London has been celebrating two different periods of British art at Tate Britain and the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, covering the periods from the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 through to the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the artistic patronage of George IV as Prince Regent and King (1762-1830).
Tate Britain goes back to the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 starting with the coronation of King Charles II and the flowering of Baroque art and art and architecture that resulted through to the reign of Queen Anne, linking the artistic and architectural achievements to the political turmoil of the time, including the wars with France and the revolution of 1688-9 which saw limits on royal power with a redefinition of the importance of Parliament, along with the rise of political parties such as the Whigs.
One of the last portraits towards the end of the exhibition is of John Smith, Speaker of the House of Commons, who was instrumental in uniting Scotland and England in 1707. How long will that now last and are there lessons to be learnt from the achievements for both countries in the 18th century?
The extravaganza of Baroque art sits strangely under the Brutalist architecture of this wing of Tate Britain, but then much of the art was about illusion, including the use of Trompe l’oeil painting, one of the most fascinating aspects of this exhibition. You might think that this generation had learnt nothing from the previous one which had resulted in the execution of King Charles I, such are the references to classical and godly themes. Beauty was of course celebrated – no ugly people were allowed! The greatest achievements were perhaps in architecture, landscapes and interior decorations with achievements by architects and artists such as Sir Christopher Wren, Grinling Gibbons, James Thornhill at St Paul’s Cathedral, Chatsworth House and Whitehall Palace, with the zenith perhaps being the Painted Hall at Greenwich.
It is however slightly misleading to call this an exhibition of British Baroque – more correctly it is an exhibition on English Baroque – there is barely a mention of Scotland, not surprising as Scottish art and architecture achieved its flowering after the unification of the two countries in 1707 with architects and architects such as Robert Adam and Henry Raeburn. Baroque was more in tune with the exuberance of Roman Catholicism (despite the tensions between the two religions in England) rather than a natural style for Protestant and Calvinist Scotland.