(Hampton Court Palace, until 30 September 2012)
First things first. What a great title. Who could resist that? And then there is the poster, plastered across the Underground, which has been cleverly designed to show bare skin, unbound hair and rumpled sheets, without outraging the modesty of Tube bosses (who banned the comparatively inoffensive nudity of the Royal Academy’s Cranach poster back in 2008). Beauty, lust, power, debauchery and a day out; what could be better?
The exhibition is laid out in Queen Mary’s rooms at Hampton Court, luring the tourists up from the well-worn route around the Tudor parts of the palace. Larger than I expected, it fills four rooms with its wonderful portraits of beauties and gallants from the court of Charles II (heavily weighted towards the former). Here you will find the vast majority of Lely’s ‘Windsor Beauties’ series and Kneller’s ‘Hampton Court Beauties’ set. The design team have done a fantastic job: windows are shuttered and the lighting subdued, so that you move in dimness among the softly-lit portraits in their golden frames. Swags and drapes of coloured silks frame the information panels and a jumble of (electric) candles flicker in a corner. I thought these touches were a super way of setting the scene, but I couldn’t quite make up my mind whether the rumpled bed that takes pride of place in the first room was pushing the boundaries of good taste. It’s all luxuriantly sumptuous and slightly, self-consciously naughty.
I confess a bias: I would have thoroughly enjoyed the show even if the portraits had been hanging on a plain white wall. Lely is one of my favourite artists and, in his portraits of these teenage girls, swathed in shimmering satin and crumpled chemises, he captures the very essence of Restoration beauty. It is true that the girls all look very much alike, but much of this is due to the ubiquitous hair-style, piled up at the back of the head, while ringlets cascade over the bare shoulders and corkscrew curls flutter over the forehead; the familiar pearl choker, nestling around the base of the throat; or the ever-present pearl drop earring with a glint of light sparkling on its curve.
The more you look at Lely, the more you realise how crucial he and Van Dyck have been in the history of British art. Their pictures provide the stepping stone from Titian and Rubens to Gainsborough and Lawrence. Lawrence, in particular, owes a great deal to Lely’s impressionistic brushwork, which blends an expanse of skin into softly shadowed cream and rose. He also learned from Lely’s use of light: when you next look at a Lawrence portrait, the chances are that you will see a very similar touch of white, a highlight, just at the tip of the nose.
For the most part, the curatorial team just seem to have had a great deal of fun in putting their exhibition together and telling their story, for which I applaud them. You can’t be prim when dealing with the Stuart court and the written panels in each room convey a great sense of gusto. They suggest that perhaps women had greater power in this world than we imagine: perhaps it was in a woman’s hands to choose whether or not to sacrifice her virtue at Court in the hope of an advantageous love match. Hmm. How far, I wonder, would it have been genuinely the woman’s choice and not that of her power-hungry family? When the curators suggest that women might have been responsible for commissioning their own portraits, I can see their argument in some cases. For example, take the Portrait of Catherine of Braganza as St Catherine, or some of Barbara Villiers’s portraits, where I can see that the sitter is sufficiently autonomous to have arranged the commission herself, for her own purposes. In the face of her husband’s consistent infidelities, it’s telling that the queen wished to be shown as the saint who was considered the ideal wife. And Barbara Villiers’s sense of mischief is evident in the portrait of herself with her son, Charles FitzRoy, painted to resemble the Madonna and Child.
But the girls? The nubile teenagers who form Lely’s Windsor Beauties – how far did they have any say in the matter? These portraits, with their identikit concept of female beauty, seem to be the commissions of husbands, showing off their new wives, or fathers hoping to find takers for their daughters. Generally, the girls are presented as gorgeous objects, there to be looked at rather than engaged with. An honourable exception is Jane Needham, painted as St Mary Magdalen with her ointment jar, whose sly sideways look suggests that she could be a great deal of trouble, if she chose to be.
The exhibition tells us a little more about some of these girls – and I use the term ‘girl’ advisedly, as they were usually between sixteen and twenty-two when their portraits were painted. Most flourished briefly at court before being married off and absorbed into the silent, unrecorded world of the dutiful wife. When we do know more of them than that, it’s often a painful reminder that 17th-century life wasn’t the romp it’s cracked up to be. Margaret Blagge, painted at the age of eighteen like a Roman goddess in yellow and blue, died in childbirth at twenty-six. Mary Compton, draped in ermine by Kneller, died at twenty-two of smallpox, in the same year that she sat for her portrait. Margaret Brooke, who had a dalliance with the Duke of York, died at the age of twenty; it is said that she was murdered, either by York’s jealous wife or by her own much older husband. This is the darker side of the story and I felt that the exhibition might have been more powerful if the point had been made more strongly. To give the curators credit, it is made implicitly, by their choice of a portrait of the Earl of Rochester to conclude the show. Here, crowning a monkey with a laurel wreath, is the canker at the heart of the rose, the man who epitomises the age in all its scurrilous, syphilitic detail (and anyone who has seen The Libertine will know that Rochester did not end well).
In 2001, the National Portrait Gallery did a very similar exhibition to this, called Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II. It is long enough ago, perhaps, to warrant another exhibition that enables us to see these beautiful pictures together, and to conjure up the spirit of the age. I never saw the NPG exhibition, as that was before I moved to London and in any case I was distracted by GCSEs at that time; but I do have the catalogue. This is the crucial complement to the present Hampton Court exhibition. It offers the richer, fuller context that these portraits need in order to be fully understood, as well as a discussion of Lely’s technique and influences.
There is a book which accompanies the Hampton Court exhibition, but I am afraid there’s no contest. The Hampton Court book is, indeed, so far from being an exhibition catalogue that it has a different title altogether, one designed to catch the eye from the gift-shop shelf: Beauty, Sex and Power. This is very clearly aimed at the casual reader.
I find it hard to criticise this, because in principle I approve any attempts to make history more accessible, but it really does feel like reading a magazine. The text is large, the pictures are generally on the small side (so it’s not much use as a treasure-trove of illustrations) and each chapter begins with a sprawl of enormous text in bright, attention-grabbing colours. Perhaps the curators felt that there was no need for another thorough catalogue on the same subject. If it serves its purpose by making more people interested in Stuart history, then that’s great, but for me it was a disappointment, because I had enjoyed the actual exhibition so much that I’d been hoping the catalogue would be of the same calibre.
Let’s not end by grumbling about the exhibition book. Let me reiterate that this is a beautifully-presented exhibition, and a great opportunity to gain an insight into Charles II’s court. Plus, you get to see some of Lely’s most beautiful paintings and to admire some 17th-century costume borrowed from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection. Entrance to the exhibition is included in the cost of a ticket to Hampton Court, and it will run until the autumn, so you have no excuse.