Boris Johnson looked above him. He was delivering a speech in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, part of a building designed in the 1690s by Sir Christopher Wren as the centerpiece for a hospital for wounded sailors and decorated with a ceiling painting by Sir James Thornhill swirling with allegorical figures, putti, images of the King and Queen, and ships. Behold “the anchors, cables, rudders, sails, oars, ensigns, power barrels, sextants, the compasses, and the grappling irons,” the Prime Minister urged his audience, and draw the conclusion: a nation bursting with self-confidence was “on the slipway—this is the moment it all took off.” The Prime Minister’s speech, on the theme of free trade after Brexit, was art-historically on trend. Only a few miles upstream, on the other bank of the Thames, a show on “British Baroque,” featuring Thornhill’s sketches for the Painted Hall, was opening at Tate Britain.1 Its subtitle, “Power and Illusion,” might have given pause for thought, but clearly the era has resonance. Baroque is back.

This is not exactly why the Tate chose to mount the exhibition. Tabitha Barber, the Tate’s Curator of British Art 1550–1750, loves the period, always has. She’d wanted to do a show of this kind for decades. It would not have mattered what the twenty-first century was thinking; given the chance, she would have done it anyway. And when I put the question of its relevance to her, she didn’t immediately think it had any. But after a while she confessed how extraordinary it was to be writing the catalogue when the prorogation of parliament had become a matter of general debate. Most people had never used the word “prorogue” before in their lives; suddenly, due to a controversial and ultimately failed gambit by the then-minority government in the effort to pass its Brexit legislation in late 2019, they couldn’t stop talking about it. Art may have changed, but some aspects of the political system—and not just the arcana of parliamentary procedure—have their roots in the seventeenth century, which is Baroque in all senses.

This was the style of resurgent Popes and absolutist monarchs.

Aren’t there other parallels to be teased out? Think of the reasons for the Baroque. This was the style of resurgent Popes and absolutist monarchs. Put the Roman Catholic church to one side for a moment: it got short shrift in post–English Civil War Britain. The show brilliantly demonstrates how Charles II used portraiture, allegory, and storytelling (fake news, possibly) to bolster his position. Strange when you consider his physiognomy: the deep-set eyes, the swarthy complexion, the rubbery lips, the long nose—at best, the French would call it jolie laide. Rule by monarch and personality cult are inseparable, but Charles—restored to the throne after the Civil War with diminished powers—had special reason to broadcast his image far and wide: he needed, literally, recognition. How very different is our own world. Nobody would think of likening President Macron to Louis XIV . . . would they? Or say that President Trump has absolutist tendencies, let alone Vladimir Putin? (The Trump hairstyle undoubtedly has something of the Baroque.) Over here, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and even—if you can remember him—Jeremy Corbyn rose to glory on personality cults. It would be difficult to think of Corbyn representing himself as an Olympian figure, attended by semi-naked deities and bare-breasted ladies blowing trumpets. But Boris? . . . Arguably Brexit is simply a new manifestation of the historic British fear of an empire on its Continental doorstep—albeit an empire to which we used to belong.

Well, let’s not take it too far. The point of history is to discover difference—the variety of which human beings are capable—as well as similarity; it is tedious only to look for ourselves in the wildly unfamiliar behaviors of the past. After all, the Restoration court, in which the libertine poet the Earl of Rochester (whose portrait here shows him putting a crown of laurels on a monkey) flourished, could hardly be conceived by the #MeToo generation. Although, come to think of it, a Jeffrey Epstein or a Harvey Weinstein might have done very well. We no longer have misbehaving royalty, with the pathetic exception of Prince Andrew, but today’s billionaires have more to splash than financially straitened Charles II ever did. What do they get up to? The sidebar of shame on the Daily Mail ’s website is there to tell us, and it sounds quite like the goings-on of Restoration society.

Poor old Charles: he had to be kept going by handouts from Louis XIV; without the money to rival the Sun King in splendid building projects, his intended new palace at Greenwich did not progress beyond one block (later incorporated into the Seamen’s Hospital). After the Great Fire of London in 1666, he was so strapped for cash that the Dutch sailed up the River Medway and stole the flagship of the British fleet, the Royal Charles, which, due to the parlous state of the royal finances, was unmanned. Baroque decoration was about showing off: maximum gold plate and gilded ornament, although also art, craftsmanship, and taste, sometimes of a high order. Bling is not exactly unfamiliar to the twenty-first century, but many of the superrich in Britain and the United States live far more modestly than their wealth allows. Come on, one of you: build a modern equivalent of Versailles’ Salle des Glaces. You can afford it. The skills exist.

While Charles II was frustrated in politics, the same could not be said in his relations with women. His sexual appetite was unrestrained, and he sired at least a dozen children, unfortunately none with his wife, Catherine of Braganza. He rejoiced in the nickname “Old Rowley,” after a particularly virile stallion in the royal stables. This was reflected in the cult of female beauty that prevailed at his court. Step forward Sir Peter Lely, whose career as an artist hinged on the voluptuous flesh of Charles II’s many mistresses. It may be that the Stuart ideal was significantly different from the skeletal look pursued by the modern fashion industry, but there was lots of shameless posing and bedroom eyes. Looking at Lely’s portrait of Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, it is possible to understand the thrill that Samuel Pepys felt on seeing her. Pepys was in awe, not that he could get closer than a view of her laced petticoats drying in the sun as he walked through the Privy Garden; as he strangely confessed to his diary, it did him good. She was the subject of an erotic dream, her desirability enhanced by her reputation for bedroom skills: “all the tricks of Aretin” (the poet/pornographer Pietro Aretino), as he described them, strictly from hearsay. At a time when access to the King meant power, his mistresses were a factor to be reckoned with in the state. They knew their worth and were happy to allow engravers to publicize their features. These days such ambitious, celebrity-seeking ladies would appear on reality television shows.

Lely presents Lady Castlemaine in the unlikely role of a shepherdess—very unwise to wear so much billowing silk on a farm, one would have thought, and the décolletage might have been drafty. She has the favored long nose of the period, heavily hooded eyes that give the viewer a sideways look of appraisal, and sensual lips. One can see why Pepys was hooked. That, however, was a decorous image in comparison with some of those of Nell Gwynn, whom Lely depicts, presumably for Charles II, in a state of postcoital satiety, while a putto—in case anybody had missed the point—is about to lift the corner of the sheet supposed to be preserving her modesty. But as an actress, Nell might be considered a professional.

Peter Lely, Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child, ca. 1664, Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Distasteful to mention such things in The New Criterion, I know. But that was another thing about the Restoration court: it was not afraid to shock. To see the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s eldest bastard, portrayed by Jacob Huysmans as St. John the Baptist seems bad enough, but people in the know would have understood the sacrilege to mean that Monmouth himself could not be king but merely prepare the way for others. (If only he had understood it himself. He was beheaded after attempting to dethrone James II in 1685.) But what can one say of the climbing Villiers, now ennobled in her own right as the Duchess of Cleveland, who holds up one of the King’s illegitimate boys and is unmistakably pregnant with another, while dressed as the Virgin Mary? A thoroughly scandalous misappropriation of sacred trappings. But don’t we have a pop singer known as Madonna?

That was another thing about the Restoration court: it was not afraid to shock.

Perhaps the poke at Roman Catholic styles of worship was acceptable in the late seventeenth century, given the importance of Protestantism to the national project. The public found James II’s Catholicism more shocking than his brother Charles II’s mistresses, and he had to flee. I have always felt a little sorry for him. He did well to marry Anne Hyde, a daughter of, merely, Lord Clarendon, not a foreign princess who could bring diplomatic union. (Perhaps James had taken fright at Charles’s disastrous marriage to Catherine of Braganza, ridiculed—poor girl—for the horizontally extending ringlets of her Portuguese coiffure when she first arrived at court.) Anne looks as though she might have been good company, in her 1665 portrait by Lely. Her successor, Mary of Modena, produced, horror of horrors, a Catholic heir. Britain sees in this exhibition for the first time since James II’s abdication a glimpse of the direction that royal patronage might have taken in Benedetto Gennari’s Annunciation, commissioned for the new Catholic Chapel at Whitehall Palace. The angel, Virgin, and lighting effects might all have come from the opera stage. Painted in 1686, the canvas disappeared when the chapel closed in 1688 and now lives in the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida.

Benedetto Gennari, The Annunciation, 1686, Oil on canvas. The State Art Museum of Florida, Florida State University.

But Britain did not go there. That is the peculiarity of the British Baroque. It was a political more than a religious style. Yes, there were churches, most notably those designed by Wren and his team of associates and assistants, such as his fellow mathematician Robert Hooke. But they stop short of the spatial lubricity and almost Cuban rhythms of Borromini in Rome (though let’s not forget that Borromini was a generation older, and even the Roman Baroque was, by 1700, running out of puff). Wren looked to France, not Italy. For decoration, the vestry boards who commissioned his City of London churches preferred a screen bearing only the words of the Ten Commandments and the Creed, not gesturing saints. Richness was provided by Grinling Gibbons and his school, who carved wreaths and garlands, with dazzling virtuosity, out of limewood. Stately dignity displaced overt emotionalism. Painting where it did occur in church settings—on the inside of domes, for example—tried to look like sculpture, through the monochrome technique known as grisaille, rather than ecstatic saints. Compare these works to the Heaven Room at Burghley House, where Antonio Verrio depicted the gods and goddesses of the classical pantheon laughing at Mars caught in bed with Venus by her husband; the caption explains this as an allegory to do with Britain’s war against Louis XIV. I have my doubts. But there is no shortage of exuberance. Burghley, Chatsworth, Blenheim—these country palaces for the aristocracy who supported the regime change achieved by William III and his wife, James II’s daughter Queen Mary, are more sumptuous than any of the religious buildings of the period.

That is the peculiarity of the British Baroque. It was a political more than a religious style.

However implausible it might seem from the Heaven Room, the modern age was in view. Science was a ruling passion. The curiosity displayed by Pepys, who recorded even the humiliations of daily life with quasi-scientific objectivity, was reflected in the investigations of the Royal Society (of which Pepys would eventually be president). Under his microscope, Dr. Hooke could see things never previously visible to the human eye, and he celebrated the discoveries in the drawings he made for his Micrographia book, engraved on a huge (one might say Baroque?) scale. To Pepys, Micrographia was the “most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.”

Art was affected by the excitement of science, in the form of optics. One of the artists who attended the Royal Society—some were invited to speak there—was Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–78). It is a revelation to see his Perspective with a Boy Catching a Bird, in which a dog and a child seem to leap out of the foreground of the painting into the gallery; this huge picture was removed with difficulty from the basement corridor of the country house in which it usually resides. It was van Hoogstraten who made the Peep Show owned by the National Gallery in London: look through a hole and a domestic interior, painted on the inside of the box, appears in miraculous three dimensions. Van Hoogstraten described painting as “science to represent all the ideas, or concepts, that the entire visible world provides, and with contour deceives the eye.” Another formidable loan is the famous trompe-l’oeil violin from Chatsworth. Since it is painted on the back of a functioning door, the door had to come too.

Samuel Van Hoogstraten, Young Man Reading in a Courtyard, 1662–66, Oil on canvas. Private collection.

Even more extraordinary are the beauties from Petworth. They come from a room that was specially dedicated to these paintings by Michael Dahl, later called the Beauty Room. Originally they were displayed between full-length mirrors, so that visitors could glimpse themselves between—and, for the brave, make comparisons with—the pulchritude in the gilt frames; it was as though the beauties were part of the social gathering. From the 1690s, Dahl’s pictures, commissioned by the Duchess as well as the Duke of Somerset, are more girl-like and fresher than Lely’s sexpots. They were displayed amid blue-and-white vases, probably filled with flowers. There are seven altogether; in the 1820s, the third Earl of Egremont had the five full-lengths turned into three-quarter-lengths to make way for some battle scenes of the Napoleonic Wars. He did this by simply tucking up the unneeded canvas, and the pictures have now been faultlessly restored; it is likely that the National Trust will now reconsider their presentation at Petworth.

By the last room in the exhibition, we have entered the world of the last Stuart, Queen Anne. She was another monarch on short commons, from the cost of the Wars on the Continent (although since Marlborough was victorious, she was popular). By now, starting with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, power had shifted. The shortage of royal commissions is made good by the spectacular equestrian portrait by John Closterman of a (surprisingly unidentified) Lord Mayor of London in a crimson cloak carrying the huge sword of state mounted with pearls. The sword of state played an important role in the Queen’s ceremonial entry into the City of London; then as now, the monarch has to ask permission before going in. On the opposite wall hangs another enormous painting: John James Baker’s The Whig Junto (1710). The gang of bewigged gentlemen, with their Garter stars and velvet clothes, do not look obviously democratic, but parliament had overtaken the court, and the two-party system was on the way.

John James Baker, The Whig Junto, 1710, Oil on canvas. Tate.

This is a great show. In fact, it is the model of what an art exhibition for our times should be. It presents a subject that is new to the public, since there has never been a show on the British Baroque at the Tate, or possibly anywhere else, before. And it does so in a way that is unfussy, intelligent, and brilliantly conceived. Last year, I enjoyed seeing the treasures from Chatsworth on display at Sotheby’s New York, where a relatively exiguous number of objects had been made bigger by a fabulous over-the-top mise en scène by a theatrical designer: boy, was it Baroque. “British Baroque” resists the temptation to do outdo its subject matter. Instead, it presents a series of contrasting spaces, each of which shines light on a theme. What a triumph.

1 “British Baroque: Power and Illusion” opened at Tate Britain, London, on February 4 and remains on view through April 19, 2020.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 7, on page 45
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