Fashion and Flamboyance at the Royal Collection

‘In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion’ is a superb excuse by the Queen’s Gallery to air some of the most extravagant and sumptuous portraits in the Royal Collection.  This was an age when monarchs and their courtiers literally wore their wealth, so the detailed and adept depiction in paint of costly jewels and embroidery was of primary importance when commissioning portraits; at the same time, these accoutrements were often loaded with symbolic detail, opening a window onto the narrative of the sitter’s life.

402978_150862_LPR_0The first room runs swiftly through the changing history of dress over the two centuries on which the show focuses, using annotated diagrams to point out the main features illustrated in the nearby paintings. These include several delicate Holbein drawings as well as the famous image of Elizabeth I as a Princess in red brocade and cloth of gold, her headdress and square decolletage edged with substantial pearls.  After this a fashion for ruffs suddenly develops; illustrating this trend is an anonymous ‘Portrait of a Lady’ by Cornelius Johnson (right, 1624).  Unusual in its scale, being slightly less than lifesize, the most intriguing feature is a single earring in the form of a hand holding a gold drop, and attached by a chain to the sitter’s shoulder. With her enigmatic and self-contained expression, its symbolism or personal meaning is anyone’s guess.

404437_64955_LPR_0_0Anne of Denmark shows off an alternative, and more regal, look in the early Stuart fashion stakes.  In this portrait, attributed to Marcus Gheeradts the Younger (left, 1614), she wears a richly embroidered dress, the fabric pleated rosette-like around the plateau of her farthingale, the daringly low neckline edged with exquisite lace, and swathes of pearls looping down over the exaggeratedly low stomacher.  Anne was keen on statement jewellery, and here shows off a crowned ‘S’ on the edge of her ruff, referring to her mother, Sophie of Mecklenburg, and a crowned ‘C4’ in her hair as a token of support to her brother, Christian IV of Denmark.

403432_328414_LPR_0_0The double portrait of Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley and his brother, Charles Stewart, Earl of Lennox by Hans Eworth (right, 1563) illustrates how clothing was used to mark the right of passage from boyhood to manhood.  Boys like Charles, here aged six, would wear long dresses until they were officially ‘breeched’ (usually between the ages of four and eight).  At 17, Henry is elegantly, if austerely, dressed – still ‘beardless and baby-faced’ as Sir James Melville commented two years later as Henry began his ultimately fatal flirtation with Mary Queen of Scots.  He would be dead by 21.  They appear in an unusually realistic interior space; however, it is in fact believed to be copied from a print in Vredeman de Vries’ ‘Scenographie’ (1560), which showcased his skills in architectural design and expertise in perspective.

406896_54270_LPR_0_0It was Charles II who made a decisive and deliberate change to everyday male fashions – replacing the short doublet with a knee-length coat, its oversize cuffs turned back to show off the linen shirt beneath.  Breeches remained standard, but were now decorated with bunches of black ribbons, while the fashionable shoe was square-toed and red-heeled.  Ruffs were replaced by rabats of expensive needlepoint lace gathered at the neck, and Charles completes his outfit with a black hat of what is deemed to be beaver fur.  It was unusual for the King to be depicted in such informal dress; official portraits would demand ceremonial robes or armour, at once more timeless and more awe-inspiring.  Perhaps Charles was keen to show off and popularise his new wardrobe?  The painting (above, c.1675-80) shows him  presented with a Pineapple, a rare and exotic treat – this one supposedly the first to be cultivated in England and proffered by the Royal Gardener, John Rose.  The house has in the past been identified as Dorney House, though why is a mystery – as the curators acknowledge, it bears no resemblance.  If it is a royal residence it does seem odd that it should never have been definitively identified, since it holds such an important position in this composition – and in the narrative of the pineapple’s cultivation.

404514_255650_ORI_0_0In terms of women’s dress, fashions became much less restrictive, the decolletage free of fussy decoration, the hair natural and relieved of ornament.  However, this was as much an artistic fashion as a cultural one, with artists such as Lely and van Dyck popularising a nonchalant, languorous style that emphasised the overall effect of rich fabrics draped or ruched over alabaster skin rather than the minute details of its construction.  Lely painted a whole series of ‘Windsor Beauties’ in this vein, of which ‘Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond’ (left, c.1662) was the most celebrated.  Frances was a Maid of Honour to Catherine of Braganza and relentlessly pursued by the King – a fact clearly observed by Lely who tacitly praises her willpower by depicting the bow of the virgin goddess Diana in her hand.

405876_282696_LPR_0Interestingly, Frances appears again nearby in an entirely different guise.  Jacob Huysmans’ painting (1664?) shows her dressed as a man – ‘in a buff doublet like a solder’ as Pepys recalls from his visit to the artist’s studio.  Though women might well have worn more masculine-style riding habits at this time, the curators concede that actually dressing as a man, complete with wig, was highly unusual.  That it was probably painted for Charles II, whose romantic pursuit of Frances was ultimately unsuccessful, makes this costume even more bizarre.

The exhibition continues in a more thematic vein.  In the large central room, a section is devoted to children; next door to a small waxen-faced Prince Henry Frederick, tightly encased in clouds of intricate lace and stiff embroidery, and far too serene for a toddler, is the ‘Portrait of a Young Boy’ by Paulus Moreelse (1634).  In contrast he appears a normal, healthy child, clutching a coral rattle in a chubby hand, his face alive and mobile.  The plumed cap and starched apron, no less than the chequered marble floor, testify to his wealthy parentage.

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Elsewhere, focus alights on the use of botanical studies in costume, and more exotic accoutrements adopted for masques or associated entertainments.

401363_360106_LPR_0This ‘Portrait of a Young Girl’ (right, c.1625-35) is shown alongside a copy of ‘The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes’ by John Gerard (1597) to illustrate the direct inspiration that embroidery took from botanical publications such as this.  The embroidery is unusual for the naturalistic vertical alignment of each species of flower, where they would more often be arranged in a serpentine pattern.  Though this fashion dated from the late sixteenth century, the outfit here can be dated to the 1620s by the distinctive virago sleeve and the closed fan, which replaced the earlier rigid fan.

Marcus Gheeradts the Younger’s ‘Portrait of an Unknown Woman’ (below right, 1599) represents similarly detailed floral embroidery, though this is more symbolic than scientific in tone.  The painting is typical of Elizabethan allegorical portraiture, with the stag, the swallow in the tree, and the flowers al406024_256341_ORI_0l contributing visually to an enigmatic narrative.  This is elaborated by the melancholy inscriptions and the sonnet in the cartouche which begins, ‘the restless swallow fits my restless minde’, and continues in the second stanza, ‘with pensive thoughtes my weeping stagg I crowne’… The costume is believed to be designed for a masque, with the headdress copied from J.  Boissard’s ‘Virgo Persica’ in his Habitus variarum orbus gentium (1581); it may have been connected to the entertainment given by Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s Master of the Armouries and Champion of the Tilt, on the occasion of the Queen’s visit to Ditchley in 1592.

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In a costume of a very different order, Mary, Princess of Orange is depicted by Adriaen Hanneman (left, c.1655) at an entertainment, perhaps at The Hague in early 1655, where she appeared ‘very well dressed, like an Amazon’.  She wears a feathered cloak like those worn by the Indians of North-East Brazil, which from 1630-1654 was a Dutch colony ruled by Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen.  Curiosities such as this would have been imported into the Netherlands and submerged within the European fantasy of the noble savage.

404963_370985_LPR_0In the final room, the greater proportion of space is given to paintings of other European dynasties whose fashions, due to intermarriage and diplomatic ties, strongly influenced British style.  Princess Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, later Duchess of Saxe-Altenberg (right, 1609) appears in a costume very similar to that which Anne of Denmark popularised in England in the early seventeenth century.

Eleonora of Austria, Queen of France (below, c.1531-4) was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and this painting by Joos van Cleve helps to underline the complexity of monarchical interrelationships in Europe, courtesy of the vast network created by the Habsburg dynasty.  Eleonora is dressed in stately Spanish fashion, and holds a letter in Spanish, referring to her coronation as Queen of France – a betrothal brokered following the French de403369_255330_ORI_0_0feat at Pavia and the subsequent Peace of Cambrai.

Meanwhile, The Spanish Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia – portrayed by Frans Pourbus the Younger (below right, c.1598-1600) – married her second cousin to become Archduchess of Austria and rule the Spanish Netherlands with the Archduke Albert.  As unusually enlightened monarchs, it was unfortunate that the couple were childless – and consequently it seems tactless and slightly macabre to have painted her accompanied by the childlike figure a dwarf.

407377_256517_ORI_0The double portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia as a child, with her sister Catharina (below, c.1569-70), shows the same style of rigid conical dress and tight ruff, so distinct to Spanish fashion in this period.

404331_282695_LPR_0The other corner of the room focuses on the military and hunting dress of British monarchs, among them William of Orange, who is depicted by Willem Wissing in armour, lace cravat and Garter sash in a portrait commissioned by his father-in-law whom he would subsequently depose.  These are accompanied by several intricately etched and gilt damascened suits of armour of the early seventeenth century.  But to finish, let us return to Anne of Denmark, whose riding habit is just as flamboyant as her courtly dress, though embellished with fewer pearls.  Paul van Somer (below, 1617) depicts her encircled by five greyhounds on a leash, her horse held by a black groom hidden just over her left shoulder, with Oatlands Palace in distance under a dramatically darkening sky.  Hand jauntily on her hip, and an ostentatious red plume in her conical hat, she is the picture of fashionable, theatrical excess, and as such rather sums up the show.

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A Royal glimpse of the Northern Renaissance

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The exhibition of the art of the Northern Renaissance at the Queen’s Gallery is subtitled ‘Durer to Holbein’ and it is these two artists who dominate.  Deservedly so – though in this case it ought to be ‘Durer and Holbein’ with other artists’ works shown for contrast or comparison’s sake.  With the chosen title, the gallery has attempted an overview of the Northern Renaissance as a whole, and so  – unsurprisingly – there are gaping holes, a few random additions and arbitrary juxtapositions, and the previously noted bias towards the two eponymous masters.

I am not complaining.  We begin by meeting the intellectual luminaries of the day by way of a woodcut of Luther by Lucas Cranach the younger, a portrait of Erasmus by Quinten Massys, and Holbein’s preparatory drawings of Sir Thomas More and his family.  The drawings, in black and coloured chalk, are beautiful character studies; less harsh than the oils they convey the subtleties of skintone and texture.  Most avoid catching one’s eye, except for Thomas More’s father, whose pale blue gaze is arresting for this sudden human connection.  Thomas More senior was a judge, described as ‘virtuous’ and ‘merry’, though one barely needs this descriptive aid to perceive these traits in the wise, incisive, yet kindly eyes and the mouth with just a glimmer of a smile.

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Strangely, these drawings are detached from the rest of Holbein’s work on show, perhaps so that the intellectuals are considered separately from the royalty and courtiers, who are given more space in the third and central room.  This room juxtaposes the drawings and paintings, often directly so that one can compare the study with the finished work and so gain an understanding of Holbein’s very precise and measured methods of working.  The paintings themselves remain intensely powerful in their simplicity of design, their vivid colours, and the force of character that they convey.  The subjects appear almost tangibly alive, their individuality emphasised by their wrinkles, scars, pallor or accentuated bone structure – or a slight tilt of the head that contains the hint of ruthlessness and arrogance in an ambitious courtier.

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The drawing of a baby Prince Edward bears an uncanny resemblance to his father, but the ethereality of its execution simultaneously recalls a sickly life that would be cut short before he was fully grown.

Durer was represented almost solely by his etchings, engravings and woodcuts, which are unbelievably detailed and accomplished – but it was still a shame not to see more of his paintings, if only to compare to Holbein and Cranach, and to show off the full range of his talent (though perhaps the portrait of Burkhard of Speyer is the only Durer painting belonging to the Royal Collection, in which case the oversight is explained).  Particularly in contrast with Cranach the elder next door, who seems oblivious to human anatomy – though his golden-haired putty figures are key to his charm and shouldn’t really be compared, it would be like Gauguin compared to Manet, coming from different poles.  If Durer is an arch Realist (or sur-realist when it comes to the bible), Cranach is the Symbolist.  But I digress.  Durer created a diverse range of etched Virgins with Child – which struck me as odd; I had always imagined that an artist would have their own defined view of the how the V & C should appear and would stick to that, the variations from skinny to obese showing up the differing tastes and traditions between individual artists, if not whole different societies.  The disparity between Christ child images is far greater than that of Christ the man – here there seems to be a consensus, the differentiating factor being instead how graphically to display his wounds on the cross.

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St. Jerome in his study – with lion and corgi happily asleep in the foreground – shows off Durer’s mastery of etching, from the grain of the wooden ceiling to the reflections on the window casement of sun through bottle-end glass panes.  The interior is full of the minute domestic detail that typifies the Northern Renaissance.  Likewise, St. Anthony at prayer is situated within a typical northern landscape of Bavarian hilltop towns with long steep roofs, crenellated towers and impregnable walls.

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The series of woodcuts illustrating the Apocolypse are full of strange beasts, which must have really sparked Durer’s imagination as they are all – down to each separate head of the Hydra-like creature – individualised in their grotesqueness.  His joy in personifying Death and the vices, and all the terrors of Revelations reminded me (almost blasphemously) of Terry Pratchett.  But the most beautiful Durer was his brush-drawn study of a greyhound, as seen in the completed engraving of St. Eustace and the Stag beside it (Note to gallery: No postcard. Disappointing).

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There were little diversions throughout the exhibition – a chalice here, a statue there, a suit of armour in the corridor – that I imagine were intended to broaden the perspective, acknowledging that paintings and etchings were not the only products of the Northern Renaissance.  Yet they were a little too random.  They might have fitted in better en masse, along with the spectacularly large Brussels tapestries in the final room, in an examination of the craftwork of the period.  This room instead tried to fit in all the other artists who weren’t Holbein or Durer or Cranach, but were considered jewels of the collection.  It was a fine collection of gems certainly, albeit in a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ style.  ‘The Misers’ by a follower of Marinus van Reymerswaele (above) must take the prize – what characters!  One can just imagine the same petty-minded types today, only no-one would be interested in painting them because they would be wearing Sensible Clothes (in grey or beige) rather than red turbans.  The sad little portrait by Jan Gossaert of Christian II of Denmark’s children deserves a mention too.  They are all three quite chubby but pale as ghosts, painted after their mother’s death – what a moment to choose.

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And ‘Jonah and his Gourd’ was an oddity too.  Very prettily painted, a sun-drenched evocation of Mediterranean climes by a northerner, with a pale ghostly city framed by the first arch of the viaduct, yet its subject was wholly ludicrous.  Why does Jonah need a gourd – and a very puny one at that – to shelter under when there is a good sturdy bridge, or a rather cosy-looking cave on the far side?!  One cannot sympathise.  Artistic licence getting carried away again.

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Brueghel’s ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ was the finale – standing entirely alone in style and subject, its biblical narrative translated to a wintry Flemish village in the 1560s, pillaged by the Spanish army.  Not a sign of a murdered baby, however, just mothers, mourning loaves of bread; a skilful rewriting of history by a Habsburg emperor.  THere was much missing – where was Rogier van der Weyden or Van Eyck? – but as a selection of masterpieces from the Royal Collection it was a treat.  However, as a show of this kind it would have followed to give the history of the collection priority, using stories of a painting’s patronage or purchase to highlight the changing tastes and politics of our past rulers, especially in the erratic final display.