British Baroque Makes For A Bombastic Blockbuster Exhibition At Tate Britain

British Baroque, Tate Britain ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 37 months ago

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British Baroque Makes For A Bombastic Blockbuster Exhibition At Tate Britain British Baroque, Tate Britain 4
Now I know Charles II did it, I want to be depicted as Neptune as well. Painted by Antonio Verrio, copyright The Royal Collection.

Would you have a painting depicting you as a god placed on the ceiling of your bedroom? No? Well, Charles II did just that to remind himself, and the many mistresses who entered his bedchamber, that he had 'rightfully' restored the British monarchy — after his father Charles I had been executed and Britain's brief stint as a republic came to an end.

It's one of dozens of gloriously over the top paintings to be found in the bombastic British Baroque exhibition at Tate Britain, which covers the reigns of the last Stuart monarchs.

The children of John Taylor in all their finery. Painted by John Closterman, copyright National Portrait Gallery.

Letting others know how powerful and influential you are is an art that continues to this day, whether it be the size of your house, your salary, or the number of Instagram followers you have — and much like in the Stuart era, we're all lagging behind the Queen who has her face on every piece of currency we handle. Back in the 17th century, full length portraits were the medium of choice, and there are plenty of them here, showing men in majestic armour and women in beautiful flowing dresses.

This may seem rather vulgar in its decadence, but most of the portraits can't compete with Italian duchess Hortense Mancini — she's shown surrounded by black children all wearing iron collars. It's a disgusting image, but an important one as it reminds us that most, if not all, of the people depicted in this show would have relied on slave labour.

This annunciation by Benedetto Gennari is gloriously over the top. Copyright The John and Mable Ringling Museum.

The sizeable exhibition contains sections that cover religion, architecture and what was considered beautiful in 17th century Britain — paintings of women are flanked by mirrors in a nice touch that reflects on their vanity. Yes, there are a lot of society portraits here, but that's to be expected from a Baroque exhibition.

My favourite room is on the theme of trompe l'oeil — the illusion of depth used to create the effect of 3D objects in a flat painting. Columns and shadows recede into the distance, creating the feeling of peering through a series of arches. A violin painted on a door is so realistic that when spotted from a distance, I thought it was a real instrument.

Crushing enemies underfoot with minimal effort from the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Painted by Godfrey Kneller, copyright National Portrait Gallery.

You can't claim to be a great leader without showing triumph in a battle, so of course, there are several regal paintings designed to do just that. Often they can be unintentionally hilarious as kings and dukes look composed atop a horse while the battle rages on behind them. It's clear that they were added to the scene many miles from the heat of battle — like a predecessor to the Photoshop fail.

There's enough variety here for visitors to be fully immersed in all the extravagance of Stuart Britain — it's the kind of exhibition I'd expect Tate Britain to nail, and it does. This pomp and glory isn't for everyone, but for anyone who loves a good period drama and its costumes, this will be a flamboyant hit. Just don't get any ideas of commissioning a painting of yourself trampling your enemies underfoot.

British Baroque: Power and Illusion is on at Tate Britain until 19 April 2020. Tickets are £16.

Last Updated 04 February 2020