Cover image of the review
Unknown artist, King Edward VI, after William Scrots, c. 1546, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits
  • Giles Fielke

23 Mar 2019
Bendigo Art Gallery 16 Mar - 14 Jul 2019

I often return to an odd little sentence in Robert Walser's microscripts, a thought captured that he then jotted down on a scrap of paper sometime before 1956: 'The failure to prize the chance to spend time in a cosmopolitan city highly enough to refrain from giving it up in favour of an upstart one-horse town.' Cosmopolitanism, seen today, is increasingly a crowded nightmare pre-occupied with advertising space and competitive visibility. The provinces are no longer the extremities, rather they provide lines of flight from the hellscape of the contemporary world for those privileged enough to take the time.

The idea, almost a fragment, recorded by Walser, a Swiss writer who worked as a butler and inventor's assistant, reflects an indulgence in failure—the failure of modernity itself, perhaps—and can easily be expanded to provide an image of antipodean Australia as an English colony. What a pleasure it is then, to get out of the city, and to get to Bendigo and one of the oldest art galleries 'down under'. Established in 1887, Bendigo Art Gallery fits neatly within the Victorian surrounds of the gold rush-era town at the heart of the state that is named for the 19th-century monarch.

Entrance to the Bendigo Art Gallery. Courtesy Bendigo Art Gallery.

Upon my return to Melbourne, I happened to catch Radio National's repeat airing of Between the Lines, the regular program of staid and reflective journalism that tackles topical issues around national identity, like Millenials discovering socialism. Introducing his guest, the elderly diplomat and republican Richard Woolcott, host Tom Switzer made the point that support for an Australian republic is currently at a twenty-five-year low. His reference is, of course, to the mid-nineties and the period leading up to the referendum on the question of independence in 1999, led by Malcolm Turnbull. At what better time then, could the Bendigo Art Gallery have opened a show of the collection of portraits and propaganda concerning the enduring majesty, circumstance and pomp of the British Monarchy?

Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, following its premiere exhibition at, of all places, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, brings its curated selection to the Victorian heartland, with most works travelling from the National Portrait Gallery in London. The works will remain on show through to the 14th of July. By that time, we will have voted in the 46th Parliament of Australia, and what state Britain will be in by then, well, God only knows.

The curatorial approach adopted by Louise Stewart presents Tudors to Windsors as a selection of official royal portraits with the emphasis on the subject, more so than the artists, and is extended to multiple collections beyond her home institution, The National Portrait Gallery (in London). Including works from the National Gallery of Victoria and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, the paintings are accompanied by examples of decorative armour (the most astonishing of which was for the Tudor King, Edward VI, who was ten years old) as well as other personal effects from the British royal families. English court music is piped throughout the galleries, and some political illustrations lampooning the monarchs also makes an appearance (cue the Sex Pistols' iconic 7-inch artwork from 1977 by Jamie Reid).

The scope of the show is perhaps best encapsulated by the nearly 400-year period between the left and right gloves of Elizabeth I (left), and Elizabeth II (right), despite the remarkable constancy of their design and material construction (a fine brown leather). Five eras of English royal houses—the Tudors, Stuarts, Georgians, Victorians and Windsors—are punctuated only by the execution in 1649 of Charles I during the English Civil War and the republican moment of Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army. It suggests a glorious consistency witnessed in few institutions around the world (despite a few unfortunate abdications here and there, or Bloody Mary's beheading of the sixteen year-old Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days' Queen, in 1554). The subtle reflexivity of the critical component to the exhibition, entitled ' Royal Satire' in the sumptuous catalogue, reveals its necessity at the mid-way point of the show, and attempts to balance the overbearing propaganda of monarchy and its iconography.

Tudors to Windsors, installation view. Courtesy Bendigo Art Gallery.

In order to enter the exhibition, you must first walk through the open galleries displaying the Bendigo Art Gallery's permanent collections, perhaps after parking near the Queen Elizabeth oval, which lies directly north and adjacent to the gallery buildings, which back onto the Rosalind Park hill in the centre of town, containing the Queen Victoria Gardens. At present Michael Cook's photographic composites of a naked Aboriginal woman from the series The Mission #1-10 (2012) and in particular selections from his Invasion series (2015), amongst others, will guide you somewhat uneasily towards the portraits waiting expectantly in the temporary galleries. This display of explicitly anti-colonial works by the Brisbane-based photomedia artist of Bidjara heritage is a perhaps not-so-subtle nod towards the colonisation narrative that is so integral to the exhibition of British monarchs, and may be understood as a glancing blow from BAG's outgoing director, Karen Quinlan, for an exhibition that is credited on the flyer as 'organised by the National Portrait Gallery, London'. As her swansong blockbuster, however, the show will be the last before she moves to take up the directorship of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia this year. Quinlan's own 18-year reign at Bendigo—which followed in the wake of a major renovation of the gallery by current-director of the NGV, Tony Ellwood, in 1998—has been remarkable for the steady ascendancy of the regional gallery and its cemented position as a major exhibition space for both old and new art delivered to the Australian public keen to flock once more to the provinces.

Inside the exhibition it is the details discoverable in the works themselves that delight, yet the wall texts needed to identify the complexity and interconnectedness of the often-identical looking Royals threaten to overpower the artists' incredibly diplomatic skills with a deluge of details presented as only the most basic information about the Royals. Sir Thomas Lawrence's unfinished portrait of King George IV c. 1814 is a particularly satisfying profile. But for me it is the stranger details that capture my attention for the longest time. Amongst the relative uniformity of the family bloodlines, I find myself marvelling at the consistency of the representation of the prominent mole above Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell's right eye that figures in multiple portraits of the anti-Royalist parliamentarian. And despite Hilary Mantel's best efforts to popularise the scandalous reign of Henry VIII through the figure of Thomas Cromwell (Oliver's great-great uncle) and the establishment of the Church of England in 1534, during the 120-year reign of the Tudors in England, it is Oliver Feltham's analysis of the vicissitudes of modern liberalism that sticks in my mind as I stand before the younger Hans Holbein's portrait of the tyrant, whose portly anatomy is consistently rendered as almost square, and seems prepared for the coming troubles of modern monarchy. In his book titled Anatomy of Failure, Feltham repeatedly asks of the British revolutionary years: ' Who is right about what is to be done?'

Queen Elizabeth I (The ‘Ditchley’ portrait) By Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c.1592 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Besides the ridiculousness of the Ditchley portrait (and the relative proximity of a Mattel, Inc. Barbie of the same subject, editioned in 2004), Elizabeth I, standing resolute upon Oxfordshire, centres the show through the strangely repetitive apertures opened up by the grandiloquent and almost conical attire worn by the monarch in Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger's portrait from c.1592. In presenting the unmarried and 'virgin' ruler as a kind of seraphim hovering over Europe I think of the philosophy of John Dee at Elizabeth's court, reflected in Frances Yates' interest in modern early-modern occultism. As her advisor, Dee taught that music was one of the sciences that architects must know, for perfect architecture is immaterial. The idea of the 'British Empire' is even said to have been formalised by Dee, who advocated for its colonial expansion.

If today monarchism is experiencing a return in reaction to the attempted dismantling of democratic institutions—American pop-music culture is the currently monarchism's best propaganda device, i.e., The House of Carter, or Kardashian-West—the argument would be that the visibility of that form of power as dynastic obligation is perhaps preferable to the short-sightedness of party politicians who seek election in order to loot the state and get out 'scot-free'. Again, the crisis in republican governments or even constitutional monarchism such as ours, seems to beg the question: when will the Royals step in to fix this mess? The point is, as this exhibition shows in stark relief, it was the Royals who started it, and still benefit the most from it.

The unfortunate craquelure on the left cheek of William Pitt's c.1805 portrait by the studio of John Hoppner, as Britain's youngest-ever prime-minister at age 24, is perhaps a perfect sign for these times, and the only way to manage the emergence of Eleanor 'Nell' Gwyn's left nipple in the portrait by Simon Verelst c. 1680, in the Stuart's gallery, is to wonder about the endless public fascination with who's who when it comes to the lives of the Royals. Throughout the exhibition the most insufferable thing I experienced was the sandy-haired patrons attempting to compete with each other over who could recount a more banal story about the poor dead figure whose portrait they stood before. Nell's idolisation as a mistress of Charles II, for example, is also represented by her re-appearance as the icon for a 19th-century Mamalade 200 years later, because she began her career as an orange-seller at the market in front of the Royal theatre.

The Filipino evening gown worn by Princess Margaret, designed by Jose Moreno from Manila, in 1980 is a highlight of the modernising style of the queen's sister, who so-loved to punish her entourage with expected protocol and one-upmanship ('my boy's first word was “chandelier”,' she once uttered to her lesser fellows, unprompted), while the little groom crying in the right foreground of the official photograph from the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947 suggests the introduction of photography was a precipitous moment for the monarchy, who could no longer command complete control over their image. Photos of Elizabeth II in fatigues (she is the only female British monarch to have served in the Armed Forces) is perhaps a direct response to this imposition.

Queen Victoria with John Brown by George Washington Wilson, 1863 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The gaudy snaps by Cecil Beaton, the horrendous 2012 portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge by Paul Emsley (who was apparently commissioned as her personal selection), all belong in the same pile as the Bryan Organ portraits of Charles and Diana from 1980 and 1981, respectively. David Dawson's photo of Lucian Freud with QEII in 2001 adds an element of light-heartedness and humour to the affair, but it is the strangely in-focus lampshade that hangs ominously over Prince Philip in the Thomas Struth portrait of the Queen and her consort from 2011 that provides the most contemporary point for reflection on the enduring monarchy.

The story of the boy Jones, a labourer who repeatedly stole into Queen Victoria's bedroom to sniff her knickers before being sent to the Navy, is an unexpected discovery of my sojourn with the Royals. Jones eventually made his way to Bairnsdale, on our south-coast, and after falling drunkenly off the Mitchell River Bridge, died on Boxing day 1893. Is it this same impulse that gets us day-trippers so excited about the British monarchy? Perhaps it is simply the chance to gawk at the incredible visibility of the spectacle, to marvel at their compulsion to present themselves. The elision of any reference to their architecture, of Sir Peter Paul Rubens' famous frescos in the banqueting house at Whitehall, with its portraits of James I (or his 1625 portrait of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, recently rediscovered at Pollock House), or the contemporary video or even television representations of Queen Elizabeth II, are the only elements in the show that would add to this sense of the myriad forms of portraiture and the mode of its relation to power, currency portraiture could be another. After all, we fondle the Queen everyday in our pockets.

‘The Victorians’ Tudors to Windsors Installation view. Courtesy Bendigo Art Gallery.

As I look at the painting of the then-Princes and now-Dukes Will and Harry by Nicky Philipps in 2009, I imagine Ben Quilty painting their grandfather, the newly minted Knight of Australia, Sir Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. The commission appears perhaps with Tony Abbott somewhere in the background, and the pathos of royal charity-work is mussed-up in a scumbled halo about the Duke as a pillar of decency in times of crisis, and then I remember his favourite sister was unfortunately a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party.

Finally, the words of a descendent of the boy Jones, a friend of mine, Terry, who's been thinking about this for a long while (and who communicates only through song) repeat themselves in my mind:

Respect the deck and respect the chest

Respect the head of the holy boys

Bring out the corpse of the totally white

Bring out the dance of the Pearly whites

When you doubt you don't get bigger

When you doubt the words of the bigger

Sing in tune with a broken vigour

Sing in time with the spoilt vicar

Who's your singer?

It's you

Give up the crown cunt.

Thinly-veiled misogyny aside, quite.