and sculpture) from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The big word in the title is Baroque but it’s a problematic term and by the end of the exhibition I was left wondering, in my noin-scholarly way, whether any of the art on display here actually qualifies for the description ‘Baroque’.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio (c.1674) The Royal Collection / HM Queen Elizabeth II

1. Dates

Traditionally the term Baroque denotes Power, Religious and Royal Power. Baroque art and architecture is big, heavy and imposing.

The Baroque is one of the major Periods of Western Art, preceded by the Renaissance and Mannerism and followed by the Rococo. The dates usually given are:

  • Early Renaissance 1400-1495
  • High Renaissance 1495-1520
  • Mannerism 1520-1600
  • the Baroque 1600-1740
  • Rococo 1730s-1760s
  • Neo-Classicism 1760-1830

The convention is to date the Baroque from the early 1600s, at least in Italy and on the Continent. It is a striking decision by the curators to delay it as late as 1660 for this exhibition, though you can see why – it makes the story a lot simpler.

Some outliers and pioneers may have been introducing ‘baroque’ styles into the English court in the 1620s and 1630s, but then all artistic and architectural endeavour was suspended during the great cataclysm of the British civil wars, which lasted:

  • from the rebellion in Scotland in 1637
  • through the civil wars in England (1642-48)
  • the execution of King Charles I in 1649
  • continued wars in Scotland and Ireland
  • the rule of Oliver Cromwell from 1653 till his death in 1658,
  • the collapse of the Parliamentarian regime 1658-59, and the triumphant restoration of Charles II in 1660

Quite obviously the commissioning of royal art and architecture was put on hold for the whole of this wartorn and then republican period.

Starting the exhibition in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II provides a neat, clean starting point to a period which was distinctive in music (Purcell), literature (Dryden, Restoration Comedy) and philosophy (John Locke), as well as architecture (Christopher Wren) and art (Peter Lely) – the subject covered in this exhibition.

Plus – England was always late. Stuck up here on the remote periphery of Europe, England was late to experience all the trends which originated in the Mediterranean heartland. Thus Renaissance art and literature was flourishing in Italy in the 1400s but we date ‘our’ Renaissance period from the 1530s or later. Literature students tend to equate it with the reign of Queen Elizabeth which started in 1558, getting on for 150 years after the Renaissance started in Italy, by which time the Italians had been all the way through the Renaissance, High Renaissance and Mannerism. During the 18th century the motor for artistic innovation moved to France and stayed there until, arguably, the First World War, maybe beyond.

Anyway, for centuries the Europeans were waaaay ahead of us Brits. Mind you we had something they didn’t have, which was an empire to set up and run.

2. The term ‘Baroque’

Its origin is obscure. It seems to derive from the Portuguese barocco meaning, ‘irregular pearl or stone’, i.e. a technical term in jewellery for a kind of pearl which was not perfectly round: for a pearl which was ugly and misshapen.

It seems that early uses of the term ‘baroque’ were all negative and described unnecessary complication and ugliness. The word was never used by the artists or architects working during the period; it wasn’t a self-conscious movement like Cubism.

Baroque is a term which was imposed long time later, late-eighteenth century or nineteenth century historians who, looking back, needed terms to assign to all the ‘period’s they wanted to divide art history into.

The Annunciation by Benedetto Gennari (1686) The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida

3. The origins of the baroque in the Counter-Reformation

Articles about the Baroque all point to its origins in the Councils of Trent, the organisational centre of the Counter-Reformation.

In 1517 Martin Luther had nailed his theses about theology to the door of his local church (in fact a traditional way to announce a theological debate). Luther called for a sweeping revolution in all aspects of European Catholicism, sweeping away scores of central dogmas and traditions and ceremonies which he regarded as later additions, corrupt folklore and legends and superstitions and inventions which had been grafted onto what was originally the pure and spartan teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels.

Many German princes and north European kings took Luther’s teachings as an opportunity to throw off the shackles of Catholic rule from Italy, and within a generation a host of independent ‘Protestant’ churches and states had been established across northern Europe, not least in England where Henry VIII threw off the restrains of rule from Italy by an Italian pope and declared himself head of a newly-styled Church of England.

One aspect of the Protestant revolt was aesthetic. In rejecting the cults of saints and relics – the excessive worship of Mary Mother of God and a host of other Catholic traditions – the really revolutionary Protestants (nicknamed the Puritans) cleaned out their churches, smashing statues, defacing medieval paintings, burning wooden rood screens and so on in an orgy of iconoclasm.

Result: by the 1550s or so European Christianity existed in two forms, a stripped-down militant white-walled protestant form, and a defiantly gold candelabra-ed, smells and bells Catholicism with statues of saints and the crucified Christ and a blue-robed Mary cramming their churches.

So the Catholic authorities called a series of congresses at Trent (Trento in northern Italy) to thrash out just what they did agree on – in light of Protestant attacks to redefine every element of Catholic theology and practice, to create a new, stronger, more centralised ideology in what came to be known as the counter-Reformation.

Among a host of theological and administrative rules which were set down, emerged a belief that Catholic churches, Catholic aesthetics, should defy the know-nothing, philistine, iconoclastic, whitewash-everything protestants and build their churches on an even more elaborate scale. Catholic architecture should be enormous, characterised by domes soaring into heave and festooned with flocks of angels and risen Christs flying over the heads of the congregation. Every nook should be full of florid statues of saints in the agony of their martyrdoms, and the authorities encouraged a style where every fold of their robes and cloaks became more and more elaborate, intricate and charged with emotion.

Italian Catholicism deliberately set out to be as flamboyant, as big, as majestic and as over-awing as could be achieved in buildings, statuary and painting. This is the origins of the Baroque.

Examples of the Baroque: from top left: The interior of the church of Santa Maria, Rome; The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio; The Trevi Fountain in Rome, designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1732.

4. Royal Power

Not surprisingly, kings liked this style. ‘Big, imposing, overpowering, yep that’s me’ was the thought of rulers all over Europe, who proceeded to commission artists and architects to copy this new, super-solid, massive and imposing architectural and artistic style in their realms, from Poland to the Palace of Westminster.

It’s important to remember that Charles II was very much alive during the events of the civil war and the Puritan Republic and where was he living? In the French court of Louis XIV (in fact the extended reign of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King more than matches the entire period covered in this exhibition, he reigned from 1645 to 1715.)

Thus Charles didn’t just return in triumph to the palace of Westminster and all the rights and accoutrements of a king of England; he returned:

  • with his head full of European theories about the Divine Right of Kings
  • with the example of Louis XIV firmly in his mind about how to be such a king
  • and with his imagination packed with the architectural and artistic achievements of the French courtly builders and painters

It was under Louis XIV in the 1680s that the Palace of Versailles was redesigned and rebuilt to become the largest and grandest royal palace in Europe.

The British Baroque

So that’s a brief background to the ascent of the supposed Baroque style in Britain. But was it really Baroque? Here’s one of the thousands of definitions you can find on the internet:

The Baroque style is characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music. Baroque iconography was direct, obvious, and dramatic, intending to appeal above all to the senses and the emotions.

If the Baroque is anything it is dramatic, operatic and exuberant, grand gestures in enormous buildings, huge and heavy marble statues, imposing porticos. Histrionic is a good word.

But after a few sort-of grand paintings in the first room (such as The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review), the exhibition leads into a room of court beauties, a handful of Charles II’s many mistresses – and ‘grand’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘exuberant’ are not really the words which describe these paintings at all.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child by Peter Lely (c.1664). National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s a nice pillar in this painting and, to those in the know about painterly symbolism, the Duchess of Villiers is wearing the bright red and blue traditionally associated in Renaissance painting with the Virgin Mary, but… It’s not really ‘grand’, ‘melodramatic’ or ‘histrionic’, is it? In fact Barbara’s snub nose, poky little mouth and bulbous eyes are more homely than grand and intimidating.

The seed of doubt whether the term ‘baroque’ really applies to the British art and architecture of the period is sown early and crops up throughout the rest of the exhibition.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review is certainly an elaborate allegorical composition and contains a neat pyramid of tumbling sea nymphs and sea goddesses and so on, but the figure the whole composition leads you to… Charles II’s black moustachioed face of an old debauchee… to me it completely lacks awe and grandeur and dignity.

To me Charles looks a bit of a twerp, as if his face has been photoshopped onto a foreign fantasia.

There’s a moment in the room devoted to architecture where we learn about the murals the painter Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to create to decorate the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent new St Paul’s Cathedral. They are a series of large murals depicting scenes from the life of St Paul, so far so good. But then we learn that he rendered them in black and white in order to be restrained and dignified and to suit the Protestant atmosphere of what was, in effect, the world’s first Protestant cathedral.

Restrained? That’s like saying we’re going to an all-night Brazilian samba party and we’re going to drink lemonade and dance the waltz.

It is completely against the spirit of the Baroque. The baroque is drama and opera and huge flights of angels soaring up into vast church domes. But that isn’t the English spirit at all. The English spirit then as now is faaar more sensible and restrained and undemonstrative.

This was highlighted by the simple lack of religious imagery throughout the show. Of the exhibition’s ten rooms, only one is devoted to religious imagery and that one is virtually empty. The only interesting thing in it is a wonderful carved wooden cover for a font by Grinling Gibbons which is all Italianate grapes and leaves, with a few winged putti holding up the swags, but there’s nothing Christian about it. Certainly none of the agony and ecstasy and religious melodrama of the Italian Baroque.

Font cover from All Hallows by the Tower church, London, by Grinling Gibbons, carefully avoiding all religious imagery whatsoever

Instead, what comes over is how British and foreign painters domesticated the brash Italian style for a culture which is far more indoors, domestic and family-orientated.

The Children of John Taylor of Bifrons Park by John Closterman (1696) National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s as much in the exhibition about the late 17th century fashion for trompe l-oeil optical illusions in paint as there is for Christian imagery – for the melodrama, the agony in the garden, the upturned eyes of adoring angels and the flurried cloaks of muscular saints.

A quick review

Here’s a quick overview of the ten rooms and my highlights:

Room 1 – Restoration

Artists who returned with King Charles and became associated with his reign included Peter Lely, the King’s Principal Painter; Samuel Cooper, his official miniaturist; and the mural painter, Antonio Verrio.

Miniaturist? Yes there are a number of miniature portraits of Charles and leading courtiers. Couldn’t help thinking that the entire concept of a miniature is the exact opposite of the Baroque spirit.

Room 2 – The Restoration Court

Classy but surprisingly restrained full length portraits of half a dozen of Charles’s mistresses and assorted courtiers, including John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the rudest poet in English, one of whose poems begins:

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who fucks who, and who does worse
(Such as you usually do hear
From those that diet at the Bear),
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
Went out into St. James’s Park
To cool my head and fire my heart.
But though St. James has th’ honor on ‘t,
‘Tis consecrate to prick and cunt…

What is really striking about these portraits is nothing to do with power and Magnificence, and everything to do with the extremely stylised depictions of their faces. They all look the same. All the women have the same rounded faces, long noses, white skin relieved by heavily rouged cheeks and, above all, the same rather slitty and very bulbous eyes, the overlids and underlids of the eyes deliberately shadowed to create a sense of an unhealthy prominence of the eyeball.

Two Ladies of the Lake Family by Sir Peter Lely (c.1660) Tate

Room 3 – The religious interior

As I’ve mentioned, a thin collection. Some surviving paintings and wall paintings from he Catholic chapels in London, at St James’s Palace and Somerset House, where the Catholic consorts Catherine of Braganza (Charles’s wife) and Mary of Modena (James II’s wife) enjoyed freedom of worship, provided a focal point for the Catholic community.

Room 4 – Illusion and Deception

Much more fun, much more interesting, and much more English, is this room full of fashionable trompe l-oeil optical illusions including a series of paintings by Edward Collier of items apparently pinned to a real wooden board or held in place by tape, which appear astonishingly lifelike and three-dimensional.

There’s an elaborate peepshow by Samuel van Hoogstraten: you look through a little pinhole to the side and see what looks like a realistic intrior of a house with rooms giving off in front of you and to the side. There’s Chatsworth’s famous violin painted as if hanging on the back of a door, and the hyper-real flower paintings of Simon Verelst which looked so real that they fooled the diarist Samuel Pepys.

A Vase of Flowers by Simon Verelst (1669)

Room 5 – Wren and Baroque architecture

Here, in the magnificent churches designed by Christopher Wren and his student Nicholas Hawksmoor, with the Queens House and other buildings built at Greenwich and plans to rebuild Whitehall Palace after it burned down, and the country houses designed by the later John Vanbrugh, you approach something like the continental Baroque in scale and ambiton.

But as the story of Sir James Thornhill’s murals indicates, a European style which has been restrained, watered down and made sensible.

Room 6 – Country mansions and courtly gardens

How Hampton Court was remodelled to be more like Versailles and William III’s grand Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, Chatsworth and Bleinheim, the grandest of grand English country houses.

Paintings of huge, geometric, symmetric formal gardens.

Room 7 – Painted interiors

This was maybe my favourite room. It contains a photo of the vast and sumptuous mural on the ceiling of the dining room at Old Greenwich Palace, and is lined by preparatory paintings of other vast mythological murals by the likes of Antonio Verrio and Louis Chéron and Sir James Thornhill.

Apparently it was the arrival of seasoned muralist Verrio in England in 1672 which sparked a new fashion for grandiose murals, and it’s in these (essentially private) murals, vast compositions awash with Greek mythical or allegorical figures, that you get closest to saying the English had a Baroque period or style.

Lower Hall ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich by Sir James Thornhill

But what I really liked was the preparatory sketches. There’s a handful of sketches and some works in huge sketchbooks, in which Thornhill sketches out his initial designs and compositions for various murals.

What I liked about them is that these rough sketches often had more energy, vim and dynamism that the finished works.

In particular, the human shapes and faces are rough outlines and, somehow, have more character and vibrancy than the smooth finished oil paintings, in many of which Thornhill has had to defer to the peculiar contemporary style of painting restoration faces.

His sketches are fun, mad profusions of tumbling cartoon characters. This one shows a grand mythological scene which was clearly designed to cover the wall of a staircase (hence the 45 degree angle at the left): at the bottom right Venus is being born from the waves; watched from the left by Neptune King of the oceans holding his triton; and above her a frothing scramble of other gods and goddesses.

A Ceiling and Wall Decoration (circa 1715-25) by Sir James Thornhill

Room 8 – Beauty

A striking and inventive piece of curating in which the Tate has taken seven of eight massive, full-length portrait paintings of English society beauties and made an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the kind of grand drawing room they would have adorned. They’re selections from two series of paintings:

  • The Hampton Court Beauties, a set of eight full-length portraits, commissioned by Mary II in 1690–1
  • The Petworth Beauties, commissioned by the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset for their country mansion Petworth House

n a way, though, the real star of the room is the huge heavy wood furniture, adorned with gold clasps and legs modelled from what appear to pregnant black woman (!?) and which are bearing a set of massive Chinese vases. There are candelabra o the walls and one can only wish the curators had had the courage of their convictions and turned the main lights off and installed replica candles so we really could have seen what paintings like this would have looked like most of the time back in the 1690s.

Room 9 – Triumph and glory

Critics could easily complain doesn’t really describe or explain the complicated and momentous political events of the years 1660 to 1700, which saw not just the restoration of Charles II, but:

  • Charles’s death in 1685 and the succession of his brother, as James II
  • The rebellion of Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, who raised an army in the West Country, before being crushed by James’s army.
  • The so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when James announced that he was going to raise his son by his second wife Mary of Modena a a Catholic i.e. the next in line to the English throne would definitely be a Catholic. At this point a cabal of leading aristocrats decided to overthrown James and invited William Prince of Orange (a state in the Low Country) to come and be King of Britain, using the fig leaf that Mary was the eldest daughter of James II, the king she helped to overthrow.
  • William went on to defeat the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, a defeat/victory which is commemorated to this day in Northern Ireland.
  • And the creation of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional devices which ensured the supremacy of Parliament and other legal rights which made Britain one of the most advanced and liberated nations on earth.

But then this is an art exhibition and not a history lesson.

The advent of William as King not only overthrew the House of Stuart but created two broad political parties among the political elite – those who remained true to the old Stuart line and came to be known as Tories, and those who moved to ingratiate themselves with the polemically Protestant new rule of this progressive king and came to be known as Whigs.

And it also drew Britain deep into European politics. We gained not only a new king but a new web of complex international alliances and enmities which this king brought with him, not least total opposition to the king of France’s ambitions for European hegemony.

And thus this room has paintings of William and various of his generals, in warlike pose, astride horses, in martial postures. The thing is… most of them are a bit rubbish. Here is a painting of Charles I on a horse by the genius Sir Anthony van Dyke.

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1633)

Now here is a painting of King William III, portrayed as the victor of one of his innumerable endless wars, by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

William III on horseback with allegorical figures by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1701)

The van Dyck has genuine grace and dignity and regality. The Kneller has many good effects, but it’s just nowhere nearly as good as the van Dyck. And there’s something about those high wigs for men which is just… ludicrous. And whereas Charles is accompanied by a real retainer the chocolate box angels and putti flying above William are ridiculous.

(To be precise, the allegorical figures are: Neptune on the far left; Ceres and Flora [goddesses of fertility and crops] in front of him; Astrae [Justice] and what looks like Mercury [messenger of the gods] above.)

Room 10 – The Age of Politics

So it was the constitutional and legal reforms which accompanied the Glorious Revolution which ushered in a new age. Formerly a king appointed his lead minister whose job it was to draw up policy and steer legislation through a mostly passive parliament until the increasing dissension which led up to the civil war.

Now it was agreed in law that parliamentary elections would be held every three years, and this ushered in a new era where groups and cabals of aristocrats came together to press for their own interests. It was the birth of parliamentary parties. And also the birth of an early form of journalism as new magazines arose to cater to the taste for reading about the ever-more complex political intriguing and jockeying which was going on, such as the original Spectator magazine, founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711.

Thus the final room contains a massive and unflattering portrait of Queen Anne (reigned 1702 to 1714) along with portraits of the members of the various clubs which had their origins at this time, including Kneller’s portraits of members of the Whig Kit-Cat Club, and this fine body of podgy, bewigged men, the leading figures in the Whig Junto as depicted by John James Baker.

The Whig Junto by John James Baker (1710) Tate

Conclusion

If you watch the Antiques Roadshow or flick through popular history, nobody refers to an English ‘baroque’ period – the eras and styles they refer to are the Restoration, or Queen Anne, or Georgian periods and styles (the Georgian began at Queen Anne’s death in 1714).

And the exhibition certainly skimps on the enormous importance of the political events of the time, and skates very thinly over the momentous philosophical and scientific revolutions of the period – Newton discovering the laws of the universe and the nature of light, the Royal Society founded in 1660 and sponsoring all kinds of breakthrough in engineering, hydraulics, dynamics, the circulation of the blood and so on.

But then it’s an exhibition of art and architecture not a history lesson. And one of the most interesting lessons I took from it was how very unBaroque a lot of the art of this period was. In sharp contrast with the European Baroque, it was dedicatedly Protestant, unreligiose, unshowy, undramatic and often very tame and domestic in feel.

In fact walking slowly back through all ten rooms I came to the conclusion that in the entire exhibition there was only one real Baroque pieces, an enormous, fearfully heavy solid marble bust of Charles II made by the French-born, Genoa-based sculptor Honoré Pelle in 1684.

This it struck me, was grand, large, imposing, showed its subject in a moment of movement, dramatised by the extraordinary realism of the cloak of fabric flying around his shoulders. This, for me, was by far the most convincing and successful work of art in the exhibition.

Charles II by Honoré Pelle (1684) Victoria and Albert Museum

Promotional video

Curators

  • Tabitha Barber, Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain
  • David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, National Trust
  • Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Elizabethan Treasures @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition transports us back into the Elizabethan Age, the age of Shakespeare and Spenser, of pointy beards and intricate ruffs, to the soundtrack of exquisite lute music.

Lute music was one of the art forms Elizabethan England was recognised for across the Continent, its chief exponent, John Dowland, being poached by the king of Denmark to entertain his court in 1598.

The other art form which flourished in Elizabethan England was the very distinctive one of portrait miniatures, brought to a peak of perfection by two specialists, Nicholas Hilliard (1547? – 1619) and French-born Isaac Oliver (c.1565 – 1617).

This exhibition – Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver – brings together some 85 masterpieces by both men, making it the first major exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures to be held in the UK for over 35 years. And what a delight it is!

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

These miniature portraits were termed ‘limnings’ at the time, the intricate detailing of their style deriving, ultimately, from medieval manuscript illumination, but the shape and format clearly owing something to the artwork for coins and medals.

Miniatures were prized by monarchs, courtiers and the rising middle classes as a way of demonstrating favour, showing loyalty and expressing close relationships. They could be set into ornate jewelled cases or worn around the neck, could be pinned to clothing or secretly concealed as part of elaborate processes of friendship, love, patronage and diplomacy.

Variety

Having studied the literature of the Elizabethan period, and being a fan of lute music, I thought I knew what to expect – 60 or 70 exquisitely painted miniature portraits – but the most surprising thing about the exhibition is the variety of works it includes (miniatures, oil paintings, sketches, coins, manuscripts) and the presentation and context surrounding the portraits, which make it feel much more like an immersion in the broader culture and history of the time.

How to limn

For example, early on in the exhibition there is a display case showing the dozen or more implements which were required to create and paint miniatures, including a mortar and pestle to grind the colour, sea shells to mix the pigment with water or gum, the vellum surfaces the miniatures were painted onto, which were themselves worked flat using a paintbrush-style stick with a smooth tooth (!) at the end to create a supersmooth and even surface.

Above the case is a video showing every stage in the preparation and painting. Very informative.

Manuscript illumination

I was fascinated to be told that the tradition of these miniatures stems directly from manuscript illumination, and from the very finely drawn illustrations often found in later medieval manuscripts. To demonstrate how close the link was the exhibition includes a surviving manuscript, the charter marking the establishment of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1583, illustrated by Nicholas Hilliard himself.

Queen Elizabeth

You expect the patrons of these fine artists to have been the richest people in the land, the Queen and her courtiers and there is, indeed, a section devoted to the images of Queen Elizabeth I produced by Hilliard and Oliver. Hilliard, the older man by 18 years, established a monopoly of producing her portraits in miniature. He went on to design seals and illuminated legal documents and medals for the Crown, and became a salaried royal employee in 1599.

To be honest I found the miniatures of Elizabeth on display here less striking than the many full-length portraits of her which exist (and can be seen upstairs at the National Portrait Gallery, for example the stunning ‘Ditchley’ portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger). But I was struck by one very unexpected picture, an image from 1580 of Queen Elizabeth playing the lute. Do you think she took requests?

Elizabeth I Playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Elizabeth I playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Symbols and secrets

Elizabethan culture was packed with signs and symbols. Images and words had multiple meanings, some public and openly acknowledged, others to do with families, family trees and mottos and coats of arms, others deeply personal and private. The miniatures on display reveal a complicated combination of all three.

So, for example, much of the symbolism surrounding he Queen was straightforward enough, beginning with the Tudor rose symbolising her family lineage and including flowers or jewels which symbolised constancy and virtue. No surprises there.

But what are we to make of an image like this, of a young man, not wearing a ruff, with his doublet casually open, set against a backdrop of roaring flames?

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

The commentary says we can be confident that this symbolises ‘burning love’. Fair enough, but what comes over in the section devoted to symbolism, allegory and secret meanings is just how much we don’t know – just how much of the carefully worked symbolism in these paintings has been lost forever. Even of this image, the commentary is forced to speculate:

The man, dressed only in his undone shirt, holds a jewel. This is perhaps a miniature case containing an image of his love, who was presumably the intended recipient of this portrait.

Perhaps. Presumably. Next to it is a weird image of a young man clasping a hand apparently emerging from a cloud in the sky above.

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Because the Latin inscription written either side of his head translates as ‘Because of Athenian love’ the commentary says that the whole image may imply male homosexual love, which was associated with ancient Greece. May. Despite the fact that sodomy was punishable by death under Elizabethan law, so you’d have thought it was not something you’d leave incriminating evidence about, let alone commission the Queen’s own artist to publicise.

Next to it is a portrait of an unknown man, whose meaning, the commentary records, ‘is now obscure, as the identity of the man and the context of the miniature are lost’.

My point being that encountering a steady succession of images of unknown men or unknown women, with obscure or ambiguous mottos, clasping jewels or flowers which presumably had some meaning for them – but reading time and again how their identities and meanings are now long lost – creates a cumulative sense of mystery and uncertainty. Which is all rather wonderful and charming.

The images are so fantastically precise and perfect – and yet their meanings escape us. In some ways that’s frustrating. But in others it’s rather liberating.

Leicester and Essex

One section brings out the age gap between the two artists by comparing their patrons.

Hilliard b.1547, was patronised by Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), Elizabeth’s favourite in the early part of her reign. Hilliard’s portrait of Leicester from 1576 was one of my favourite three or four works from the show. What it lacks in strict anatomical accuracy, it more than makes up for in the tremendous sense of character and personality which it conveys. And, the closer you look, the more unbelievable the detailed painting of the great man’s fine white ruff becomes. This object is only about three inches in diameter. The fineness of the detailing is quite staggering.

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

By contrast, Oliver, born 18 years after Hilliard, in 1565, was taken up by the great court favourite of the second half of Elizabeth’s career, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex. Oliver painted Essex, his friend the 3rd Earl of Southampton, and others in their circle including Southampton’s cousins, the Browne brothers, examples of which are here.

Full-length portraits

Expecting only to see face portraits, I was surprised to discover the exhibition included a whole section devoted to full-length portraits, mostly of a very particular type.

From the late 1580s, both Hilliard and Oliver, like other artists of their day, produced a number of portraits of men listlessly leaning, sitting or reclining in gardens, or in wilder landscapes. Common poses included the head resting on one hand or the arms crossed. These images would have been read by their contemporaries as depictions of the fashionable ‘complaint’ of Melancholy.

One of the most famous of these (possibly because I’ve seen it on the covers of half a dozen different book editions of Elizabethan sonnets and so forth) is Hilliard’s depiction of a noble youth, posed full length and leaning moodily against a tree.

Young Man Among Roses' by Nicholas Hilliard

Young Man Among Roses’ by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1588)

Obviously enough, the figure is surrounded by elaborately painted rose bushes alive with thorns. Presumably these represent the thorns and snares of earthly love and so – presumably – would have had a significant personal meaning for the subject and, presumably, commissioner of the work. But then the commentary points out:

The symbolism of the roses, combining beautiful flowers and sharp thorns, and the Latin motto, suggest that its subject is the pain associated with loyalty to someone who has fallen from favour. It has been suggested that the miniature depicts the young Earl of Essex pining for the loss of the queen’s favour, but the context of the poem from which the motto is taken suggests a political affiliation gone wrong.

As so often, we don’t know and so the entire image becomes a prompt for all kinds of pleasantly romantic speculation.

Oliver branches out

If I was slightly surprised by the full-length portraits, I was astonished when the exhibition went on into a section describing the artistic diversity of the younger man, Oliver, who was far more experimental than Hilliard.

For a start, Oliver tackled overtly religious subjects, something Hilliard doesn’t seem to have done, and we are shown a portrait of Christ he did.

Even more surprisingly, the painting is done using stippling i.e. there are no direct lines defining the image, the whole thing is built up solely through the application of brief impressions of paint. The result is that it looks completely unlike anything else in the show, and resembles more the large paintings of contemporary Italian Renaissance artists such as Correggio and Federico Barocci. Soft and blurry, unlike any other of the images here.

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Also distinctive to Oliver was sketching and drawing. The exhibition shows two A4-size pencil drawings, one of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Maybe Oliver’s French origins connected him culturally to the European Catholic tradition. There are no religious paintings by Hilliard.

Most surprising of all is this large-scale work, sometimes titled An Allegory, sometimes A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love, by Oliver.

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

As so often we are not completely sure, but experts think that this picture shows an allegory of virtuous and immoral love.

On the left, a soberly dressed group of middle-class women, accompanied by a man, walk through woodland. To the right, richly and colourfully dressed women, probably prostitutes, are gathered around a reclining man. Behind these figures a number of other couples embrace in the woodland, and three different types of hunting are taking place: hawking, boar-hunting and shooting ducks. The miniature displays Oliver’s extraordinary skill, at a relatively early stage in his career, in creating a complex, crowded scene, convincing spatial recession and a sense of movement.

Maybe. Perhaps.

James I

The Stuart royal family

A separate room explores aspects of the change which came over the arts when Elizabeth died in 1601 and was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who was crowned James I of Britain. Unlike Elizabeth, James was married with children and thus the need for accurate portraits was greatly multiplied, and they were of a different type. While Elizabeth had to appear stern and aloof, many of the Stuart portraits feel softer and more intimate, as if to be shared among an extended family circle.

While James continued to patronise ‘our well-beloved servant Nicholas Hillyard’, in 1605 the more artistically adventurous queen consort Anne of Denmark appointed Isaac Oliver her ‘Painter for the art of limning’ for the same salary as Hilliard, £40 a year.

The result is a series of miniatures of king, queen and their three children, Henry, Prince of Wales, Princess Elizabeth and Charles, Duke of York. The exhibition shows us portraits by Hilliard and Oliver of the same royals, allowing us to compare their styles.

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Maybe I was subliminally influenced by the extraordinary ‘softness’ of the Jesus portrait, but I thought I detected a general softening of outlines in these Stuart portraits, especially by Oliver.

The level of detail – the hair styling, ruffs and jewels – is the same as the Elizabethan portraits but – maybe it was just me, but – I thought somehow the overall effect of the images was less sharp and precise and, somehow, more gentle.

One thing which definitely changes is the use of red velvet curtains as a background. The Elizabethan images tended to be set against an abstract colour wash, often blue. Now the royals are standing in front of a luxurious red backdrop implying wealth and grandeur of a more baroque and continental style.

Masques

James’s court saw the rise in popularity of masques, elaborate entertainments expensively staged with generally allegorical or classical subjects, words provided by the poet laureate Ben Jonson and sets and costumes by Inigo Jones. Masques were:

hugely expensive and elaborate court entertainments involving music, dance, poetry and sometimes prose. They were performed by courtiers and members of the royal family. Some took place in the Inns of Court and at courtiers’ homes, but the most spectacular were staged at royal palaces, and involved magnificent costumes and sets.

Some historians I’ve read detect in the popularity of masques among the royal court, a movement away from the sunlit, open-air progressions, tournaments and hunts favoured by Queen Elizabeth. The old queen spent a lot of time travelling round the country, imposing on her aristocratic hosts and asking for large entertainments to be staged, in order to make herself known to her subjects and celebrated as the nexus of national power.

In sharp contrast the masque was a form of entertainment which was held indoors, often at night amid candlelight, and was highly exclusive, restricted to close courtly circles.

Puritans, the more radically Protestant wing of the Church of England, saw in these masques and in their pagan, classical subject matter, a form of blasphemy. The way they were held in private gave rise to dark rumours of immorality, an accusation supported by one of the miniatures here, a portrait of an aristocratic lady dressed as the Roman goddess Flora and wearing a surprisingly diaphanous blouse.

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Take a magnifying glass

A contemporary wrote of these miniatures that ‘the art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great … that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties’ and he raises an important point.

Almost all the works on display in this exhibition are very, very small.

Luckily (vitally), the National Portrait Gallery is handing out free magnifying glasses for visitors (you hand them back at the end) and I found I had to combine the magnifying glass and my own glasses to get a really clear, close-up, in-focus view of each picture.

Summary

This is an absorbing and fascinating exhibition. Being forced to look so very closely at the faces and the finely written mottos, and the astonishingly detailed ruffs and jewels and hairdos of so many of these figures, famous or anonymous, from royalty to dashing adventurers like Walter Raleigh, can’t help giving you the feeling you’re getting really close to these people, looking right into their eyes, rubbing right up against the mystery of their images and dress and symbols.

And when you guess at the meanings of the often unknown symbols, and wonder about the purposes of the pictures (as love tokens, gifts to spouses, favours from royalty or aristocratic patrons), you feel that you, too, are becoming part of the dance of meanings which wove in and out of late Elizabethan and early Stuart courtly culture. This is a wonderfully evocative and beautifully staged exhibition.

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

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