FACES OF A QUEEN & WOBURN TREASURES at the Queen’s House
Updated: Aug 24
It‘s almost inconceivable that the exhibition now on at the Queen’s House – three Armada portraits of Elizabeth I and 27 treasures from Woburn Abbey - could be any more wonderful unless, I suppose, the curators had managed to get hold of the Mona Lisa. As it is, works by Van Dyke, Reynolds, Canaletto, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Gainsborough, Hals and Rembrandt have helped create one of the finest gatherings of art ever seen outside a major international gallery. And it’s yours to see for free.
You simply must start with the three serving Armada portraits, one from the permanent collection of Royal Museums Greenwich (top), one on loan from the Duke of Bedford while his Woburn Abbey seat is being refurbished (middle) and the third from the National Portrait Gallery (bottom).
The three of them have been hung side by side for the first time in their 430-year history and the effect is nothing less than jaw-dropping. Each appears to pulse with an inner luminosity as we see Good Queen Bess resplendent in all her imperial glory in the aftermath of England’s defeat of a Spanish invasion. I defy anyone not to be rendered speechless by the sheer majesty and magic of this gorgeous triad.
But can the rest of the exhibition possibly live up to such a opening? Yes it can – and it does.
The first room after the Armada images is a case in point. It is dominated by a magnificent full-length portrait by Gheeraerts the Younger of Anne of Denmark, who commissioned the Queen’s House from Inigo Jones, and by an anonymous painting of an early Countess of Bedford wearing a ballgown designed by Jones. Between the two hangs a small picture from RMG’s own collection - William Dobson’s fine portrait of Jones himself. It’s a stunning arrangement of connected works.
Connections are very much at the heart of the way the Woburn loans have been spread among the different chambers of the Queen’s House. For example, there are fine works by the 17th French contemporaries Poussin and Claude Lorrain and both demonstrate the sly way the two artists loved to subvert the apparently innocent beauty of their landscapes. Poussin, whose masterpiece Et In Arcadia Ego is one of the most beautiful manifestations of irony ever created in paint, is here represented by a fine David And Bathsheba – with the king shown as a kind of Peeping Tom. A couple of rooms away, Claude’s A Classical Landscape With Arcadian Shepherds seems at first glance to be a rural idyll. But look more closely and you can see a goatherd is the centre-ground driving his flock over a cliff to their deaths.
The bedchamber where the Claude hangs is linked to a small closet that has been given over to an altogether more straightforward but no less ravishing bucolic painting, a Gainsborough landscape called Woodcutter And Milk Maid which shows this beloved English artist at the height of his powers.
Such connections are to be found in almost every room. In one, two tremendous late Victorian chargers by the ceramicist William de Morgan have been placed in a display case overlooked by an RMG painting of mermaids by his wife Evelyn. In another, a bronze bust of Charles I by Le Sueur looks across to a full-length portrait of the same king, a studio copy of an original by court painter Daniel Mytens, who in turn is exquisitely captured in paint with his wife (above) in the adjoining chamber by Van Dyke, the genius who was to replace him as Charles’ artist of choice.
Elsewhere among RMG’s own considerable collection, Woburn masterpieces continue to appear and astound. Sir Joshua Reynold’s sensational portrait of Lady Elizabeth Keppel hangs within touching distance of the same artist’s portrait of her admiral brother Augustus. Elizabeth is shown with a black maid, which is said to signify Reynolds’ relentless battle against the horrors of slavery.
As a young man, Reynolds spent some time in Italy, a journey he was able to make only because Augustus invited him to sail with him on a Royal Navy ship. This act of kindness is acknowledged in the exhibition with a lovely Canaletto, Regatta On The Grand Canal, which throbs with Venetian light and life.
Finally, just when you think you must have seen everything, you find yourself in the Bridge Room at the centre of the house where, along with a glorious self-portrait by Hals and some dazzling silverware, you are confronted with probably the most amazing picture in the entire exhibition – a comparatively small portrait of an old rabbi by Rembrandt (above). I don’t mind admitting I had to wipe away a tear because for me it’s just about the nearest thing I’ve ever seen to perfection.
It’s impossible to overhype this exhibition. It includes some of the most miraculous pieces of art created over the past four centuries and it won’t cost you a penny to see it. It’s surely the bargain of the millennium.
The NPG’s Armada Portrait heads off to Japan on August 31 but the Duke of Bedford’s will remain at the Queen’s House along with the other Woburn Treasures until Easter next year. More information at www.rmg.co.uk