Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits

The gallery tart headed off to the National Maritime Museum this week, back home from the wilds of Essex and into the heart of London.  Well, saaarff, as they say, my husband asked me if I had my passport as I was going across the water, riverism alive and well in London then.  I like the south, much greener, and artier I think, in any case, thanks to the fabulous TFL I quickly arrived at the museum and set about the exhibition.

How do you squash 500 years of quite complex royal history into one exhibition? Well, the Maritime Museum has a pretty good stab, let’s face it, we all know a bit of royal history, there’s Henry VIII and his many wives who upturned religious devotion, there’s all the wives, then there’s Victoria who reigned forever and Edward something who abdicated and of course our own dear Queen.  Beyond that though, most people are fairly sketchy, there are a lot, and will generally glaze over at the know-it-alls who can actually name them in any kind of order.

So the prospect of an exhibition covering this whole period was daunting but the museum does a superb job of handling it by using the theme of royal portraiture and taking the viewer through the various royal houses chronologically.  Starting at the Tudors, portraits of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon were hung together with an image of Anne Boleyn next to them.  Dating from the 14th century it never fails to amaze me that we can just see these paintings close up after all this time, of course, time and events have washed over many times but I couldn’t help thinking that these three portraits represented the reasons behind the one of the biggest ruptures to English religious culture.   

Anne Boleyn

Moving swiftly on, we came to the Elizabethan portraits and the ‘Ditchley’ portrait of Elizabeth I.  Tudor and Stuart art were periods I studied during the Art History degree so Elizabethan portraiture and the way her image was used to portray and disseminate her as monarch came back to me.  The detail of these portraits is amazing, the more you look, the more you see.  There’s all sorts of symbolism in the portrait, the pearls symbolise purity, she standing on a map of England showing her right to reign, the dress is bejewelled showing wealth and power.  There’s a good interactive tool at this point that shows a comparison of portraits of Elizabeth I and their different interpretations.

Queen Elizabeth I

Next came the Stuarts and James I, he was a great patron of the arts and collector.  One of the first portraits in this section is of George Villers, it is a beautifully depicted image by William Larkin.  Really rich in detail, texture, colour and imagery, it was obviously an important commission with the curators pointing out that he and James may have been lovers.  Several further portraits of James I show him as monarch although, interestingly, a comparison is also drawn to his imagery post execution. This became quite martyristic and was often used as devotional imagery as well.  The allusion to Jesus complete with stigmata in one image is unescapable.  

King James I as Martyr?

Further into this period we find a portrait of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, this shows a young black girl sitting with the Duchess, often overlooked, it was good to see the curators make a point about how the portrait not only asserts the wealthy position of the sitter but that it brings to mind ideas of imperialism and subordination.  I do wonder though whether there is more to it than that, portraiture is full of symbolism  so what was being presented here with this child?  Is she meant to be a servant at all?  The clothes are fine and she wears a necklace, not exactly the attire of servants, the National Portrait Gallery’s own catalogue entry on this painting talks about using the child to aggrandise the Duchess but perhaps there is also a reading relating to  trade.  The 17th century saw the establishment of global trading routes by companies such as the West India Company and it’s not hard to see an allusion to a less developed country proffering its goods in return for protection.  A thought provoking inclusion by the curators.

What’s the interpretation here?

We emerge into the Georgian period, so many Georges, I was very attracted to the unfinished portrait of George IV made by Allan Ramsay’s studio, one of many copies disseminated into the political arena to establish the King’s image. It seemed starkly modern compared to more formal portraits from the same studio such as the pair of George III and his wife Charlotte of Hecklenburg-Strelitz hanging nearby. It’s much more personal and introspective, lacking photos from this period I’d be inclined to think it was more representative of George IV as a person. His hair is wildly tousled and there’s definitely a hint of a smile by his lips, a beautiful animated representation.

King George IV

Further on we come to the Victorians, starting with Sir John Hayter’s coronation portrait of Queen Victoria, very well sited by the curators as the introduction to the Victorian era, it’s huge and has majesty, as is obviously intended.  Fabulous detail in the strong tradition of royal portraiture and, as ever, laden with symbolism.  Crown, sceptre, throne, you can’t miss it, Victoria is almost secondary, and that’s the point isn’t it?

Queen Victoria

Photographic portraiture starts to appear in the Victorian period, as does the proliferation of royal imagery into the homes of ordinary people.  The exhibition labelling tells us that the photograph of Queen Victoria by Alexander Bassano from 1887, created the defining image of Queen Victoria and that certainly seems true, if you had to conjure an image from the popular imagination of her this would certainly be it.

Finally we reach the current dynasty, the Windsors, of course there was focus on the abdication of Edward VIII, whatever you think of that crisis, the portrait of the lady that caused it, Wallis Simpson by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst is lovely. For a woman that supposedly rocked the royal family it shows her in a very simple light, if royal portraiture is about symbolism what does this image tell us or not? She wears a very simple blouse and skirt, echoing the spare and the minimalist rather than royal trappings, except for the large brooch, a gift from Edward. A really beautiful portrait and photographs nearby of the couple show that the painter really caught Wallace’s character.

The exhibition ends with images of the current royal family, there are lots of different approaches, informal oils, photographs and even a Warhol.  I liked all of them but particularly the images by Annie Leibovitz, one of the Queen in stately grandeur and a less formal one of the Queen and Prince Philip.  I really liked the siting of the formal portrait with the Queen at the window to the side of the photograph, Leibovitz brings out what it is to be Queen with both its privileges and heavyweight responsibilities.

Queen Elizabeth II

I know it’s been a long read this week but there was a lot to see and cover.  A great exhibition, the museum’s approach is brilliant, the sectioning into distinct eras was a master-stroke, as was having a board with the succession line for each period.  You could clearly see when you left one period for another and which royal followed who, as well as forays into the wider courts throwing up ideas about the era of production.  Very good for an encapsulation of royal history and well worth a visit to the saaarrf!

Rita – Gallery Tart


Leave a Comment

  1. Hi Rita, Very brave of you to head south but sounds like it was worth the risk!! If you fancy trying even further south and into the depths of Kent, let me know in good time and we’ll try and meet up. Might even be able to meet in London, but will probably need some notice. Pleased that you appear to be enjoying yourself, All the best,

    Andy ________________________________


  2. You’ll be even more clued up on a quiz night now! I thought I’d missed something with “windors” but I take it’s a typo. Good read as always

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved this blog as the Tudors in particular are my passion and cannot believe I have never visited this museum. This will now be quickly rectified and thank you for the post!!


    • Hi Rita, thank you for a very informative post! It has made me want to go to the exhibition….another one…
      Portraiture,as you say, is a very complex and rich theme. It can often be seen as the ‘business card’ of the time, a kind of propaganda as it were but I think it also reflects our longing for immortality, our need to leave some kind of legacy for posterity.
      It is interesting to see how James l is portrayed as a kind of Eastern prince in James l as a Martyr; the painting looks almost like an icone….clearly a Byzantine influence here. I also like George IV’s portrait. I love the sketchy quality and the sense of immediacy conveyed by the painting. It speaks volumes abour his eccentric, fun-loving personality and it’s quite avant-garde for the times. I have always had a penchant for this ‘bon viveur’ king…and he did so much for the arts!
      A couple of things: It’s Edward Vlll who abdicated for mrs Simpson
      Also, I got a bit confused because you say that the exhibition starts with the Tudors but then you mention that some of the paintings are from the 14th century? Or maybe I misunderstood?
      Thanks again…I am now off to the Maritime.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Françoise. I was fascinated by the image of James I as martyr and saint. We did learn that post reformation people needed a different kind of imagery to meditate on but remain within the context of not worshiping false idols so it’s interesting that substitutes were found. I do think that whatever belief or even none we need our rituals. I honestly see the gym as the modern church!


  4. Still loving the reviews Rita, and of course your bravery venturing sarf.
    Being the pedant who knows all his regnal numbers, I think it was Edward VIII who abdicated !!
    Seriously though, keep it up and very interested in what you said about the Stuarts and martyrdom


    • Thanks Guy, good to hear from you. Oh god, I can’t keep up with the numbers! I’ll change it thanks. It was a very interesting period to study with lots of hidden Catholicism going on. That image of Charles I, as Jesus, let’s face it, is a really intriguing addition to the exhibition. It expands how much more complex the cultural narrative was than a simple switch from Catholic to Protestant.


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