British Baroque: Power and Illusion at Tate Britain

British Baroque: Power and Illusion at Tate Britain


If Marmite had existed in the late seventeenth century, it would have summed up this exhibition. There are many art lovers who delight in the resplendent sumptuousness of the cascading satin and silk, extravagant floral arrangements, grand settings and painted courtesans. One normallly associates Baroque with the pomp and grandiosity of the French court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, at the palace of Verseilles, but power and majesty were qualities that could be reinforced in Britain through art and architectue in a country where the monarch no longer wielded absolute control. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660, after the beheading of Charles 1 and the ten years of civil war, was greeted in the main with public joy. The new King needed to re-establish the royal court as the epicentre of power through a dazzling display of splendour in lavish surroundings. Portraiture was used extensively to flatter and enhance the sitter’s status and painters were brought in from the Netherlands, like Jacob Huysmans and Peter Lely, and Sweden, like Michael Dahl, to add to the home-grown talent, including  John Michael Wright, Samual Cooper, a miniaturist and James Thornhill. An Italian, Antonio Verrio, presented The Sea Triumph of Charles II to the King, and in turn cemented the job of a lifetime, decorating the newly-built state apartments at Windsor Castle. Wright painted the magnificent study of Charles 11 in the Royal Collection seated on the throne in his red Order of the Garter parliamentary robes edged with ermine over a silver tunic and white stockings, which was the star of the show at the Charles 11: Art and Power exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery two years ago, which covered much of the same ground.  

Sir Peter Lely, painter of the sexiest buttocks in any public art gallery in Britain (q.v. Nymphs by a Fountain, Dulwich Picture Gallery), became Charles 11’s favourite painter, both for pictures of himself, and ‘court beauties’, particularly the Windsor Beauties, some of whom were his mistresses, including Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, a particular favourite, as Minerva, goddess of Wisdom, and, even more outrageously, as the Virgin and Child in 1664, to underline just how important she was, or thought she was. Other young ladies painted at the time were the Petworth Beauties, painted by Michael Dahl for the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset for their grand baroque country mansion, Petworth Place. The German portraitist Godfrey Kneller painted the Hampton Court Beauties, including more royal mistresses, and Kneller was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to the Crown when Lely died in 1680. The allegorical Sea Triumph is a ludicrous confection, showing the King in classical armour, atop a pile of nude figures, in a scallop-shell sea-chariot drawn by Neptune with rearing horses, and surrounded by trumpeting strumpets, plump putti and bare-breasted angels, with the victorious British fleet in the distance. Such conceit.

One gallery is entitled Illusion and Deception, and focuses on how fashionable trompe l’oeil paintings were. The famous violin hanging on the back of a door from Chatworth House by Jan van der Vaart is in the exhibition, as is a cut-out gentleman with a stick, who would trick visitors by being placed at the end of a corridor or in the landscaped gardens of a stately home. Another exponent was Edward Collier, whose highly-detailed canvases, like A Trompe l’Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board could trick even a trained eye. Simon Verelst painted floral arrangements with such skilful realism, even Samuel Pepys was fooled. Samuel van Hoogstraten has two large canvases, one of which is entitled Perspective Portrait of a Boy Catching a Bird, but he also has another piece of deception, Perspective Box of a Dutch Interior, which comprises a glass-fronted box which contains an out-of-kilter scene, but when viewed from two spy-holes at each side, the perspectives line up and the scene makes sense. One of the greatest pieces of mimetic reproduction was achieved by a Flemish artist Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, who, in 1670, painted the reverse of a framed painting on the canvas, and left it on a shelf in a gallery and waited for an unsuspecting punter to pick it up and turn it around. What fun! 

James Thornhill was an immensely talented and prolific murallist, with such impressive interiors as the Painted Hall at Greenwich, inside the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and works at Chatsworth House. There are sketches in pen and ink and oil on display, which were presented to clients to demonstrate the complexity of the spaces to be painted. and the overall effect. These illusionist murals on ceilings, walls and staircases, featuring allegorical subjects taken from ancient history and classic mythology, were a feature of late Stuart interiors, and the overwhelming effect of these grandiose scenes was to impress upon the spectator the power, wealth and taste of their owners. Whole parts of the building were rendered unusable for months, or even years, while teams of artists worked from scaffolding. 


British Baroque: Power and Illusion

Tate Britain

Until 19 April 2020

Admission £18


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