Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Elizabeth I and Her People

National Portrait Gallery, London
10 October 2013  5 January 2014

Isaac Oliver's miniature self-portrait.

Elizabethan portraiture was provincial and shoddy, on this showing.

This small exhibition may appeal to specialists, but I am unsure even of that. It seems rather to be designed for the unwary, in a period when Elizabeth II seems everywhere, who may wish to explore the first Elizabethan age, which after all is often described as England’s Golden Age.

At the entrance of the exhibition is a huge painting everyone can see, even if you don’t pay to visit the rest (and I recommend you don’t). Elizabeth stands on a map of England. She is depicted with England literally underfoot.

A little historical awareness can moderate the brutality of this image (and the exhibition’s subtitle: Her People? In what way hers?). Her father, after all, was a much greater tyrant, the greatest in English history. She lived in an unusual time when the ‘prince’ almost too directly represented the state. Previously there had been states, but restricted for the most part to the more manageable size of a city. And there had been ‘national’ sovereigns, but these had more abstract significance, and the peasant or burgher probably didn’t identify with them personally.

In Elizabeth’s period, the sovereign and the people were linked, and of course we can add that the sovereign was expected to be a man, so that she presented an intrinsic image problem for the nascent nationalist tendency.

But this is an art exhibition, for the most part, and historical awareness can be misleading when judging the aesthetic quality of the exhibition.

It is unappealing, and while the curators might have managed a less ‘museum’ feel, I think they would be struggling with this material in any case. The portraits are almost entirely uninteresting, painted by hacks, even (or especially) those of the queen herself.

Only one portrait struck me as penetrating, of the wealthy Thomas Gresham, painted in Antwerp, apparently. I’m sure art historians would hate the crude idea that the English renaissance was well behind that in the Netherlands, but oh well, that is the unavoidable impression here.

It’s not that the English sitters wanted to be portrayed in such a stilted, false manner: Gresham is portrayed with severe formality, but he leaps off the wall in comparison to everyone else.

Many of the artists here are rightly anonymous. But a tedious trio appear throughout. Nicolas Hilliard appears to have been the most respected, though his ermine portrait of the queen looks pretty wretched, so that apparently we no longer believe he did more than suggest the composition. His miniatures are so bland it may have been a deliberate style, but a bad choice on this evidence.

In the case of Hans Eworth and Isaac Oliver, we can handily compare them directly as they painted the same subject, of Elizabeth and the three goddesses of Judgement of Paris fame. Both are dull allegories attempting to make the most use of a female sovereign, but Oliver’s looks terrible; at least Eworth seems competent at perspective and in generating an atmosphere.

Oliver was either a better miniaturist, or at least more in love with himself. His small self-portrait is the other really lively image in the exhibition. Eworth’s complementary portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk are also notable, for the almost surreal way in which the background seems an elaboration of the sitters’ clothing, so that their faces, surely the important part, seem irrelevant.

Part of the enduring appeal of the period is the clothing. We get a decent sample here, from gloves to a child’s mitten to a sailor’s uniform. We can see a variety of ruffs in the paintings: small, large, diaphanous. Not enough breeches, though.

If the exhibition is at all representative, it counters any claims this was truly a ‘golden age’. That is a worthwhile activity, though I am not sure one with which the curators would agree.

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