The story of Judith and Holofernes from the Old Testament inspired a number of Renaissance artists, Cristofano Allori and Artemisia Gentileschi among them, to paint the beautiful Jewish heroine, Judith, chopping off the head of Holofernes, the Assyrian General who had been sent by King Nebuchadnezzar to conquer Palestine. Sex and violence, as ever, proved to be a popular mix – and very sellable.
Sixty-five of the masterpieces which usually hang in one of the State Rooms in Buckingham Palace are now being exhibited at the Queen’s Gallery’s new exhibition ‘Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace’ until January 2022. They are here because of a major services overhaul in the palace itself – a mammoth task involving the removal of lead pipes, dodgy electrical wiring and old boilers. The Queen’s Gallery visitors get the benefit because all the paintings hang at eye level which means that even the smallest paintings can be seen properly.
Usually, I find myself going regularly to various exhibitions or visiting interesting buildings in or around London but, at the moment, that isn’t possible; so this week I’m doing some Time Travelling instead. Back in 2015, I was invited to the Press Preview of the Queen’s Gallery’s exhibition, Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden, which looked at four centuries of royal gardens through paintings and objects in the Royal Collection. It’s now spring again, so it seems appropriate to have another look at some of the wonderful objects there.
The new exhibition, George IV, Art & Spectacle, at the Queen’s Gallery shows King George IV, our most ‘exuberant king’ as the tube posters have it, to be a mass of contradictions. The portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence depicts him in all his royal Majesty – and we must remember that he was the King-in-Waiting for many years. George, Prince of Wales, had finally become Prince Regent in 1811 when his father, George III, finally succumbed to madness, and stayed in that difficult position until the king’s death in 1820. George III had been King for over 6o years and the previous coronation had been forgotten. The new George IV was determined that his coronation would be of unparalleled magnificence. Perhaps he felt that, after all that waiting, he was owed something in compensation.
Sir Thomas Lawrence, George IV (1762-1830), 1821. Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.
George IV designed himself a magnificent Coronation costume. – he had good legs, why not show them off?
Roger Fenton (1819-1869) was one of the earliest British war photographers, and the Queen’s Gallery is currently showing a selection of his 1855 Crimean War photographs in the Royal Collection. After a tussle with his father, who didn’t approve of his son’s artistic leanings, Fenton was eventually able to follow his heart. He discovered photography when it first appeared in the late 1840s, immediately recognized its potential and set himself to master it. In 1852, he travelled to Russia, visiting Moscow, Kiev and St Petersburg, and, on his return, he toured an exhibition of his photographs around Britain, which established his name. It also led to his involvement in the founding of the Photographic Society of London, where he promoted this new medium, and became its first honorary secretary.
The new exhibition Russia: Royalty & Romanovs at the Queen’s Gallery, has all the splendour one would expect with Fabergé eggs and other objets d’art but the initial contact between the two countries was in the late 17th century, and low key.
1914 Faberge Mosaic egg and the surprise inside it, showing the profiles of the Tsarina’s five children
I’ve always had a soft spot for Charles II (1630-1680). I know he is often thought of as a lascivious, extravagant king, always short of money and having running battles with Parliament. I see him rather differently. Partly because, I confess, I find him a very attractive man; I know this shouldn’t affect a rational view of him 337 years on, but there we are.
Charles IIby John Michael at his coronation. He wears King Edward’s crown and holds the newly made orb and sceptre.
I first came across the Italian artist, Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1652), in Our Hidden Heritage by Eleanor Tofts, published in 1974. It was one of those books at the forefront of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s which sought to re-instate women writers, artists and composers whose works had been forgotten or downgraded.
Our Hidden History by Eleanor Tofts, 1974
Artemisia was taught to paint by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, in Rome. Both were influenced by the new style of the painter, Caravaggio, with its accentuated use of shadows, strong colours and dramatic story-telling. Artemisia became known for her wit and high-spirits, as well as her painting. But, when she was only seventeen, her life took a traumatic turn. She was raped by a friend of her father’s, a fellow painter called Agostino Tasso. Orazio appealed to the Pope and Agostino was brought to trial. Artemisia was cross-questioned under torture but held firm, and Tasso was imprisoned for eight months. Poor Artemisia was hastily married off and moved to Florence.
I’m always delighted to be invited to a Bloggers’ Breakfast at the Queen’s Gallery; I know I’ll be in for a treat – and that’s not including the delicious coffee and croissants.
Oh! the croissants!
Their new exhibition, Portrait of the Artist, showcases 150 portraits from the Royal Collection, and the range is much wider than you’d expect. Not only are there the greats: Rubens, for example, but also humbler artists, like Paul Sandby, whom I’ve long admired; the photographer, Herbert Ponting – ditto; and the decidedly bizarre, like the French tragedienne Sarah Bernhardt’s large bronze inkwell in the form of herself as a harpy-like creature with bat’s wings, clawed feet clutching the inkwell, and with her own head.
In this post, I have chosen to look mainly at the more unexpected exhibits.