TUDORS TO WINDSORS at the National Maritime Museum
You don’t have to be an arch-monarchist to enjoy Tudors To Windsors, an exhibition celebrating 500 years of royal portraiture which runs at the National Maritime Museum till October 31. True, there’s a fair dollop of brazen propaganda to promote our kings and queens. But there is also much magnificent art and, for those of a more republican bent, some sly digs as well.
There are about 300 individual items on show in a selection drawn from the collections of the. National Portrait Gallery and Royal Museums Greenwich. They include vast oil paintings, watercolour miniatures, carved busts, sketches, drawings, engravings, cartoons, armour, uniforms, medals, coins and well over 100 stamps.
And the timespan ranges from the early 16th century to the present day – the most recent subject is a 2018 photograph of Harry and Meghan.
The exhibition grips from the start. The first picture you see as you enter is a small but wonderful 500-year-old likeness of Henry VII, above, which must be one of the earliest portraits ever painted in Britain.
You are then led into three images of his son Henry VIII: as a handsome young man, as an omnipotent ruler (a version of Holbein’s world-famous image, below) and finally - and astonishingly - as an elderly, grotesque satyr.
It’s easy to write off royal portraits as forelock-tugging posters without real artistic merit. But this fine exhibition shows that has never been true.
The so-called Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth I (below) shows an ageing ruler exhausted by a life of drama and trauma. Flattering it is not.
The same is true of a portrait of Charles II, painted towards the end of his reign (below). The so-called Merry Monarch looks anything but cheerful and his fabulous clothes serve only to emphasise his air of worldweariness.
Sometimes the subjects have an almost otherworldly look to them. Robert Devereux, who tried to woo Elizabeth and ended up losing his head, is a ghostly white in an oil portrait. And Anne of Denmark, who commissioned the Queen’s House in Greenwich after her husband James succeeded Elizabeth to the throne, seems to be some species of ethereal vision in silver.
Republicans get a brief breather from the royal rollercoaster with a fine – and suitably downbeat – portrait of the regicide Oliver Cromwell. But of course his death-mask soon follows.
The royal portraits start to get more grandiose as the Stuart dynasty nears its end. James II is shown as a frankly ludicrous pink-robed ancient Roman commander in a 1670s painting by French artist Henri Gascar, its kitschness only slightly mollified by a tremendous Peter Lely sketch hanging next to it. And there’s a huge Godfrey Kneller oil of Queen Anne which, unlike the Gascar, shows that it is possible to make great art out of propaganda.
George IV, both as prince regent and king, attracted the extremes of artistic attention and the whole spectrum is represented here, with a fine if hopelessly romanticised 1814 portrait by Thomas Lawrence nicely contrasted with a video selection of spectacularly savage yet brilliant cartoons by James Gillray and George Cruikshank. Today’s royals get off lightly by comparison.
Another huge oil, this time by George Hayter, immortalises a young Queen Victoria with imperial splendour. But the 19th century saw paint largely superseded by photography as the medium for royal news and this exhibition has scores of fascinating examples of the new artform, not least some sensational shots from the 1860s showing members of Victoria’s family at rest and play – and thus setting the tone for royal photographs to the present day.
Inevitably, the largest section of the exhibition features the Windsors, with dozens of photographs of the current royals taken by such luminaries as David Bailey, Annie Leibovitz, Lord Snowdon, Terence Donovan, Cecil Beaton and Thomas Struth, whose 2018 print of the Queen and Prince Philip (top) takes on special poignancy in the wake of the 99-year-old Duke’s death in April.
The Queen herself is the most popular subject in the show, with intriguing representations of her created by Andy Warhol, Pietro Annigoni and, in a fabulous 3D-like work, Chris Levine, as well as more traditional images.
Dorothy Wilding has two contrasting photographs in the exhibition. The first is a lovely hand-tinted formal shot of the Queen on her accession in 1952 (above). The second is an archly hilarious 1955 snap of the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor gazing at their pet pug who sits, legs revoltingly akimbo, on a table between them.
Some of the final pictures in the show are of the Queen’s children and their spouses, including exceptional – and presciently separate - paintings by Bryan Organ of Charles and Diana and, nearby, Jane Philipps’ emotionally loaded double portrait of Wills and Harry.
This is a fascinating exhibition that cleverly avoids hagiography and instead concentrates on revealing the human frailties and failings that lurk at the heart of even the most arrogantly self-interested royal. It’s quite an achievement.
PS: For more great royal portraits, nips next door to the Queen’s House and marvel at the three Armada portraits of Elizabeth I. They’re spellbinding.
For more information about Tudors To Windsors go to https://www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/national-maritime-museum/tudors-windsors-british-royal-portraits
Pictures: National Portrait Gallery, London (except Henry VIII: National Maritime Museum, London)