(National Portrait Gallery, London, until 5 January 2014)
The National Portrait Gallery’s autumn exhibition is the most recent in a long line of Tudor and Stuart shows in London over the last eighteen months. It’s much smaller than most of the others: a tasting menu compared to the banquet of the Royal Collection’s In Fine Style or the sprawling buffet of the V&A’s Treasures of the Royal Courts. Its purpose is to look at the social stratification of Elizabethan England and how luxury goods such as portraits, books and fine clothing were becoming increasingly available to the lower classes – merchants, clerics, writers and gentry – as well as to royalty and nobility.
In doing so, it taps into the research interests of its curator, Tarnya Cooper, whose recent book Citizen Portrait (which I haven’t yet read – I’d be interested to know if anyone else has) focused on portraits commissioned by the more modest ranks of Elizabethans. The exhibition feels bijou in scale compared to the wealth of the other shows – but at the same time its small size allows it to stay focused, and the exhibits have been chosen with an eye to balancing famous images with some less familiar but wonderful pieces.
In an exhibition of this kind you have to start with Elizabeth, and the show obligingly opens with images of the queen. Even this section had an original slant, however, because the exhibition isn’t interested so much in the best-known, highest quality works but in looking at how the queen’s image was disseminated to her people. We do get some of the stars, of course: the splendid Darnley Portrait of Elizabeth in a white-and-gold gown (from the NPG), the Ermine Portrait with its profusion of jewels (from Hatfield) and the remarkable picture showing Elizabeth in skirts decorated with plants, animals and birds (from Hardwick). But we also get to see the kind of pictures that her subjects across the realm would have encountered. Produced in workshops according to approved iconography, these were less scintillating pictures, of competent but fairly dull craftsmanship, such as the portrait lent by the University of Cambridge or the regal but rather ugly portrait displayed during her lifetime in the town hall in Dover. (It’s a testament to the In Fine Style exhibition that I now look at pictures like this and – despite the stiffness of the faces – admire the artists’ ability to paint fabric.)
There were two other things that particularly struck me here – one was the portrait drawing of Elizabeth by Federico Zuccaro from the British Museum (partly because I think it rather wonderful that he came to London at all, and partly because Elizabeth looks rather less severe than she often does in her portraits). The other favourite was the little Isaac Oliver of Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses, which has a special place in my heart because I helped to identify when it was on the art market a couple of years ago. It was great to see it here, in its NPG debut, alongside the full-size painting of a similar composition by Hans Eworth from the Royal Collection.
My fondness for Isaac Oliver was rewarded with another, even more dazzling work in the next room – where the focus moved away from the queen herself to the nobility and gentry. This was a cabinet miniature portrait of Anthony, John and William Browne from 1598, which shows off Oliver’s talents to the max. Even though the brothers, rather strangely, look vaguely off past one another, their intertwined arms show their affection for each other and Oliver achieves a sense of individualism and naturalism in their faces which is very unusual for this period. But the most wonderful thing about this portrait is the way Oliver tackles the black satin of the brother’s doublets and hose – even though it’s all black, he gives the fabric an amazing sheen and the light dances over wrinkles and folds in an understated display of sheer brilliance.
This threatened to outshine everything else in the room, but there were a few things that could hold their own against it – not least a gorgeous rapier with a damascened hilt (which, according to the catalogue, shows its quality even in its length: Elizabethan sumptuary laws would have forbidden such a long blade to be carried by anyone less than the son of a baron). The most striking pictures here were Hans Eworth’s pair of portraits of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk and his wife Margaret Dudley, both stunning three-quarter-lengths set against elaborate backdrops of embroidered green brocade; and the striking full-length portrait of the explorer Sir Martin Frobisher by Cornelis Ketel (which has a kind of proto-Velazquez air about it, probably because of the buff-coloured costume). Memorable for a different reason was the frankly rather silly Portrait of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, riding a very small and disconcertingly grinning mule.
From the gentry, we moved to merchants and traders; and the key figure here was Sir Thomas Gresham. I’d never realised before how crucial he was to the Elizabethan economy: he founded the Royal Exchange and had the (I imagine rather daunting) task of managing Crown debt. Painted by an anonymous Dutch artist, he is watchful, wealthy and wary: one hand rests on the hilt of his sword, showing his status as a gentleman; the other gently cradles his purse. But Gresham leaps out of the exhibition more vividly than the other sitters because there are also objects associated with him: namely the grasshopper rings. The grasshopper was Gresham’s sigil (large grasshoppers appear on the spires of the Royal Exchange in a print, also in the show). He gave gold rings to his most trusted business associates which had enamel grasshoppers on the back of the bezel – a very clever way of demonstrating to the wider financial community who had good credit in Gresham’s eyes. Suitably for a section about merchants, we also find a Florentine ex-pat represented here: Piero Capponi, who died in London and whose tomb miraculously survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz. He seems to have been rather a character: he was one of Sir Francis Walsingham’s informers, but was also suspected (never proved) of being a double-agent for Catherine de’ Medici.
Here we begin to see less familiar aspects of Elizabethan society – the world of the everyday. There is a collection of men’s caps; a woman’s jacket embroidered with black wool to make it look like more expensive blacking-work; a pair of stout leather gloves. And this continues in the final room, which looks at the lives of the scholars, clerics, artists and writers. Here there are self-portraits by George Gower (one of the earliest native British painters: slightly wooden) and Isaac Oliver (nonchalantly well-groomed), as well as a portrait of a female artist, Esther Kello, from 1595 (from the Scottish NPG). She was a calligrapher and the exhibition, wonderfully, has one of her illustrated books alongside her portrait, complete with a small self-portrait in pen-and-ink.
Here too there is the famous portrait of John Donne, which suffers in comparison with the quality of some of the other paintings in the exhibition. His self-consciously melancholic pose makes him look rather pretentious to modern eyes: ‘If he was alive now,’ my friend said, ‘he’d be an East End hipster.’ In fact, the thing which most impressed me in this final room was from the most modest social level, and thus a remarkable survival: a sailor’s costume of linen slops and a loose linen shirt, much patched and repaired but amazing for all that. Apparently the outfit was once owned by the artist Ernest Meissonier, who used it as a studio prop, so we have him to thank for keeping it safe. It’s nothing special to look at – a rather unappealing shade of brown – but just think how rare it is for the clothes of ‘ordinary’ people to survive. Besides, it is rather appropriate that an exhibition on this most adventurous, energetic, sea-going phase of British history should close with the simple costume of a sailor.
As you can see, it’s a well-ordered exhibition: it’s also beautifully presented, with the exhibition space divided up into classical-style rooms with arched doorways. It will suffer, perhaps, from being merely the latest in a series of similar shows – when we went on Friday, the day after it opened, there were only a handful of other people there – but it does take a unique and very interesting perspective on the period. Like In Fine Style, it chooses a particular angle on history – in this case a journey down the social hierarchy from queen to sailor – and offers lots of food for thought at every level. The catalogue looks very good: scholarly and thorough, with good illustrations of works which it can be difficult to find decent images of elsewhere. The exhibition will be on until January, so you’ve plenty of time to see it: it’d make the perfect partner to the Cheapside Hoard show at the Museum of London.