Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Aubrey Beardsley must be the most distinctive British artist. If you see any of his mature works, they are immediately recognisable and almost always deeply satisfying, their elegance of line and composition emphasised by the stylish use of huge areas of unmediated black or white, and the sophistication of his sensually charged portrayal of the human figure.

The Black Cape, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) Photo © Tate

This exhibition is a feast of Beardsleiana, bringing together 200 spectacular works to make the largest display of his original drawings in over 50 years and the first exhibition of his work at Tate since 1923.

The wall labels to the fifteen or so sections the exhibition is divided into are available online:

And it contains a detailed timeline of his career. Rather than repeat all that, I’ll just single out what were, for me, the key learnings or best bits.

Key learnings

As he turned 18 and needed a job, Beardsley got a job working in an insurance office which, as you might imagine, he hated. What other early modern ‘great’ worked in an insurance office, created a distinctive body of work, and died of tuberculosis? Franz Kafka

Arts & Crafts It is interesting to see Beardsley’s tremendous indebtedness to Arts & Crafts ideas of total design, and the importance of intertwining flower and stem motifs. And considering he was only 19!

Withered Spring by Aubrey Beardsley (1891)

Beardsley began his career just as William Morris was producing his luxury designed books from the Kelmscott Press. The curators usefully summarise the elements of a Kelmscott production as:

  • elaborate decorated borders
  • decorated initial letters
  • full page illustration

The hair-line style The exhibition shows how Beardsley quickly moved from this relatively ‘heavy’ line to move to the extreme opposite, to complex compositions which are covered in a crazy network of super-fine lines. The curators call this his ‘hair line’ style.

How Arthur saw the Questing Beast by Aubrey Beardsley (1893) Victoria and Albert Museum

It is also an early example of Beardsley slipping surreptitious rudeness or irrelevancies into his pictures. At the bottom left of the ‘river bank’, right up against the frame, is the silhouette of an erect penis and scrotum. Towards the top right is a concealed treble clef.

Morte d’Arthur The picture above is one of the Morte d’Arthur series which made Beardsley’s reputation. He was commissioned to make a hefty 353 illustrations for a new edition of the Morte by publisher J.M. Dent, including full and double-page illustrations, elaborate border designs and numerous small-scale ornamental chapter headings.

However, Beardsley quickly became bored and irked by the subject limitations and began introducing extraneous elements and flights of fancy. Thus the picture above is supposed to be of a medieval knight and a dragon though you wouldn’t really think so. Most disruptive of all is the presence of a pan or satyr from Greek mythology, absolutely nothing to do with medieval legend.

Japanese influence The exhibition includes one print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a lovely coloured woodblock which exemplifies the kind of Japanese influence which impacted European art from the 1870s onwards, and influenced everyone with their:

  • abstract depiction of pictorial space
  • linear intricacy
  • emphasis on flat pattern

Kakemonokakemono is a Japanese hanging scroll used to display and exhibit paintings and calligraphy inscriptions and designs mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage. It is a distinctly different shape from traditional Western portrait shape, and Beardsley was to incorporate it into many later works.

Mantegna Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was a key influence for Beardsley. The Italian was famous for his frescos and murals showing parades and processions and groups of people, and Beardsley used ideas and figures and compositions from Mantegna throughout his career. Even in his last accommodation, a hotel room in the south of France, he had a set of photos of works by Mantegna pinned to his wall. Indeed Beardsley produced several Mantegna-style processions, notably The Procession of Joan of Arc which was included as a foldout supplement to the second edition of The Studio magazine in 1892.

Wagnerite Beardsley was a keen fan of Wagner, attending productions of his operas and illustrating scenes from them. He had ambitions as a writer as well as illustrator and in his last few years worked at a text which was a comic version of the legend of Tannhäuser which Wagner had made into an opera. Given the working title of the Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, excerpts were eventually published in The Savoy magazine under the title Under The Hill, an oddly Hobbit-like title for such a grand Wagnerian subject.

Photo Lineblock Just as important for the quick evolution of Beardsley’s style was the introduction in the 1890s of the new technology of photo lineblock printing, a photomechanical process. Beardsley was disappointed at the poor reproduction of his washes and shading using this new method, but quickly adapted and made a virtue of leaving large areas of a page completely untouched, others pure black, and ensuring the lines and patterns were crisp and clear. The result is startling.

How la Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram by Aubrey Beardsley (c.1893) Alessandra and Simon Wilson

In fact this picture is singled out by the curators as exemplifying another of Beardsley’s traits which was his extraordinary ability to assimilate influences and make them his own. Thus the curators point out in this image:

  • Isoud resembles Jane Morris, with the classic pre-Raphaelite jutting chin and mountain of frizzy hair
  • the Germanic form of the desk is borrowed from Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St Jerome in his Study
  • the flattened use of space recalls the influence of Japanese prints
  • whereas the elaborate border of intertwining flower motifs recalls Arts & Crafts designs

Salomé In 1892 Beardsley made a drawing in response to Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s play, originally written in French and based on the biblical story. Wilde admired the drawing and he and his publisher, John Lane, chose Beardsley to illustrate the English translation of the play. Beardsley produced eighteen designs in total, of which only ten appeared in the first printing of the play. Publisher John Lane suppressed or censored three of Beardsley’s illustrations for their overt sexual references, in particular when female characters’ hands are wandering towards their privates, as if about to masturbate, or unnecessary depictions of the male characters’ phalluses.

The Climax – illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) by Aubrey Beardsley. Photo © Tate

The Yellow Book The exhibition clarified the timeline around the Yellow Book, and has an entire room devoted to it. Beardsley was made its art editor at its inception in 1894 and contributed the front and back covers for the first five editions. But Beardsley was closely associated with Oscar Wilde (having contributed a suite of illustrations for Wilde’s ‘immoral’ play about Salome), and so soon after Wilde’s arrest in May 1895, Beardsley was fired from the Yellow Book.

On one of the days of his trial, Wilde was seen going into court holding a copy of the Yellow Book and that clinched it for the angry mobs and journalists outside. The offices of the Yellow Book’s publishers, Bodley Head, were attacked by a mob who smashed its windows. In order tonsure the survival of the firm, and its staff, and the continuity of publication of the magazine and all his other titles, publisher John Lane had little choice but to distance himself from Beardsley. The sixth volume, of July 1895, still had the cover and several illustrations by Beardsley but he no longer worked for it. (Later it transpired that Wilde hadn’t been holding a copy of the Yellow Book at all, but a French novel, which tended to be published with yellow covers.)

The Yellow Book Volume I (1894) bound volume. Photo © Tate

It looks as if you can examine every volume of the Yellow Book, all its literary and art contents, online

The room has an example of all five volumes of the Yellow Book that Beardsley was involved with. I’ve read about it ever since I was a teenager at school forty years ago, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a copy before and certainly not six. I’d always envisioned it as magazine-size, but it does indeed look like a hardback book, in size and shape and leather binding.

Beardsley’s work desk The exhibition includes the very table or desk which Beardsley used during his glory years. Standing a few feet from it, it is hard to imagine that the man produced all these pitch-perfect works without the aid of architects’ tools or computers – just him, a ruler and a pen.

Beardsley’s address With the money he made from the Salome illustrations and a small legacy Beardsley bought a house at 111 Cambridge Street, Pimlico with his mother and sister, Mabel, to both of whom he remained very close throughout his short life. Only a few hundred yards from Tate Britain where this exhibition is being held…

Oscar Wilde Wilde was an established writer when he saw the first of Beardsley’s drawings and immediately liked them. He approved the suggestion that Beardsley illustrate the original French version of Salomé and they socialised. So far, so well known. I hadn’t realised that Beardsley satirised Wilde quite so much. There are straightforward lampoons of the increasingly fat and pompous aesthete, but he also slyly slips Wilde’s epicene features into numerous other illustrations, in one giving the moon the eyes and nose of Wilde.

The Woman in the Moon by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

The Rape of The Lock is the title of Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic 18th century satire. I suppose it’s worth clarifying that ‘rape’ in the title doesn’t mean rape in our modern sense, but the older sense of ‘theft’ or stealing away. Thus Pope conceived an extended poem which uses all the devices and machinery of the classical epic to describe how one jaded aristocrat cuts a lock of hair from the head of another jaded aristocrat, and this leads to a feud between their families. Believe it or not this elaborate literary joke extends to five cantos with many extended scenes. Beardsley created nine photo-engravings for an 1896 republication of the poem, five of which are on display here for the first time.

Beardsley had been a fan of 18th century rococo prints, maybe because they – like him – are sophisticated, worldly, stylish and much more open about sexuality than the Victorians. The exhibition shows us some of the original 18th century prints which Beardsley bought at auction in Paris, and then goes on to show all the Pope pictures.

The Dream by Aubrey Beardsley (1896) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

What’s immediately obvious is the that the stark clarity of the Salome illustrations has been abandoned for a much more elaborate style, characterised above all by the stippling that creates a sort of lace doily effect on almost all the fabrics. And look at the patterning of the carpet. A long way from the stark black and white of the Salome illustrations. Many critics thought these his best works as an illustrator.

Posters the 1890s were the glory decade for poster design in Paris, led by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret. I didn’t realise Beardsley produced a number of posters which modified his own style to take on board the need for a) size b) colour.

There’s a room devoted to half a dozen of his posters, none of which match the quality of Lautre or Chéret, and most of which are advertiser’s promotions of new ranges of childrens books or books by women, alongside promotional posters for The Yellow Book and several plays and operas. The section contains the telling quote:

I have no great care for colour, but [in posters] colour is essential.

‘I have no great care for colour’. Worth pondering. And relevant to the one and only oil painting Beardsley is known to have made.

Oil painting There’s a rare outing for Beardsley’s only oil painting and you can see why – it’s rubbish. His entire style was built around absences, around huge areas of untouched whiteness. Trying to translate that into oil, which specialises in depth and shadow, was a hopeless task.

Porn After Beardsley was sacked from The Yellow Book, almost the only publisher who would use his drawings was Leonard Smithers. Smithers operated on the fringes of the rare book trade, issuing small, clandestine editions of risqué books with the boast: ‘I will publish the things the others are afraid to touch’. Smithers encouraged Beardsley’s already growing interest in risqué French, Latin and Greek texts and commissioned drawings to illustrate the Satires of the late Roman poet Juvenal and, most famously, Aristophanes’s bawdy satirical play Lysistrata.

In Lysistrata the women of Athens go on a sex strike, refusing to have sex with their menfolk until they stop the ridiculous war against Sparta. Beardsley made eight outrageously sexual illustrations for Smithers’ edition. Among other subjects, this is the set which includes start, beautifully made black and white line drawings of ancient Greeks with humongous erect penises. Maybe if you’re very young or innocent these are ‘shocking’ images, but to the modern viewer they are vaguely reassuring, certainly humorous. The two figures on the right are mildly realistic but it’s the guy on the left who gets the attention, not because of  his phallus as such but because the entire character is obviously created for grotesque comedy.

Illustration for Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley (1896)

The grotesque He knew he was attracted to ‘the grotesque’ and there is a wall label which usefully explains the origins of the grotesque in art. Grotesque originally referred to the decoration of grottos, and came to denote the depiction of deliberately hybrid and monstrous forms, which often combined body parts from different animals, like a centaur or mermaid. As the man himself said:

I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as I draw them. .. They all seem weird and strange to me. Things have always impressed me in this way.

Foetuses Nobody knows to this day why he drew so many foetuses, either as insets in frames or as characters in the more grotesque illustrations. Maybe it was simply because they are a kind of quintessence of the grotesque.

My favourite Venus framed by two statues of male gods in the form of herms (a sculpture with a head and perhaps a torso above a plain, usually squared lower section’). I like it because of its formal precision, its symmetry which is, however, broken by the asymmetric sway of Venus’s long dress. I like it because there is no indecency, boobs or penises in sight. Instead there is a sense of genuine menace from the devil eyes of the two herms. And I like it because it is a kind of reversion or revisiting of the Arts & Crafts theme of incredibly ornately interwoven bushes, stems and flowers of (I think) roses. But mostly because it is a pleasingly complete, formal, complex and rather threatening image.

Venus between Terminal Gods (1895) Drawing with india ink by Aubrey Beardsley. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford

Walter Sickert Almost the best thing in the exhibition is the full-length portrait painting of Beardsley made by the English painter Walter Sickert, after they’d both attended a commemoration ceremony for John Keats. Its sketchy unfinished quality makes it a haunting gesture to the memory of the dandy and artist who died aged just 25.

Aubrey Beardsley by Walter Sickert (1894)

Crucifix The exhibition includes the last photo of Beardsley, taken in the hotel room in the Hotel Cosmopolitain in Menton where he had gone in search of a warmer dryer climate which would be more favourable to his tuberculosis. The photo shows Beardsley looking tremendously smart in a suit and well-polished shoes opposite a wall on which are pinned reproductions of his beloved Mantegna, and a mantelpiece on which sits a crucifix.

Because although I’ve probably read it numerous times, I’d forgotten that in his last months Beardsley converted to Catholicism. He died holding a crucifix. Just a few days before he died he wrote a letter to Leonard Smithers asking him to destroy all of Beardsley’s risqué images, the Lysistrata illustrations etc. Smithers refused and so they were saved for generations of schoolboys to giggle over.

Who does a deathbed request to destroy his works which its address completely ignored remind you of? Franz Kafka.

Film There is a room with benches so you can watch Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent movie version of Salomé immediately following the room of Beardsley’s illustrations. For some reason the gallery lights had been left on full power in this room which made it harder to see the image on the screen.

Legacy The exhibition closes with a sketchy overview of Beardsley’s legacy from his influence on the long sinuous lines of Art Nouveau via a string of now mostly forgotten book illustrators who copied his style (Harry Clarke, Hans Henning Voigt) through the revival of Beardley’s reputation and style which was sparked by a major retrospective of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1966 which led to the incorporation of Beardsleyesque black and white swirling lines into lots of psychedelic posters and, most famously of all, into the portrait of the four Beatles in the cover art for their LP Revolver.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley 1893 by Frederick Evans. Photo-etching and platinum print on paper. Wilson Centre for Photography

This is a long, very thorough, exhaustive and informative exhibition about a truly world class and utterly distinctive English artist.

Curators

  • Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Curator of British Art 1850 – 1915
  • Stephen Calloway
  • with Alice Insley, Assistant Curator of Historic British Art

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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