by Roderick Conway Morris

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Royal Collection/HM Queen Elizabeth II
The Sea Triumph of Charles II, c.1674, by Antonio Verrio

Baroque Stars

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 6 March 2020


The Baroque was born in Rome after the Reformation had deprived the papacy of the hegemony it once enjoyed in the West.

Subsequently, as the temporal power of the popes got weaker and weaker, thanks to brilliant artists and architects like Gianlorenzo Bernini, Pietro da Cortona and Francesco Borromini, the Eternal City became more and more magnificent.

The Counter-Reformation guaranteed the spread of this art-and-architecture-as-propaganda throughout what remained of Catholic Europe. And, paradoxically, the style proved so appealing and adaptable that it was adopted even in Protestant states.

Baroque's arrival in this country was largely the result of the Restoration in 1660. Despite the ecstatic welcome that was given by crowds in London to Charles II, his position was far from secure. He needed to project an image of grandeur, and the Baroque - the style of the moment among the anciens rÉgimes of Europe and with which he was familiar from his years of exile on the Continent - clearly presented itself as eminently suitable for revived monarchical rule in Britain.

The flowering of this international style and its legacy in England during the years from the Restoration until the death of Queen Mary in 1714 is now the subject of the first exhibition of its kind, 'British Baroque: Power and Illusion', curated by Tabitha Barber, David Taylor and Tim Batchelor, at Tate Britain.

Initially at least, in order to import the style Charles had to import the artists to create it, as the opening sections of the exhibition demonstrate. Within a month of his official entry into London in May 1660 he appointed the Dutch portraitist Peter Lely as the King's Limner and Picture Drawer. Lely quickly set about establishing Charles's image through portraits, prints and medals that could be distributed throughout the land and displayed in the audience chambers of his ambassadors abroad. Lely was joined at Court in the mid 1670s by the Neapolitan Antonio Verrio, who was to become the leading painter of murals, although his first task was an enormous oil painting, teeming with allegorical figures, 'The Sea Triumph of Charles II', which opens the exhibition.

The glamour of the Restoration Court, a welcome relief after the dismal and dispiriting years of Parliamentary rule during the Interregnum, was captured by Lely and other imported foreign artists in sumptuous portraits. A key figure was Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, first wife of Charles's younger brother (and the future James II). Her father had Lely paint her in around 1661. Anne went on to commission her own group of court portraits, now known as the 'Windsor Beauties', setting an influential trend. Anne was the mother of both Queen Mary and William and Mary's successor, Queen Anne, and 25 years later Mary commissioned her own series, the 'Hampton Court Beauties', which appear later in the show.

The 'Windsor Beauties' here record some of the most colourful members of Charles's court. They include Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Gramont, as St. Catherine, and the king's French mistress, Louise de Kéroualle, as a Shepherdess. The most arresting picture is of Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, the king's principal mistress in the 1660s, who bore him at least five children. Lely depicts her with one of them, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child. She also appears to be pregnant.

Both Charles II's wife, the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, whose dowry included such useful assets as Bombay and Tangier, and his brother the Duke of York's second wife, the Italian Mary of Modena, were Catholics. They had their own chapels, decorated with Catholic Baroque works by Dutch and Italian artists - a number of which are displayed in a section devoted to 'The Religious Interior'. But the most imposing of these chapels was that of James II at Whitehall Palace. Its altarpiece was adorned with an Annunciation by Benedetto Gennari, set in a carved frame 12 metres high by 10 metres wide. The painting (on loan from Florida) is on show here for the first time in this country since the accession of William and Mary, who had the chapel dismantled after the defeat and exile of James.

Fostered both by the grand illusionistic paintings and the growth of scientific inquiry promoted by the Royal Society, founded in 1662, playful perspective and trompe l'oeil painting became fashionable during this period. Samuel van Hoogstraten described 'a perfect painting' as one 'which deceives in an acceptable, amusing and praiseworthy fashion'. He is represented here by two large perspective canvases and a 'Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House'. Also Dutch-born was Edward Collier, who made trompe l'oeil works, such as letter racks (one of which here he signs with an illusionistic folded missive addressed to 'Mr. E,Collier Painter at London'). A piece by the artist delighted Samuel Pepys, who recorded in his Diary in 1667: 'Even after I knew that it was not a board, but only the picture of a board, I could not remove my fancy.' No less marvellously convincing is 'Violin and Bow Hanging on a Door', by Jan van der Vaart, in which only the brass peg, door knob and escutcheon are real, from Chatsworth.

While foreign artists dominated in the field of painting, this was a golden age of native-born architects (most notably Christopher Wren, Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor), the focus of one of the most absorbing sections of the show. Wren was fully alive to the fact that London lagged behind some of the great cities of Europe in his field and shrewdly observed: 'Architecture has its political Use; publick Buildings being the Ornament of a Country; it establishes a Nation, draws People and Commerce; makes People love their native Country.'

Wren's St. Paul's Cathedral, built between 1665 and 1711, was the largest state enterprise of the age. Some other major projects were never or only partially realized, such as those for the Whitehall and Hampton Court Palaces - fortunately in the latter case, as it would have led to the demolition of the old Tudor palace. Beautiful country houses, such as Easton Neston, Castle Howard and Chatsworth, were successfully completed by private patrons.

Queen Anne bankrolled Blenheim to the tune of £220,000 (at least £30 million today) from her Privy Purse, as a gift from a grateful nation to the Duke of Marlborough for his military victories. And her 'fixt intention for Magnificence' brought to glorious fruition the Royal Hospital for Seaman at Greenwich, on a site granted by William and Mary. The project also provided the opportunity for James Thornhill, our only great native-born Baroque painter of murals, to create his masterpiece, the Hospital's Painted Hall.

Nothing has done more to rekindle appreciation of the Baroque than the revival over the last half century of the music of that epoch - including the works of the great Henry Purcell - frequently performed on period instruments and in historic Baroque settings. So, it is baffling that there is nothing in this otherwise most revealing and pleasurable exhibition, about Restoration drama, music or even opera, that most quintessentially hybrid and flamboyant Baroque phenomenon, which Dr Johnson wittily defined in his 18th-century Dictionary as 'an exotic and irrational entertainment'.

British Baroque: Power and Illusion; Tate Britain, London; 4 February - 19 April 2020

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023