Be prepared for the Holbein stare. His sitters will look right at you, or through you – like Derich Born. Serious beyond his years, wealthy and confident, the 23-year-old merchant of Cologne was the youngest member of the London Hanseatic League and seems remarkably lifelike as his dark brown eyes look out from underneath his black cap. Hans Holbein the Younger (c1497-1543) painted him in 1533, and as with most of Holbein’s portraits, it is the eyes that hold the viewer’s attention, be it in the sketch of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas More (c 1526-27) or in the painting of ‘Hans of Antwerp’ (1532).
While most of the attention is usually on the paintings, I often prefer the chalk, pen and ink drawings. They are like shadows or ghosts of people who once lived and have all but faded out. I was particularly taken by the ethereal looks of a beautiful, young Lady Parker (c1540-3), possibly one of Jane Seymour’s attendants who gazes out from the white background with her big round eyes. There is also a drawing of a young ‘Lady’ Mary (c. 1536), demoted from her position as ‘Princess’ after the birth of her younger brother Edward, Prince of Wales, in a frame alongside hers, aged one (c 1538).
More often than not, these drawings were studies for paintings; and it is particularly interesting to see one next to the other, as in the case of the portrait of Sir Henry Guildford (1527), who was one of Henry VIII’s closest friends and Comptroller of the Royal Household. As a court painter, meanwhile, Holbein was not beyond the art of flattery. The exhibition blurb informs us that Guildford’s slightly chubby-drawn face was lengthened on the painting for ‘a more flattering expression’. (more…)
I finally managed to see the First Actresses exhibition on a late Friday evening trip to the National Portrait Gallery after a hard day’s work at the British Library. It was entirely worth it.
The NPG has a number of beautiful pictures of Nell Gwyn, Moll Davis, Hester Booth, Lavinia Fenton, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson and others together with the women’s intriguing stories.
Eleanor Gwyn (1650-87) and Mary Davis (1648-1708) of course were actresses as well as mistresses to Charles II. Nell, who was probably the most famous Restoration actress and a great celebrity on and off the stage, gave the King two sons, Charles and James Beauclerk. Ironically, they were given the first names that should have been given to the legitimate sons and heirs to the throne the barren marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza never produced. (Who knows, the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 might never have happened!) The actress, singer and comedian Moll bore the King a daughter, Lady Mary Tudor, whose two sons (another James and Charles) both became Jacobites and were later executed for treason.
Up until the Restoration period, boys had played all female parts in the theatre, as acting was not seen as a respectable occupation for a woman. Any young girl associated with the theatre would immediately come under suspicion of being a prostitute or as easily available to much wealthier and much older men. They often were. Yet, despite their libertine lifestyles, the women were never exclusively defined by the men they were associated with.
Mary Robinson (1757-1800), who became mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) after enchanting him with her role as Perdita in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, would later become a successful poet, novelist and playwright, while also defending female intellectual capacities in A Letter to the Women of England (1799). The Welsh actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), née Kemble, was the wife of fellow actor William Siddons. But their marriage ended soon in an informal separation, while Sarah became celebrated in her own right as a Shakespearean actress, most notably for her role as Lady Macbeth. It was women like her who made the profession respectable.
The actresses’ portraits by leading artists of the period, including Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hopper and James Gillray, are impressive and beautiful. More importantly, however, the women depicted ooze elegance, talent, and self-confidence.
In the end I was a bit disappointed that the exhibition was so small. I managed to get through all the pictures (while also conscientiously reading all the labels) in less than an hour. But maybe back then there weren’t quite as many independent women – widely known in their own right – as one might have wished.
The exhibition is still on until 8 January 2012.
The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons at the National Portrait Gallery, Wolfson Gallery, Tickets £11/£10/£9
The brass band on the market square is playing God Save The Queen. It’s Gotha on a Saturday night, a sleepy little German town in the former East. Overlooking the town, just up the hill from the market, is Friedenstein Castle. Built during the Thirty Years’ War by Ernest the Pious (1601- 1675), the Lutheran Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, it is a symbol of peace arising amidst the carnage and bloodshed of the mid- seventeenth century and home to the dynasty that would also produce Prince Albert (1819-1861) of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, later Prince consort to Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Most of the locals don’t seem to care that much about the traditions of the dynasty as they drink their beer in the little pubs around the market. They live on the tourists. That’s enough. The castle, meanwhile, plain and decrepit as it might look on the outside, on the inside holds one of the most amazing collections I’ve ever seen.
The Raphael Cartoons at the V&A are quite impressive works of art in their own right. Roughly four metres wide and three metres high they show scenes from the lives of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, such as The Miraculous Draught of Fishes or The Sacrifice at Lystra. They are powerful reminders of the impact these men had on early Christians and of their role in the creation of the Church. They were fishers of men and brought hope to the poor and to the sick. Looking at what has become of their Church now, The Healing of the Lame Man and the other scenes depicted seem to have happened in a different world altogether. But the images are still alive.
With their bright colours barely faded it is hard to believe the cartoons are nearly 500 years old. Commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X and painted by Raphael and his assistants, they are full-scale designs for tapestries at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Four of these tapestries can now be seen right next to their desgins at the V&A. They are on loan from the Vatican to mark the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain. Whether or not they will help to boost the popularity of the institution to which they belong remains to be seen.
However, what is so impressive about this show at the V&A is that the cartoons and corresponding tapestries probably have not been seen in the same room together since the latter were woven in Brussels. In fact, there are two sets of tapestries. For the then Prince of Wales, and later King Charles I, brought the cartoons to England in 1623 to have his own tapestries made at Mortlake. Charles was a great art collector, but his love for all things popish did not endear him to his protestant subjects.
Anyway, the most interesting thing about the artworks themselves is the opportunity to compare them to each other. There are slight variations between the cartoons and the original tapestries (aside from the fact that they are mirrored) and between the original tapestries and the English set (of course the weavers of Mortlake had not seen the tapestries in the Vatican). For instance, on the cartoon the healed man from the Sacrifice drops his crutch, while the Vatican tapestry shows a discarded wooden leg; and the colours used in the Vatican tapestries are much brighter than their gloomier counterparts of the English version.
It is a shame I did not have more time to study the tapestries next to their cartoons. The V&A make you book your tickets in advance for an allocated time, and I booked mine for 5pm on Thursday evening only to be told as I went in that the museum was about to close in 30 minutes. They did not think that one through. Maybe I will go back for another look.
The little blue-enamelled toothpick case left quite an impression. Not because it was so remarkably beautiful, but because it seemed so random, useless even – in a good way. Many of the items currently on display in the V&A’s exhibition on Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill are of that quality, and that’s their attraction. There are little boxes and caskets, finely painted china, vases, a C16th cardinal’s hat, a rosewood cabinet full of miniatures, and a wooden cravat Walpole apparently wore for a party at his home.
Strawberry Hill, Walpole’s summer villa by the Thames at Twickenham where all these items come from, was in itself more than a little bid odd. Designed as ‘a little gothic castle’ it revived the style of the Middle Ages and allegedly inspired the first Gothic novel, Walpole’s very dark and improbable Castle of Otranto. A number of items in the collection either directly or indirectly relate to that novel, such as John Carter’s painting of ‘The Entry of Frederick into the Castle of Otranto’, displaying a scene from the end of the book, or the Gothic lantern that was intended to contribute to the general mood of “gloomth” Walpole was so fond of. (more…)