Tate Britain has created a Baroque exhibition for today. In the first exhibition of its kind, possibly ever, certainly at the Tate, the curators have put on a shown that aims to both elevate the mind and explore the past in the context of the present.
British Baroque: Power and Illusion explores British Art between the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the death of Queen Anne in 1714.
A lot went on during this period- the restoration of the monarchy, the accidental beginnings of a free press, the reaction against religious toleration, the introduction of a constitutional monarchy, the stock exchange and the national debt, the Royal Society and the rule of reason, the development of Empire and the slave trade, and the rise of tea and coffee to popularity, to name a few.
This is very much a show about the Stuarts and their Court. The first room is full of images of Charles II, the cavalier king, the merry monarch who sold out the loyal supporters who had followed him into exile or lost office and who signed a secret treaty with his country’s enemy to circumvent parliament. Here he looks majestic and splendid with his long curly locks and flowing robes.
Really the exhibition focuses on the imagery of royalty- not the people themselves, the ones wearing the crowns. It is strange. The Stuarts were a uniquely family focused dynasty of very fallible humans. Charles II and James II were so haunted by their father’s death that they turned him into a saint, whilst Mary I and Anne rebelled against their father, took his throne and refused to recognise their half brother. Traumatic experiences and emotion was central to their life experiences.
The period, which began with Royal patronage as the most important aspect of the art world ended with the rise of non-royal patrons as preeminent. Charles began his reign with the hope of reinstating the Divine Right of monarchy. At the close of Queen Anne’s reign, her government stayed in power to oversee the handover to a king chosen by them and limited by British law.
The show wants us to understand “baroque” as a style borrowed from Europe.
The Baroque as a period is instantly recognisable and simultaneously hard to define. It is Bernini and Bach, Rubens and Rembrandt. The altarpiece at Toledo Cathedral. Barbaric and classical, refined and recherché.
In England (the show does not touch on Wales or Scotland) the fruits are less rich, especially if you limit yourself to this period (no Rubens, no Inigo Jones?). A few names stand out: Wren, Hawksmoor, Gibbons, Milton, Newton. Milton was a poet and so we will park him here, but what a poet! Newton had world changing impact and, although not a visual artist, he brought new insight into the world. I assume it was not possible to loan Kneller’s, or even Thornhill’s, portrait of him. Wren and Hawksmore have their own room and Gibbons has moments throughout.
The Baroque luxuriated in new forms of seeing the world. Trompe-l’œil and the effects of perspective were incredibly popular. An image of a flea from Robert Hooke’s micrografia brings home the importance of science for seeing the world anew.
The classical remained a source of importance. Artists from the period used classical tropes as political allegory to flatter monarchs. We see a lot of kings depicted as Neptune or Mars crowned by Justice, or handed cornucopias by Peace or Ceres (goddess of Agriculture, sometimes associated with Isis).
The most notorious image in the whole exhibition is probably the triumphant depictions of William III on his horse. They are still commonly seen in the Northern Ireland during Orange marches (named after the Principality of Orange). Iconography is strange. The bitter afterlife of these particular images are never mentioned, although Ireland – unlike Wales or Scotland – is mentioned if only in passing. One print shows the Battle of Boyne. Another portrait shows an Anglo-Irish peer.
Ultimately, the show is hemmed by its choice of period. Although never mentioned in the show’s captions, the runaway success of The Favourite, a so-so film about a particularly boring monarch (and we’ve had a few) has reignited interest in this once unfairly derided period of British history. It would have been unimaginable to set a major exhibition during the art of Anne’s reign a few years back. What a shame then that the Queen Anne bit is artistically the most boring (even if thematically the most interesting).
The exhibition also follows on closely from the highlight of last year Charles I: King and Collector with the respectful 11 year gap filled by the interregnum. The period of the interregnum was culturally rich. Cromwell had court musicians, he employed Milton as Latin secretary and he was painted by Lely. Most intriguingly, when he was dispersing the late King’s artistic treasures he held back a bronze cast of Antinous (Hadrian’s lover).
In England, the period of 1660-1714 could quite easily be called the Age of Wren, seeing as he was in office for much of this period.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the period is religion. It was once argued that a major inspiration for the entire movement was the Council of Trent: a series of councils of the Catholic Church meeting in reaction to Protestantism. This is perhaps over simplistic, but the reenergised Catholic Church did instigate and sponsor church building on a wider scale and inspired new trends in ritual and Church music.
In England, it was slightly different.
Within England, or more accurately London, Sir Christopher Wren designed several Anglican churches and a magnificent Cathedral following the Great Fire of London. Yet his greatest achievement was perhaps a Baroque chapel built in just over a year for the newly crowned James. James had converted to Catholicism during his exile in France (against the advice of his supporters). This was an open secret and largely accepted, until it became clear that Charles II would not have male heirs and that James would inherit the kingdoms. On Charles’ death, the Duke of Monmouth, Charles’ illegitimate son, tried to take over the throne from his Catholic uncle but failed. His followers, often simple country folk, were butchered in the Bloody Assizes led by the Hanging Judge, Judge Jeffreys.
Wren, as master of the Office of Works (the government department responsible for buildings belonging to the state), was tasked with building a Catholic chapel in the fashionable style of France. He had so reformed the Office that he was able to create a chapel within 16 months. James celebrated mass at Christmas in 1686. John Evelyn attended services there. Pepys (who used to work under James in the admiralty) also visited.
By 1688 James was celebrating Christmas in exile. What went wrong? A poor understanding of public opinion and a misplaced faith in the role of the monarch. James, who sought to make religious toleration a centrepiece of his reign ended up prosecuting seven Anglican bishops who refused to support removing legal restrictions on Catholics and non-Conformists. This was possibly the thing that undid his life’s work.
Anti-Catholic feeling ran high. A print shows a satiric procession in London with an effigy of pope to be carried to a bonfire and burnt. The authorities had no control over crowds during such events. Sometimes the property of foreigners, including ambassadors, was attacked.
Only records of Wren’s Catholic chapel survive. Its altar piece was by Gennari. It is a soaring image of the Annunciation in garish colours lit by an unnatural light. The positions of both Gabriel and Mary are somehow both uncomfortable and naturalistic. It is a deeply pious image.
What is most telling about the art from the chapel is how noncommital some of it is. The piece co-designed by Gringling Gibbons lacks both the exquisite touch or imaginative power of his other carvings (such as the shields from Oxford).
For my money, the best piece of religious art on display is Henry Arundel and his wife Cecily at the foot of the cross by John Henry Wright. A austere image in the tradition of Caravaggio. The painting is dark, perhaps taken at the very moment of Christ’s death when there was darkness over all the land. The centre of the painting is taken up with sombre tones, with a noticable space between the Arundels and Christ. It is a painting of religious anguish and the peace offered by faith. Arundel, a Catholic, donated it to the nunnery in Rouen where his daughter Cecilly became a nun.
The highlight of the entire exhibition is the Petworth room containing the restored Petworth Beauties. A bevy of beauties from the brush of Kneller set amidst cool porcelains. A very wordly and chichi type of heaven. They were painted during the reign of Queen Anne, but in 1820 the paintings were truncated. This is the first time that they have been displayed as originally intended in 200 years. They are worth the price of the entry ticket alone.
Throughout the exhibition there is an uneasy balance in portraits between elite women displaying their wealth through commodities and displaying their own values as commodities themselves. One painting portrays two young girls with the attributes of Venus, depicting them as suitable marriage material. Another portrait of a young girl was painted to celebrate her engagement aged 8 or 9. She died shortly after.
The Petworth room also displays ceramics and lacquer ware from the East which became immensely popular during this period. Mary II started this craze having acquired a taste for exquisite Delft during her stay in the Netherlands. William Defoe said that Queen Mary ‘brought in the custom or humour, as I may call it, of furnishing houses with china-ware, which increased to a strange degree afterward, piling their china upon the Tops of Cabinets, Scrutoires, and every Chimney-Piece, to the Tops of the Ceilings’.
Thomas Babington Macaulay was even less forgiving and said she:
acquired at The Hague a taste for the porcelain of China, and amused herself by forming at Hampton Court a vast collection of hideous images, and of vases on which houses, trees, bridges, and mandarins, were depicted in outrageous defiance of all laws of perspective. The fashion, a frivolous and inelegant fashion it must be owned, which was thus set by the amiable Queen, spread fast and wide. In a few years, almost every great house in the kingdom contained a museum of these grotesque baubles.
Throughout the show, there is an ambiguity between opulence and exploitation that is nowhere stronger than in numerous portrayals of black companions, servants and slaves. These individuals are often shown in supporting roles, although not always as submissive or servile.
Two paintings are worth considering. The first is the Sea Triumph of Charles II by Verrio, which is also the cover art for the exhibition. In the right hand side of the square canvas are two black putti, perhaps symbols of Empire. In the exhibition poster, the two putti are cut off. Whilst it makes sense to do this, given the fact that posters are normally rectangular, it is also indicative of a wider malaise in the museum world.
Another painting, this time of Hortense Mancini by Gennari shows the sometime lover of Charles surrounded by hunting dogs and young black boys wearing silver shackles around their necks. A shocking image of opulence, power, seduction and exploitation. The show does not shy away from such images. Confrontation with it, is a reminder of where much of the wealth which supported the new luxurious lifestyles of the rich came from.
This is a fine show with a light touch curatorial interventions. It doesn’t flinch away from some of the horrors of the age. At times however, it seems to privilege objects that can be contextualised within the current moment without depth or nuance. Therefore, we see a portrait of the Speaker of the House of Commons during the Act of Union is exhibited, but the horror of slavery is only gleaned.
Ultimately, the Baroque was not just visual arts and architecture but encompassed drama, poetry and music. Leaving these out makes for a sharper selection, but loses some of the richness and squalor of the age.