THIS exhibition, first seen in Houston, Texas, and Bendigo, Australia (2018-19), was always ripe for argument. Originally planned for Greenwich in April last year, it was bound to raise questions about a particular view of “history”.
Necessarily, this is quite different from the National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 exhibition “The Face of Britain”, in which Simon Schama told the story of our island people and commonweal. This showcases only the dynastic governing classes (and their favourites) in the period in which portraiture became widely available as a skill.
The three remarkable exceptions in more than half a millennium’s story about dead white males are among the longest-serving monarchs of a distinguished line. Queen Elizabeth I, seen here with her feet firmly planted either side of Oxford on a map of 1592 (Marcus Gheeraerts) in the so-called “Ditchley portrait”; Victoria, captured in the age of photography and the postage stamp; and our present Sovereign, in the audacious cape offered by Pietro Annigoni in 1969, and in photos by Dorothy Wilding, Cecil Beaton, and, more recently, Lord Lichfield and Annie Leibovitz.
These are not the only women present, of course. On the first wall of the exhibition, Anne Boleyn’s portrait (NPG 668), invented some 50 or 60 years after her death on the scaffold, may copy an earlier likeness, but no contemporary portraits are known to survive. This image featured on a cigarette card that my father collected in 1935.
© National Portrait Gallery, LondonKing Henry VII by unknown Netherlandish artist, 1505, oil on panel
More importantly, Lady Jane Grey, whom Edward VI “devised” as his heiress on his death in 1553, and who is often airbrushed out of history as “the Nine-Day Queen”, is included in a spectacular portrait acquired for the gallery as recently as 2006 (NG 6804). This was purchased with funds raised at the gallery’s 150th-anniversary gala. I imagine that the trustees will have undertaken due diligence to establish the source of all the funding.
The exhibition opened amid further controversy. A month before — and six months into the cultural wars waged against arts institutions by the Government — the chairman of the museum’s board, Charles Dunston, resigned. At issue, apparently, was the Government’s refusal to reappoint a trustee who wished to discuss decolonising the NPG collection — a line that Oliver Dowden, as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, had publicly forsworn in October 2020.
On the same day, Dunston’s former partner at the Carphone Warehouse, David Ross, announced his unexpected resignation from the Royal Opera House’s chairmanship, to take up — surprise, surprise — the National Portrait Gallery’s.
These comings and goings offered a sideshow worthy of the Netflix bodice-ripping school of history, but did mean that I arrived at the press view of the exhibition somewhat apprehensive. How woke was it going to be?
The exhibition, which is (as far as I can see), largely as planned, begins with one of our more sober monarchs, Henry VII (1485-1509), holding on, squirrel-like, to the edge of a parapet. According to the inscription, it was painted on 29 October 1505 for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I on the orders of his agent Herman Rinck.
© National Portrait Gallery, LondonThe wedding of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, by Bassano Ltd bromide print, 26 April 1923
Evidently, the emperor decided that the steely-eyed, near 50-year old monarch, who introduced our currency that endured until the end of the last century when the 10p coin was degraded, in size and weight, from the florin, would not make a good father-in-law for his daughter.
A youthful Henry VIII, painted c.1520 at the time of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, takes a ring off his finger, a gesture that draws attention to the fact that Catherine of Aragon next to him hides her left hand (Lambeth Palace, loaned by the Church Commissioners 2011).
For whatever reason, the NPG does not exhibit the 1554 portrait of their daughter Mary I by Hans Eworth, and visitors might overlook her. Measuring just 3 3/8 x 2½ inches, the panels of Queen Mary and that of her consort, King Philip of England, are dated 1555, a year after their marriage in Winchester Cathedral. Both likenesses are based on earlier compositions, by Anthonis Mor and Titian respectively, painted in happier times before Philip returned to the Low Countries.
© William Hustler and Georgina Hustler/National Portrait Gallery, LondonQueen Elizabeth II by Dorothy Wilding, 1962
The half-length of the Scots King James I is mischievously set between the Garter portrait of his favourite George Villiers (1616) and a posthumous portrait of his Danish wife, Anna, painted during the reign of her second son, Charles I (NPG 4656). Each are studio works, colourful maybe, but lacking the spontaneity of the portraits of their children, which show Robert Peake at his best.
The 1631 full-length of Charles I (Daniel Mytens) is not helped by having a Van Dyck studio work of his wife Henrietta Maria next to him, and feels pedestrian. It is not often the case that a subject looks better in death than in life; the death mask of the Lord Protector outshines the latter’s portrait, after Samuel Cooper.
So far, so dull.
The first sign of the dilemma in which arts institutions now find themselves comes with the spectacular dress portrait of James, Duke of York, as Mars. This flamboyant portrait, painted by Henri Gascar in 1672-73, was the scene-stealer at last year’s Tate Britain exhibition of British Baroque (Arts, 28 February 2020), and belongs to the National Maritime Museum. Discreetly we are told, “He was also Governor of the Royal Africa Company, responsible for Britain’s heinous trade in enslaved African people.”
Maybe the pink armour and his self-confidence, so much more exciting than the statue of him outside the National Gallery, which was designed by Grinling Gibbons and paid for by the now widely cancelled steward of Charles II’s household Tobias Rustat, is such that we are meant not to be too worried.
The colourful and lively beauty of the later Stuart courts gives way to an almost inexorable dreariness among the Hanoverians. Bleached and grey images, many of them are secondary works or workshop copies that do nothing to enliven a dramatic vision of Britain in the 18th century. How did Queen Caroline, “the people’s Queen”, not even see through James Lonsdale as an artist in 1820?
© National Portrait Gallery, LondonKing Charles II, attributed to Thomas Hawker, c.1680, oil on canvas
But then we are brought up short with an extraordinarily powerful painting of “the Sailor King”, William IV, by the Irish artist Sir Martin Archer Shee PRA (1769-1850). As Duke of Clarence, William saw active service in the navy in the War of American Independence at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, and was made an admiral in 1798. “Active in the House of Lords, he was an outspoken opponent of the abolition of slavery,” we learn. We are not told that it was during his reign that slavery was abolished in nearly all the British Empire, nor that, as King of Hanover, he provided his German country with a liberal constitution.
As Duke of York, George VI also had seen active service (at Jutland) and is here depicted in naval uniform in a relaxed portrait by the 35-year-old Meredith Frampton (1929) which belongs to Barnardo’s. Happily married with only a three-year-old daughter at the time, and enjoying the freedom that came of being a second son, he was to come to think of it as his best likeness, and we can see why. Within ten years, he would be Emperor of India, and war would ravage Europe.
“Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits” is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until 31 October 2021. Phone 020 8858 4422. rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum