Tate Britain’s majestic new exhibition ‘British Baroque: Power and Illusion’
By James Brewer
A flagship painting sums up with a grandiose flourish Tate Britain’s ambitious new exhibition, British Baroque: Power and Illusion.
Brought forth around 1674 by Neapolitan maestro Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II glorifies the Restoration monarch and has been lent on behalf of Britain’s more down-to-earth 21st century monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, by the Royal Collection Trust.
It raises the curtain on a show that is a voyage of re-discovery of an age of aristocratic power and societal sea-change, one that overturned at a stroke the Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate.
Extravagant consumption instead of restraint ran rampant, and together with the fast fashion of the day boosted maritime trade, a choreography creating what today’s economists would term a “feel good factor.” This is the background to Verrio’s magnificent, crowded composition which exalts a conquering Charles as a “modern day” Neptune, the god of the sea: the king sails through emblematic waters in a seashell chariot.
In the richly-coloured masterpiece – with the leading ships of the nation’s fleet visible in the background – reside the naval dominance and propaganda of peace that are associated with his reign. Tate deploys dozens of other works, appropriated through Charles’s heirs and their subjects, to further the impact. Peace was one of the illusions of the extended epoch launched by the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy and banishment of the Puritanism of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. The truth is that it was an epoch beset by intra-European conflict.
Nevertheless, the Sea Triumph may have been inspired by the signing of the Treaty of Westminster in February 1674 ending the Third Anglo-Dutch War and handing Britain supremacy of the seas – trumping the humiliation of 1667 when the Dutch surprised and burned the royal fleet at Chatham dockyard.
In the triumphalist allegorical picture, here is classical mythology conveying the power of the navy, emphasises Tabitha Barber, who is curator of British Art 1550-1750 for Tate Britain. It was the first work painted for Charles II (1630-1685) by Verrio (c 1639-1707) and may have been a trial piece to win over the royal patron.
It shows the king, in classical armour, escorted by three female figures carrying crowns embodying his three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Above his head Fame holds a scroll with a Latin inscription meaning Let the boundary of his empire be the ocean and the limits of his fame be the stars. Minerva and Venus admiringly survey the British fleet below.
Born in Lecce in the Kingdom of Naples, Verrio after a time in Paris made his English debut working for aristocrats and rapidly acquired the patronage of Charles, whom he served for three decades.
Thus, it was an Italian who introduced Baroque mural painting into England.
Verrio was commissioned to decorate the new state apartments at Windsor Castle and in 1684 was appointed ‘Chief First Painter’ to the king, at a salary of £200 a year. By 1688 the Sea Triumph was hanging in the Second Privy Lodging Room at Whitehall alongside portraits by Tintoretto and Rubens.
In the Tate exhibition, the self-proclaimed ascendancy of the nation’s new ruling elite abounds, while the lives of the mass of the populace do not get a look-in.
Having gasped at the pomp of the Sea Triumph we see alongside a portrait by Verrio of Charles in gartered robes, a surviving fragment of fresco from the ceiling of St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle, which was the venue for ceremonies and feast days of the Order of the Garter.
Monarchy is back with brio, and the king’s political strength which he owes to playing off his advisers against each other and trickery becomes linked with economic prosperity in the next “poster” for the illusion of the transformative power of the Restoration. This is the 1660 oil painting Astraea Returns to Earth by John Michael Wright (1617-94), a panel from the Whitehall Ceiling.
Astraea is the Greek goddess of justice, chastity and truth, who is said to have abandoned earth for the heavens, turning herself into the constellation Virgo, because of the wickedness of man in the Iron Age. The “star maiden” was the daughter of the Titans Astraeus, god of dusk, and Eos, goddess of dawn. The painting turns upon the prediction of Virgil that the goddess would return with the dawn of a new golden age.
The Astraea myth had been popular in England over the centuries: court poets had described Elizabeth I as the imperial Astraea who would lead mankind to Utopia.
Occupying the top half of Wright’s oval picture is a female figure with long golden hair and dressed in flowing robes. She gestures to a five-pointed star and towards a portrait of Charles held by three cherubim reclining on clouds. In the lower half is an angel in flowing cloak with a sash with the Latin motto meaning Justice has returned to the land.
Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson said that British Baroque: Power and Illusion is the first time that his institution has staged a show devoted to the later 17th century and the first anywhere to explore baroque art in Britain. This was surprising, he said, because “the art is magnificent and complex, a narrative of a time of great change, a foundation for the future global dominance of empire and of enlightenment.”
This was a chance to encounter a rich, sophisticated but overlooked era of art history. Many of the works are on display for the first time, some borrowed from the stately homes where they have always hung.
From the Restoration to the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the late Stuart period was one of momentous change which shifted the focus from the royal court to the two-party parliamentary system.
Baroque, the dominant style in art and architecture of the 17th century, characterised by an often-elaborate approach to depiction, is usually associated with the continental European courts, such as that of Louis XIV, but a similar culture thrived in Britain under different circumstances.
Mythological mural paintings, which frequently carried political messages, were designed to overwhelm spectators and impress upon them the power, taste and leadership of their owners.
This exhibition includes the work of some of the leading painters of the day – including Sir Peter Lely, Sir Godfrey Kneller and Sir James Thornhill. With its incidental depiction of black servants – in one painting they are seen shackled in iron collars – of the nobility, the display quietly hints at the growth of one of the sources of wealth, the slave trade.
Royal mistresses are accorded a respectful place, with portraits by Lely, including in 1664 that of Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland with her son (probably Charles Fitzroy) shown as the Virgin and Child.
Works by Jacob Huysmans, such as a full-length allegorical portrait of Catherine of Braganza from around 1662-4, shaped an independent visual identity of Charles’s consort. This portrait of Catherine (1638-1705) was painted for her or for Charles shortly after their marriage. Negotiations for the marriage had begun in 1660. The Infanta was Catholic, though the question of her religion paled beside the dowry she brought, starting with the ports of Tangier and Bombay, along with 2m cruzados (about £300,000).
Huysmans (c 1633-96), a Flemish Catholic, was Catherine’s preferred artist portrayed her in silvery dress as a shepherdess, surrounded by references to love and fertility, such as a sprig of orange blossom in her hair, and a ewe with its lamb, all of which expressing the hope for a fruitful marriage, although she was childless, and the king was succeeded by his younger brother, who was to be the ill-fated James II.
One of the greatest beauties of the Restoration court was the Countess of Grammont (Elizabeth Hamilton), who is portrayed in an oil painting by or after Peter Lely, to mark her marriage to Philibert, Count of Grammont in late 1663. She was among the ladies known as the Windsor Beauties, a Lely series housed at Hampton Court.
Then there are the Hampton Court Beauties, eight portraits commissioned by Mary II in 1690-1 from Sir Godfrey Kneller, depicting the most glamorous ladies from the court of William III. They adorn the state rooms of William at Hampton Court water gallery.
The profound visual drama of baroque architecture is represented with works by the great practitioners Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh. Designs, prints and wooden models for the significant buildings of the age, including St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Blenheim Palace, are shown alongside vast painted birds-eye views of estates. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum we see the ceiling designs for the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital conceived and executed by Thornhill. The epic scheme for the Painted Hall, known as “Britain’s Sistine Chapel,” took 19 years from commission to its completion in 1726.
The artifice of trompe l’oeil – which has its origins in ancient Greece – is given ample play in works including the ultra-realist painting of the Dutchman Simon Verelst, who moved to London in 1668 and was called ”the god of flowers”. A Vase of Flowers dates from around 1669-75 and the opulence of the composition and its contents represent wealth and abundance, confirming Verelst’s reputation in the discipline.
The Dutch military presence strengthened again as William of Orange was encouraged by a section of British political and religious leaders to invade England and depose James in what became known as the Glorious Revolution. Ruling with his wife and cousin Mary II he waged war with Louis XIV of France on a near-global scale, giving rise to further baroque pictorial boosterism, which continued in the reign of his sister-in-law Anne.
The new sovereign is seen in the oil on canvas portrait by Willem Wissing entitled Queen Anne, when Princess of Denmark which dates from around 1695. Anne is pictured splendidly dressed at the age of 18, but she had an unfortunate future dominated by war with the French and her failure to produce an heir. For much of her reign she was pregnant, but none of her 12 children survived beyond infancy. On the positive side, she oversaw the union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England in 1707.
Portraiture was again to the fore as party politics opened an avenue to power. Aspirants are seen in Kneller’s depiction of the Whigs’ Kit-Cat Club (kit-cat being a nickname for mutton pies served at a London tavern) and John James Baker’s strong group portrait of 1710 The Whig Junto. The latter is the only known group portrait of Whig Party leaders in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The confidence exhibited by the group was scattered to the winds within a few months when it was supplanted by Tory rivals. Baker was studio assistant and drapery painter to Kneller, and he was recognised as the author only when his signature was revealed just before Tate’s acquisition of the picture in 2018.
The exhibition is curated by Tabitha Barber of Tate Britain, with David Taylor, curator of Pictures and Sculpture at the National Trust, and Tim Batchelor, assistant curator of British Art 1550-1750 at Tate Britain. Lead supporter is law firm White & Case, which has 44 offices across 30 countries.
Picture captions in detail:
The Sea Triumph of Charles II. c 1674. By Antonio Verrio. The Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. 2019.
The Sea Triumph of Charles II (detail).
Charles II in Garter robes. By Antonio Verrio. Oil on plaster. 1684. Fragment from the ceiling of St George’s Hall, Windsor Castle.
Astraea Returns to Earth. 1660-1. Panel from the Whitehall Ceiling by John Michael Wright. Oil on canvas. Nottingham City Museum.
Terracotta bust of Charles II. By John Bushnell (1636-1701). Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Catherine of Braganza (detail). Oil on canvas. By Jacob Huysmans. Royal Collection Trust.
Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child. c 1664. Oil on canvas. By Peter Lely. National Portrait Gallery, London. Purchased with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, through the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), Camelot Group plc, David and Catherine Alexander, David Wilson, EA Whitehead, Glyn Hopkin and numerous other supporters of a public appeal including members of the Chelsea Arts Club, 2005.
Countess of Grammont (Elizabeth Hamilton). c 1663. Oil on canvas. After Peter Lely. Oil on canvas.
Some of the Hampton Court Beauties, portraits commissioned by Mary II in 1690-1 from Sir Godfrey Kneller.
A Vase of Flowers. By Simon Verelst. c 1669-75. Oil on canvas. The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Bequeathed by Daisy Linda Ward, 1939.
Queen Anne, when Princess of Denmark. c 1695. By Willem Wissing. Oil on canvas. National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased 1922.
The Whig Junto. 1710. By John James Barker. Oil on canvas. Tate. From the collection of Richard and Patricia, Baron and Baroness Sandys. Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and donated to Tate in 2018.
British Baroque: Power and Illusion is at Tate Britain until April 19, 2020.