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Exhibition review: British Baroque: Power and Illusion at Tate Britain

28 February 2020

The English Baroque could be scarcely more European, suggests Nicholas Cranfield

Collection of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Museum of Florida, Florida State University, Sarasota, Florida

Benedetto Gennari, The Annunciation, 1686

Benedetto Gennari, The Annunciation, 1686

WITH exquisite timing, Tate Britain opened its first exhibition on the art of the later Stuarts on Day Four of the New Era after Brexit. Throughout, I puzzled why there had not been widespread calls to abandon the Gregorian calendar, too, as the last vestige of our enslavement to Europe and popery. A bolder government might have chosen to declare this Year I, beginning on 1 February.

The survey exhibition focuses on the resurgence of the Baroque culture after the Interregnum at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. It runs to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. It is a fascinating period in which each sovereign had first-hand experience of life on the Continent.

Charles and his brother, the later James II and VII, had both lived abroad in exile after 1649. William of Orange, the Dutchman who became king by parliamentary invitation in 1689, had married Mary Stuart in 1677, taking his young wife to The Hague. Even Anne (reigned 1702-14) had travelled to Brussels, where her Anglican chaplains chaperoned her, to avoid her gazing at the extremities of popish practice.

A more intimate relationship was that conducted in the marriage bed. Like their father and grandfather before them, Charles II and his brother were married to European Catholics — respectively, the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza and Maria d’Este from Modena. Mary II was married to the Orangeman, and Anne wed a Danish prince.

The exhibition shows just how indebted life on this side of the Channel was to Continental artists. The first room is given over triumphantly to the Apulian artist Antonio Verrio (c.1636-1707) from Lecce. After working in Toulouse and in Paris, he came to London and pioneered mural painting, most notably in the State Apartments at Windsor Castle, for which he was recognised as the king’s Chief First Painter in 1684.

The Royal Collection/HM Queen Elizabeth IIAntonio Verrio, The Sea Triumphs of Charles II, c.1674

His designs also swirled through the stairwells and reception rooms of Montagu House, Moor Park, Euston Hall, Burghley House, Christ’s Hospital, Ham House, Chelsea Hospital, and elsewhere.

The 1674 Sea Triumph of Charles II in which the king is seated as Neptune in Time’s chariot owes more to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus than visitors to the royal palace might have ever expected. It certainly offers the illusion of power in an unsettled age in which peace had only just been brokered with the Dutch.

The same first room cruelly shows the slightly worthy terracotta bust of the Merry Monarch by the Englishman John Bushnell (d.1701), best known for his sepulchral monuments, opposite the bravura marble (V&A) carved by the French sculptor Honoré Pellé (1641-1718) in Genoa in 1684.

Within weeks of the Glorious Restoration, Charles appointed the Dutchman Peter Lely (born in Soest in Germany in 1618) as King’s Limner and Picture Drawer. As principal painter at court, he portrayed a bevy of courtesans, royal mistresses, and noblewomen. Outstanding among the beauties on display are the later Duchess of Portsmouth, Louise de Kérouaille, and the Countess of Castlemaine, Barbara Villiers.

Even the demure Anne Hyde,who, the first wife of the Duke of York, died long before her husband ascended his brother’s throne, shimmers in gold satin as she sits idly next to a plashing fountainhead, symbolising both purity and fruitfulness; two of her daughters became queens regnant.

It was another foreign artist, Michael Dahl (1659-1743), from Sweden, who painted the famous series of aristocratic ladies at Petworth for the Duke and Duchess of Somerset in the late 1690s. Here, two of the duchesses appear full-length for the first time since the 1820s, when the third Earl of Egremont had them cut down in size saying, “I will cut off their legs; I do not want to see their petticoats.” Gottfried Kniller, from the free city of Lübeck, who Anglicised his name to Godfrey Kneller when, aged 30, he moved to England, provided William III and II with the “Hampton Court beauties” and later painted the stuffed shirts of the Kit Kat Club.

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

Royal spouses brought leading European artists to England just as Henrietta Maria had. Guercino’s nephew, Benedetto Gennari, arrived in London from Italy in 1674, undertaking large altarpieces for the Roman Catholic chapel at St James’s Palace. The Holy Family (Birmingham) of 1682 and the two-metre-tall Annunciation (1686) (Florida State University) are among the most staggering works in the show. I found it difficult to imagine that he had a hand in the laboured picture of Cardinal Mazarin’s niece and her black servants (Ramsbury Manor).

Outside London, aristocrats used foreign artists to depict their houses and estates: Hendrick Danckerts, Leonard Knyff, Joahnnes Kip, Jan Siberechts, and Jan Griffier among them. Against this, there are the designs of Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and John Vanbrugh, paintings by John Michael Wright, and some carving by Grinling Gibbons, but nothing evokes the wit of Congreve, the strains of Purcell, or even the liturgy of 1662.

This remains a very English show, and the title is something of a misnomer. Verrio made a foray to Powis Castle (unremarked in the catalogue and in the show), but I could find no other links with the Principality.

Scotland is represented by the generous loans of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, including his 16-branch silver candelabrum (by the Dutch John Cooqus, silversmith in ordinary to Charles II), a portrait by Jacob Huysmans (The Young Duke of Monmouth as St John the Baptist, c.1662), and flower paintings by Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, but not much more. The only Scottish artist, the minor painter William Gouw Ferguson (1632-1695), settled at The Hague by 1660.

As for Ireland, the border seems already to be firmly in place.

At the opening, I looked out for the Culture Secretary. There have been so many holders of the office recently (eight in the past ten years) that I could easily have missed the Baroness Morgan of Cotes, but I worried that High Command in Downing Street might have ordered a boycott of this subversive show that demonstrates not only how our dynastic survival has always been embroiled with Europe, but how our taste and culture has been intrinsically formed there.

“British Baroque: Power and Illusion” is at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1, until 19 April. Phone 020 7887 8888. www.tate.org.uk

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