British Baroque: Power and Illusion Back

The new exhibition at Tate Britain will be of interest to Criticks readers whose eighteenth-century studies are on the ‘long’ side of the period’s definition. BSECS conference papers frequently take us back to the fluid borderline with Early Modern. The exhibition demonstrates the gulf that divided 1688 from 1714 and reminds us how much our political and cultural life had begun to change by then. It is a superb demonstration of art conservation skills and curatorial confidence, exhibiting several paintings in public for the first time which are newly restored, newly attributed or given new contexts in which they can be enjoyed. But for all this innovation, it seems to hark back to more traditional priorities and focus. Displays at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, can be forgiven for their reverential encomiums on British monarchs, reflecting opulent royal life-styles through exquisite collections. It is what we expect. Charles II’s iconography and efforts to restore the royal collection were celebrated in 2017. At Tate Britain we are asked to examine the late Stuart monarchs, from Charles II to Queen Anne and their elite political culture, which unashamedly makes few concessions to current historiographical interest in a broader social history. This all has to be accepted on its own terms.

‘Power’ is a key term in the titles of both these exhibitions. Their focus is on the King and his Court.  There is no room, for example, for the newly active writers and actresses of Restoration drama who are often the subjects of scholarly engagement with the period⸻ though Nell Gwyn appears in a small print (after Henri Gascar, 1677-80). Christopher Wren’s and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s designs for St. Paul’s Cathedral and Whitehall embody the Baroque architecture of post-fire London but the quarrymen, masons and carpenters involved who are discussed in the latest published study on the building of St. Paul’s, are surplus to requirements (James W.P. Campbell, Building St. Paul’s, Thames & Hudson, 2020). Our attention is drawn to Benedetto Gennari’s (1633-1715) portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, as Diana and to her young black attendants wearing the metal collars denoting their status as her enslaved possessions. But only a short wall label points this out and their stories and significance also belong to another exhibition all together.

We note instead how specialist dress painters used brushes thickly loaded with silver-blue and ochre-gold to deftly trace the contours of glistening satin folds in portraits of Court ladies. Light touches of white were dabbed to give costly pearl earrings and necklaces a subtle sheen. The uniformly heavy eyelids, erubescent complexions and delicate symbolic accoutrements of goddesses and martyrs which characterise the portraits of noble women belie the tenuous position they and their families held at court, the tensions of factions and fortune, and the developing crisis for the monarchy as parliamentary power asserted its right to govern. A portrait of  Charles II’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza (Jacob Huysmans, 1662-4) who sits in a landscape cluttered with lambs, ducks and cherubs is flanked uncomfortably by paintings of the King’s illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth, as St. John the Baptist (Jacob Huysmans, 1662-5) and of his mistress Barbara Villiers with her son, posed controversially with a knowing smile as a virgin and child (Peter Lely, c.1664). Catherine was unable to produce an heir but seems here taunted by those who could with the symbols of their fertility, rampant nature, trickling fountains and plump babies. Facing her, provocatively among the courtiers, is John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, crowning an exotic monkey with the poet laureate’s laurel leaves (anon, 1665-70). He famously satirised the behaviour of the court in his witty and obscene poems, one of which derides each lady in turn, and thus his presence on the wall uncovers the hidden instability of ‘the Illusion’ invoked in the exhibition title:

‘…Doll Howard no longer with ‘s Highness must range,

And therefore is proffered this civil exchange:

Her teeth being rotten, she smells best below,

And needs must be fitted for Signior Dildo’. (Signior Dildo, c. Dec.1673)

However, the luxury and magnificence which define the portraits, particularly those of Michael Dahl’s and Godfrey Kneller’s large canvases of women at William and Mary’s court, cannot be taken as a sign simply of privilege and uncontested entitlement. There is a more nuanced tale to tell. Those included in Room 8 ‘Beauty’ were known as the Petworth Beauties and the Hampton Court Beauties, commissioned as series to adorn galleries at Petworth House and Hampton Court respectively. The subjects were defined by their celebrated beauty and moral virtue and were collectively bound by this and their noble status as a group. Long mirrors between the Petworth portraits replicate the original display which enabled viewers to glimpse themselves standing and admiring the ‘beauties’ on show: ‘These settings, with glittering candlelight, would have enhanced the messages about ideals of courtly and aristocratic beauty that the portraits communicate’ (room introduction). Lisa A. Banner, curator of a current exhibition in New York Completing the Image: Baroque Frames from the Collection of Philippe Ávila notes that  frames define the ‘visual borderlines to separate and support that picture from the outside reality of the viewer’. Mirrors highlight the ‘gaze’ which the portraits invite and collapse the illusion separating physical representation in its frame and actual presence. The viewer is the imagined admirer. This artifice is at the heart of Baroque art.

Though the exhibits in room 4, ‘Illusion and Deception’, focus on optical illusions and visual trickery, ‘illusion’ can have many interpretations. It feels as though the foundations of the late Stuart dynasty crumble slowly as we pass through. Of course the pathos of the Old Pretender’s (son of James II) death in Rome in 1766 and the drunken decline of his son as hopes of regaining the throne of England inexorably faded were on the distant horizon of the baroque splendour on show. The clever trompe l’oeils on different scales are all by Dutch artists who specialised in this technical art: Jan van der Vaart, Evart Collier, and Samuel van Hoogstraten who kept cutouts of objects such as fruit and slippers in his house to trick people. Early on in the exhibition, we learn that Flemish and Dutch artists tended to find favour in Queen Catherine’s circle, while Charles II patronised French artists. The jostling for favour and fame among the artists represented throughout the exhibition is an understated subtext. The title may be ‘British Baroque’ but the achievement of magnificence depended on many continental artists whose abilities became apparent to the future Charles II and his  courtiers while in exile. The etymology of the term ‘baroque’, meaning ‘misshapen or irregular pearl’ points to French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian origins and the exhibition does not convince us that British Baroque really defined itself beyond its continental and, crucially, Catholic roots. In addition, the artistic collaborations on display centre overwhelmingly on English rather than British baroque examples,

John Closterman, Equestrian Portrait of a Lord Mayor of London c. 1700 . © Corp. Banque de France)

The contrast between the first and last rooms is stark. Our first encounter is with the restored monarch, Charles II, whose image on canvas, paper, vellum, gold, terracotta and marble fills the room with his unmistakable long nose, heavy jowls and cascading wig. We cannot doubt his determination to remain in control. The final room is larger, chillier and paves the way for something beyond the baroque, ‘The Age of Politics’. Grinling Gibbons’ carved arms of two Masters of Trinity College, Cambridge mark their donations for Wren’s new 1676 library at the college. A large equestrian portrait dominates the room, not a French prince as once assumed, but an unknown Lord Mayor of London (John Closterman, c.1700). Civic virtue and responsibility dominate the early eighteenth century landscape as royal patronage is sidelined. Queen Anne (Michael Dahl, c.1702) stands with an expression more of wary defiance as she points to the crown on a cushion and rests her hand on the orb of monarchical power as if to reassure herself it has not disappeared by a sleight of hand. She shares wall space with John Smith, Speaker of the House of Commons (Godfrey Kneller, c.1707-8) and The Whig Junto (John James Baker, 1710) with the coats of arms of each sitter displayed on the frame. As we leave the exhibition we leave a pattern of monarchical power in transition, and a baroque artistic vision which could not meet the needs of a new political era.