Love For Love by William Congreve (1695)

SIR SAMPSON LEGEND: You are hard to please, madam: to find a young fellow that is neither a wit in his own eye, nor a fool in the eye of the world, is a very hard task.

The humour of a Restoration comedy often starts with the cast list – the names are always inventively comic in their literalness, and the character profiles are often very droll. Thus:

THE MEN
Sir Sampson Legend – father to Valentine and Ben
Valentine – fallen under his father’s displeasure by his expensive way of living, in love with Angelica,
Scandal – his friend, a free speaker
Tattle – a half-witted beau, vain of his amours, yet valuing himself for secrecy
Ben – Sir Sampson’s younger son, half home-bred and half sea-bred, designed to marry Miss Prue
Foresight – an illiterate old fellow, peevish and positive, superstitious, and pretending to understand astrology, palmistry, physiognomy, omens, dreams, etc.; uncle to Angelica
Jeremy – servant to Valentine
Trapland – a scrivener
Buckram – a lawyer

THE WOMEN
Angelica – niece to Foresight, of a considerable fortune in her own hands
Mrs. Foresight – second wife to Foresight
Mrs. Frail – sister to Mrs. Foresight, a woman of the town,
Miss Prue – daughter to Foresight by a former wife, a silly, awkward country girl

This one is fairly full and meaty though markedly less expansive and funny than those of Wycherley’s characters in The Plain Dealer, and this first impression is confirmed by the play, which I found rather dull and slow to get started.

The Plot

Valentine Legend is a young wastrel aristocrat who’s spent all his money and is heavily in debt. His father won’t pay off his debts unless he signs over his rights to the family estate to his younger brother, Ben, who’s been an officer at sea for some years. (Money – note how money is the prime driving force of the play, and is the first thing to be carefully explained.) Although Valentine is skint, he is in love with fair Angelica who hasn’t shown much opinion of him either way.

Valentine is chaffed by his long-suffering servant, Jeremy, and then visited by his side-kick / number two / confidante, Scandal, who acts as his foil throughout the play, allowing Valentine to explain his situation at each stage of the plot.

Like all the other Restoration comedies there is also a ridiculously mannered fop. Each one of these has a slight quirk, a distinctive variation on the theme, and the fop in this play, Tattle, prides himself on his tact and diplomacy but is, in reality, constantly blabbing and giving things away.

Debt collectors come calling, who Valentine’s man, Jeremy, manages to put off for another day, then an officer called Trapland, also come to collect debts, who they treat to a glass of sack. Mrs Frail visits and there are crude double entendres at her expense.

Act 2 scene 1 Clever Angelica ridicules her uncle Foresight’s absurd superstitious beliefs in astrology etc and makes lewd suggestions about his and the silly old Nurse’s midnight rituals. She exits.

Valentine’s father Sir Sampson arrives and he turns out to be nearly as much of a pedantic superstitious astrologer as Foresight, a bombastic, swaggering old bombast. Enter Valentine who tries to explain about his inheritance but the conversation gets diverted into a discussion of Valentine’s parentage and then of his servant Jeremy. Legend warns that Valentine’s younger brother, Ben, is due to arrive tonight or tomorrow at which point he plans to sign over his inheritance to him.

Mrs Frail and the second Mrs Foresight are sisters. They return from swanning around town. They bitch at each other then swear to be pinkie friends. Mrs Frail is worried about her prospects. She announces she’s setting her cap at Legend’s younger son, Ben, due any minute back from sea. Mrs Foresight’s step-daughter, Miss Prue, is slated to be Ben’s wife, but she has recently become enamoured of the silly fop, Tattle, something Mrs Frail wants to encourage so as to leave Ben for herself.

A little scene where Tattle has to teach the very innocent unworldly Miss Prue how to behave like a London flirt, which is almost enjoyable because it’s almost sweet.

Act 3 In front of Angelica and Valentine, Tattle proves himself the soul of indiscretion, by overtelling several gossipy stories, showing off and implicating various posh women. He is, in other words, an epitome of Indiscretion as Foresight is of the mad old astrologer, and continually regretting having said too much:

TATTLE:  Gadso, the heat of my story carried me beyond my discretion, as the heat of the lady’s passion hurried her beyond her reputation.  But I hope you don’t know whom I mean… Pox on’t, now could I bite off my tongue.

Ben finally arrives and turns out to be a roister-doister sailor, not that interested in matrimony, a girl in every port etc. His dad leaves him alone with Miss Prue but his blunt ways quickly alienate her and they end up insulting each other. Just as Mrs Foresight and Mrs Frail come along, which falls pat into their plan, as Mrs Frail fancies Ben for herself, insofar as he is heir to Sir Samson’s estate. This sequence is rounded out by Ben and his sailors singing a song and having a dance.

For his part, Scandal embarks on a plan to persuade Foresight that he is unwell, coming down with something, in order to get him out of the way so he can make love to Mrs Foresight. She is initially scandalised by Scandal’s boldness, but slowly he talks her round.

I can’t put my finger on it, but all this is boring. It lacks the pizzazz of The Plain Dealer. Valentine just isn’t very interesting, Scandal is boring, Tattle is sort of funny as an over-talkative fop, but none of them are as funny as Novel and Lord Plausible from The Plain Dealer.

Act 4 Valentine pretends to be mad. This means the lawyer Sir Samson has brought – Buckram – considers him unfit to sign the document assigning his portion of the inheritance to Ben. Seeing this and realising Ben will not be rich, Mrs Frail immediately reconsiders her plan of marrying Ben, and takes the opportunity to have a fierce argument with him – making him think she’s gone mad.

In the same scene Scandal talks aside to Mrs Foresight and seems to be saying that they spent the previous night together, something Mrs Foresight rejects or denies. Maybe I’m in the wrong mood, but I didn’t find any of this funny. It seemed laboured and contrived.

Mrs Foresight conceives the plan of presenting Mrs Frail as Angelica to Valentine when he’s mad, getting him to sign the marriage papers and tumbling them into bed together, then they’ll be married. Scandal gets wind of this scheme and he and Valentine agree it will be amusing to egg them on.

Then Angelica herself arrives and Valentine drops his madness in order to talk to her straight. Unfortunately, she was inclining towards him precisely because she thought he had gone mad – for unrequited love for her! When Valentine explains that, on the contrary, his madness is a scheme designed to get his father to drop the plan of handing his portion to brother Ben – i.e. it is an entirely mercenary plan and nothing to do with love – Angelica reverts to being standoffish and aloof.

ANGELICA: How! I thought your love of me had caused this transport in your soul; which, it seems, you only counterfeited, for mercenary ends and sordid interest.

I think a lot of my dislike of this play is down to the character of Angelica: there are strong female leads playing more or less the same role in all the other comedies I’ve read – for example Florinda and Hellena in The Rover or Alithea in The Country Wife – but they had fire and vim; Angelica just comes over as irritatingly non-committal and contrary.

JEREMY: What, is the lady gone again, sir? I hope you understood one another before she went?
VALENTINE: Understood!  She is harder to be understood than a piece of Egyptian antiquity or an Irish manuscript: you may pore till you spoil your eyes and not improve your knowledge.

Act 5 Angelica – improbably – makes up to Sir Sampson, an old man in his 50s. She wants to marry him, now, and he gets very over-excited at the idea, tells her to get a lawyer and a priest.

Enter Jeremy who is encouraging Tattle in his mad scheme to disguise himself as Valentine and woo Angelica.

Enter Miss Prue whose father has told her she no longer has to marry Ben – since he renounced his inheritance and says he prefers to go back to sea – and so she now wants to marry Mr Tattle, who she had such a frank exchange of flirting with back at the end of Act 2. Clearly, she is now an embarrassment to Tattle, who tries to put her off, saying no man of fashion is consistent to a woman for 2 days in a row! Fie, madam!

Enter Mr Foresight (who of course has foreseen none of these complex twists and turns). His daughter Miss Prue complains that she needs a man, she wants a man, but Foresight says poo, nonsense and tells her Nurse to take her home.

At which point Ben arrives and tells the assembled company (Scandal, Foresight, Mrs Foresight) that his father (Sir Sampson) has gone mad. Howso? Because he’s preparing to marry Angelica (who is Foresight’s niece). So now Valentine is mad, Sir Sampson is mad, this news prompts Mrs Foresight to go mad, and Foresight says he’ll go mad if Mrs F does. So this conceit or theme of madness has turned out to be the play’s guiding one. And, of course, Scandal sees his friend Valentine’s plan to win Angelica by feigning madness, going badly wrong.

Enter Sir Sampson and Angelica fawning over each other and their lawyer Buckram. Sampson confirms it to everyone, asks Foresight to give his niece away at the forthcoming wedding. Scandal runs off to tell his friend Valentine about this abrupt turn of events. Ben advises his father to be wary but Sir Sampson takes advice very badly and blusters and huffs that he will disinherit him, and asks the lawyer to be sure Ben will inherit nothing, at which there are bad words between Ben and the lawyer.

Sir Sampson’s bombastic turn of phrase and his irritable readiness to disinherit both his sons is another major thread in the play.

Enter Mr Tattle and Mrs Frail who have calamitous news – they are married by mistake! Tattle thought he was marrying Angelica, and Mrs Frail thought she was marrying Valentine, and so both are undone! This is sort of funny, especially the way they are rude and dismissive of each other,

TATTLE: Gad, I never liked anybody less in my life. Poor woman! Gad, I’m sorry for her too, for I have no reason to hate her neither; but I believe I shall lead her a damned sort of a life…
MRS. FRAIL: Nay, for my part I always despised Mr. Tattle of all things; nothing but his being my husband could have made me like him less.

The happy twist It probably has a technical name, but in every one of these Restoration comedies the leading man and the leading woman resist each other, scorn and mock each other right up till three minutes before the end, when they suddenly undergo a miraculous reversal of attitudes and suddenly realise how much they love each other.

And so it is here that, when Sir Sampson calls on Valentine to sign away his inheritance, Valentine prepares to do so and when his friend Scandal tries to stop him, Valentine makes a noble speech about how he only ever wanted the money in order to make Angelica happy. Aaaah.

SCANDAL: ’Sdeath, you are not mad indeed, to ruin yourself?
VALENTINE: I have been disappointed of my only hope, and he that loses hope may part with anything. I never valued fortune but as it was subservient to my pleasure, and my only pleasure was to please this lady. I have made many vain attempts, and find at last that nothing but my ruin can effect it; which, for that reason, I will sign to – give me the paper.
ANGELICA: Generous Valentine!  [Aside.]

Angelica happens to have the bond in question in her hand and promptly tears it up in front of everyone and declares her love for Valentine. Turns out her heart was always his all along – she was just pretending to be haughty and aloof! He goes down on his knees to her – it’s a deal!

Angelica takes the opportunity to tell old Sir Sampson he must reform, become a better father, relent his ‘unforgiving nature’ – confirming my sense that that was one of the themes of the play. Infuriated, Sir Sampson curses Foresight and his stupid belief in astrology and storms out, at which point Tattle (who, remember, has married Mrs Frail by mistake) has a funny line:

TATTLE: If the gentleman is in disorder for want of a wife, I can spare him mine.

The musicians have arrived who were to serenade Sir Sampson’s wedding. Scandal tells ’em to play on to celebrate Valentine and Angelica. And it’s Angelica who has the last word.

Many critics, and most feminist critics, berate Restoration comedy for its alleged misogyny. So it is worth pointing that the last word of this long play is given to a woman, who uses it to criticise men and their vain expectations and self-serving rhetoric:

’Tis an unreasonable accusation that you lay upon our sex: you tax us with injustice, only to cover your own want of merit. You would all have the reward of love, but few have the constancy to stay till it becomes your due. Men are generally hypocrites and infidels: they pretend to worship, but have neither zeal nor faith. How few, like Valentine, would persevere even to martyrdom, and sacrifice their interest to their constancy! In admiring me, you misplace the novelty.

The miracle to-day is, that we find
A lover true; not that a woman’s kind.

Thoughts

I found this play the most dry and dusty, contrived and unsatisfying of the ones I’ve sampled so far. I smiled once or twice, but I just didn’t find the vast expense of verbiage expended on Foresight’s belief in astrology or Sir Sampson’s bombastic bad temper or Miss Prue’s childish innocence or Tattle’s inability to keep a secret, made them that funny.

Probably on stage Love For Love comes to life much more, and I could see the comic aims and intentions of all these humorous characters and contrived situations – but I found it quite a dry and laboured read.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Gamini Salgado makes several points about the play and its position late in the history of Restoration comedy. By the time it was performed in 1695, the early merry days of King Charles II were long gone (his brother James had been deposed in favour of a foreign, Protestant king with a completely different set of values, in 1688) with the result that Valentine comes over as a lot less of the heartless libertine than the classic hero of Restoration comedy, and Scandal also is a lot milder in his support of his friend. And I think that’s one of the things I disliked, they both had less energy than previous male pairs.

This is related to the fact that the target audience was now wider than it had been for Etheredge or Wycherley – the earlier plays were mostly performed at the Drury Lane theatre which was favoured by royal patronage and attended by aristocrats, whereas Love For Love was performed at a new theatre in Lincolns Inn Fields for a broader, more middle class audience.

Somehow Valentine’s subterfuges – pretending for a page or two at the start to become a poet, pretending later on to be mad – feel silly and superficial. They lack the sustained bite of Manly’s misanthropy in The Plain Dealer or the snappy repartee of Dorimant and Medley throughout The Man of Mode. This, Salgado suggests, was partly a response to a broader, less arrogant audience, and to a general softening of the times.

Is there a connection with the fact that Money is most to the fore in this plot, in the sense that the key driver of the story is which of his sons Sir Sampson is going to leave his estate to? Does the softening of the aristocratic arrogance of earlier comedies, and the new emphasis on money (and the prominence of the sailor son) indicate that Britain had become a much more mercantile and bourgeois society by the 1690s than it had been in the 1660s?

When I read the Wikipedia article about The Way of The World, the answer seems to be a resounding yes:

In 1700, the world of London theatre-going had changed significantly from the days of, for example, The Country Wife. Charles II was no longer on the throne, and the jubilant court that revelled in its licentiousness and opulence had been replaced by the far more dour and utilitarian Dutch-inspired court of William of Orange. His wife, Mary II, was, long before her death, a retiring person who did not appear much in public. William himself was a military king who was reported to be hostile to drama. The political instabilities that had been beneath the surface of many Restoration comedies were still present, but with a different side seeming victorious.

One of the features of a Restoration comedy is the opposition of the witty and courtly (and Cavalier) rake and the dull-witted man of business or the country bumpkin, who is understood to be not only unsophisticated but often (as, for instance, in the very popular plays of Aphra Behn in the 1670s) either Puritan or another form of dissenter. Until 1685, the courtly and Cavalier side was in power and Restoration comedies belittled the bland and foolish losers of the Restoration. However, by 1700, the other side was ascendant…

The 1688 revolution which overthrew James II created a new set of social codes primarily amongst the bourgeoisie. The new capitalist system meant an increasing emphasis on property and property law. (The Way of the World Wikipedia article)

All of which maybe explains why Love For Love lacks the extreme aristocratic attitude of the earlier plays, and is more suffused by the language of money and contracts.


Related links

Reviews of other Restoration plays

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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