British Baroque: Power and Illusion

John Westbrooke on a nearly forgotten art movement from Stuart days

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Tate Britain’s latest exhibition claims to be the only one ever held anywhere on the subject. Maybe that’s because it’s never really been thought of as a British thing before. It’s lavish, it’s dramatic, it’s passionate, not always characteristics you’d automatically associate with art in Britain. It isn’t surprising that so many of the painters who practised it here were foreigners.

The show is partly political, tied to a specific period in British history: the later Stuarts, starting after the Civil War and Oliver Cromwell with the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and ending with the death of his daughter Queen Anne in 1714.

This means some great names of baroque art in Britain are missing because they died too soon: Rubens and Van Dyck, for instance, who were brought to England by Charles I and knighted, and Artemisia Gentileschi, soon to get her own show at the National Gallery.

But when you walk in, you’re greeted by a room full of portraits of the newly restored king, his big, coarse face (much improved in later years by a little moustache) and full-bottomed wig looking baroque to the core. This is art in the service of power, say the organisers.

It was a branding exercise, and involved carved busts, medals and miniatures as well as oils, much of it commissioned not by the king but by loyal citizens or livery companies.

Henry VIII had had himself painted by Holbein, bedecked in finery, glaring out at the viewer. Charles I by Van Dyck is calm, frequently painted with horses too big for him (if horsemanship was intended as a metaphor for national leadership, this was prescient). But The Sea Triumph of Charles II is on a whole different scale.

Apparently intended to mark the end of war with Holland, it shows the king as Neptune atop a pyramid of hunky males, rearing horses, sea beasts, and three women with crowns representing his three kingdoms. In the background is the victorious navy; above him, a topless goddess trumpets his Fame and a lightning bolt zaps Envy. It’s a political cartoon on the grandest scale.

The exhibition picks apart some of the elements in all this. Religion, for instance. England was by now Protestant – but the Stuarts were not. Charles was Catholic but didn’t tell anyone. His brother James II was and told everyone, before he was chased into exile by William III from Holland and replaced by his Protestant daughters.

Baroque originated in Catholic Rome. While a painting of the annunciation from the earlier Renaissance period might show a calm angel greeting the Virgin Mary with some unexpected news, the one by Benedetto Gennari, commissioned by James, is all action, swirling draperies and roiling clouds being swept away.

More calmly but more cheekily, there’s a portrait by Peter Lely (another import) of Barbara Villiers and her son posing as the Virgin and Child. She was one of Charles’s numerous mistresses, made Duchess of Cleveland; the son was probably Charles’s and underneath her loose gown she looks as though she may be pregnant again. If she was a virgin, presumably Charles was God.

Posing as mythical figures was all the rage. Here’s James II dressed as Mars, the Roman god of war. Nearby is Charles’s illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth, as John the Baptist, complete with lamb. He looks silly, but it proved prescient: he met the same fate as the Baptist when he staged a coup against his uncle James in 1685.

There’s an impressive array of female portraits on show – as the exhibition points out, “In late Stuart society, beauty was considered a valuable quality for women” (fancy that). Godfrey Kneller painted a set of eight life-size Hampton Court Beauties for Mary II in the 1690s. Michael Dahl did the same for the Petworth Beauties at Petworth House in Sussex, who had full-length mirrors placed between them so visitors could check that they measured up to the artworks (the Tate replicates these).

More unsettling is a 1684 portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, another royal mistress. She’s playing Diana the huntress, accompanied by dogs with metal collars – and small, smiling black boys with similar collars. The slave trade was growing (with British involvement), and in Britain itself posh households might have black servants, paid or otherwise. But metal collars? The boys are being shown as symbols of the owner’s wealth and status, on a par with dogs, and it’s not a good look.

A room at the exhibition deal with homes and gardens. There are views of buildings such as William III’s Het Loo, a large Dutch hunting lodge with a layered series of projecting wings. The more orderly Chatsworth has formal gardens and fountains, and pigs and peasants outside its walls.

And there’s an unexpected collection of trompe-l’oeil paintings in which perspective makes the subjects look as if they’re watching you. The most striking, though, is a door from Chatsworth with a violin hanging from a peg. The door and the peg are real; the violin is an optical illusion that looks like 3D.

Late in the show, you come to a 1700 portrait of the poet and diplomat Matthew Prior. He looks a little pale and drawn, but he sits upright and staring out. And though he still appears to be swathed in a dramatic curtain, he’s bare-headed. It makes you think just how much British baroque owed to the huge wigs in other portraits, with their dense curls causing dramatic shadows.

In fact wigs hung on for another century – John James Baker’s “The Whig Junto” shows an array of early cabinet ministers wearing them: it might as well have been called the wig junto – until a tax on wig powder did for them. Baroque lingered on too. But Prior already looks as if he belongs in a different world.

The Age of Enlightenment was just around the corner, bringing in a taste for rationality and order. It’s hard to claim that British baroque left any masterpieces behind from its brief heyday, but I couldn’t help enjoying the swagger of it all.

British Baroque: Power and Illusion runs at Tate Britain until 19 April 2020. Entry £16, concessions £15.