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

The promotional video


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An Artistic Affair @ the Stanley Spencer Gallery

Stanley Spencer

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was a highly original, not to say quirky, English artist who, after his student days at London’s Slade School of Art, returned to his childhood village of Cookham and spent the rest of his life there painting powerfully ‘naive’ and vivid depictions of his life and surroundings.

Spencer’s sometimes distorted, sometimes cartoonish paintings mingle everyday village life with visionary Christian belief in a peculiar and haunting way: thus his famous painting of Christ preaching to a flock of modern day Cookhamites on the towpath of the River Thames, or his vision of the dead in Cookham churchyard rising from their graves.

Spencer had a number of distinct styles. In one mode he painted unflinching images of himself and the women in his life bare-naked.

In more cartoon mode, Spencer painted a host of images in which the (dressed) human characters are sometimes humorously, sometimes hauntingly distorted.

Stanley was unlucky in love. His first marriage, to Hilda Carline, fell apart when he became infatuated with neighbour Patricia Pearse. Hilda, forced to move out of their Cookham house, began divorce proceedings in 1937. Spencer married Pearse but their relationship quickly faltered. In 1938 Spencer retreated to live by himself live in Southwold, painting The Beatitudes of Live, a series about mis-matched couples. The emotional subject matter – the mismatch of feelings, the challenge of love – is reflected in the gruesome distortion of the figures.

One of the best paintings in the exhibition is a study of Hilda and daughter, Unity, who he went to see around the time she divorced him. Hilda’s face captures an expression of real hurt and upset, and the black eyes of the dolls make a terrifying contrast with the innocence of young Unity’s face.

Daphne Charlton

It was at this rocky period in his emotional life that he encountered Daphne Charlton. Born in 1909 and thus 18 years younger than Stanley, Daphne was already married to George Charlton, who had been her tutor at the Slade School of Art. Stanley went to stay at the Charltons’ home in Hampstead, London, and they began an affair. This wonderful exhibition – An Artistic Affair – at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, depicts and explores their affair, which lasted from 1939 to 1941.

Daphne (1940) by Stanley Spencer

Daphne (1940) by Stanley Spencer

(The exhibition features a display case housing the decorative blouse, jaunty black hat and Chinese bowl depicted in his striking 1940 portrait of Daphne.)

The exhibition brings together some 40 paintings, along with important examples of Stanley’s sketchbook. There’s a catalogue, a short guide to the exhibition and a 20-minute video featuring reminiscences of people who knew Stanley and Daphne. It’s worth visiting the show just to see this video which captures the homely innocence of Stanley’s art and the essentially comic aspect of his tangled love life. Daphne emerges as a big woman in every sense, who talked all the time, disagreed with everyone, and had, as she herself explained, ‘absolutely no inhibitions’.

Poor George Charlton had to put up with the fact his wife was having an affair, but it doesn’t seem to have been that unusual for her, and doesn’t seem to have affected his friendship with Stanley. Somehow, more civilised times.

Anyway, the real point of the affair is the works it inspired both Stanley and Daphne herself to produce. The Stanley Spencer Gallery is a converted Methodist chapel consisting of one room with steps up to a balcony level. This is a wonderfully light airy space in which to enjoy the artistic output of their affair.

As you’d expect there are a number of striking portraits of Daphne by Stanley, some portraits of Stanley by Daphne, and a winning self-portrait by poor George.

In July 1939, the trio of artists left for a painting holiday in the rural village of Leonard Stanley, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. Here they stayed at the ‘White Hart Inn’, which now has a plaque in honour of Spencer. There are a number of paintings from the Leonard Stanley period, including a characteristically distorted vision of the two lovers lying on a tiger skin.

While in Leonard Stanley, Stanley bought some blank notebooks and began to make sketches of figures from his complex love life – Hilda, Daphne, Patricia and himself – in a variety of settings, domestic and in public e.g. in shops or village high streets. Daphne features largely throughout and we can see her going about everyday tasks from dressmaking to cutting Stanley’s nails and fitting his shoes on. By setting sketches next to finished works, the show allows us to see how these preliminary sketches were often worked up into paintings.

Fetching Shoes, sketch by Stanley Spencer

Fetching Shoes, sketch by Stanley Spencer

For example the wool shop, was the first painting to be derived from a Scrapbook drawing. In the picture, the high-spirited, curvaceous Daphne, with a mane of fair hair, is buying wool, assisted by a diminutive Stanley. Spencer’s love of pattern and repeated motifs is seen in the bales of cloth on the shelves, and the convoluted skeins of wool that appear to take on a life of their own.

The Woolshop (1939)

The Woolshop (1939)

One painting, Village Life, depicts Stanley, Daphne and Stanley’s first wife Hilda, in  the same setting. This is a) purely imaginary, the two women never met b) worked up from a notebook sketch which we can compare and contrast with the final painting c) exemplifies Stanley’s timidity – he is smaller than both the female figures.

Many of Spencer’s paintings are an acquired taste. The realistic ones – such as Hilda and Unity or some of his nudes or his brilliant early self portrait (1914) – are readily likable. But at the opposite extreme the more distorted ones, like the Beatitudes of Love, are a stronger flavour and maybe harder to admire. Somewhere in the middle are the numerous works depicting people as stylised tube-like, sloping figures, including the ones which feature in Christ preaching or the Resurrection or countless other earlier depictions of Christ in Cookham.

Standing quite to one side of all these depictions of people, are Stanley’s landscapes. By and large these are much simpler and easier to like. There are several lovely examples in the exhibition, painted during the trio’s stay in Leonard Stanley.

They’re reminiscent of Paul Nash’s country paintings, in their stylised beauty, and maybe distant cousins of Eric Ravilious’s pastoral vision of 1930s England. This was the least expected part of the exhibition and made me wish for a show devoted entirely to Spencer’s landscapes and country paintings, if such a thing were possible.

As the affair with Daphne came to an end in 1941, Stanley found her ebullience and energy increasingly smothering. ‘I can’t work when she’s here,’ he complained.

The exhibition video includes a reminiscence from a lady who, as a young girl, remembers Stanley bursting through the front door and crying to her mother, ‘Hide me, hide me, Daphne’s coming,’ and watching her mother take Stanley through to a back room where they stored apples, hide him, lock the door and be back in the parlour by the time the imperious Daphne arrived. ‘Have you seen Stanley?’ the Amazon demanded. ‘Yes, I saw him going towards the common,’ came the lying reply.

It all feels like an episode of Dad’s Army and bespeaks a fundamental simplicity and innocence. This is a hilarious and beautiful and inspiring exhibition.


Video of the Stanley Spencer Gallery

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