It’s all about power… ‘British Baroque’ at Tate Britain

We think of the Baroque as being over-the-top ornamentation – swirls and putti and lots of gold and silver. Tate Britain’s exhibition British Baroque: Power and Illusion has little of this; it’s a quite conventional display of, mainly, portraits of kings and courtiers and beautiful women.

It’s the first ever exhibition at the Tate covering the late Stuart period, from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714 – but that’s less than half of the period known as the Baroque. It was a half-century of great change: the growth of the British Empire, the birth of the Age of Science, with the founding of the Royal Society – and the transition of power from an absolute monarchy to a two-party political system.

Despite these revolutionary changes this is, say the curators, “a much-neglected area of British art history”. Their aim was “to marry the art with the profound changes happening in Britain”. So how well did they succeed?

The exhibition begins with the overpowering presence of Charles II, his gaze all around you from paintings and sculptures. It’s all about power… and as the exhibition continues, about beauty. There are rooms full of full-length portraits from several different collections of beautiful women: the Windsor Beauties, the Hampton Court Beauties and two paintings from the Petworth House Beauty Room, restored to full-length for the first time in 200 years. But the women, though the wives and mistresses of kings and dukes, had power and influence in their own right. Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Charles II’s official mistress, is painted with her first child by him, Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child. This is nothing new; two centuries earlier Agnes Sorel, mistress of the French King Charles VII, was portrayed similarly – and in her case, bare-breasted. But as the Tate caption comments wryly on Barbara Palmer, “If she is the Virgin, it casts Charles II in the role of God.” Power indeed…

Another painting with strong religious symbolism is James, Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s oldest illegitimate child, as John the Baptist; he holds a banner with the words “Ecce Agnus Dei” (Behold the Lamb of God), making the point that although he is the king’s son, he heralds the king’s yet-unborn legitimate son.

A room devoted to “the Religious Interior” emphasises the religious tensions of the time. Charles II’s reign was far more relaxed than the Puritan years of the Commonwealth, when even Christmas celebrations were banned; but religion could still be divisive, and Catholics were viewed with suspicion. Both Charles II and his brother the Duke of York, the future James II, were married to Catholics, Catherine of Braganza and Mary of Modena, who had freedom of worship at the Catholic chapels at St James’s Palace and Somerset House in London. These chapels were focal points for Catholics and showpieces for Catholic art – and when James II became king, he established a new Catholic chapel in Whitehall Palace. Two beautiful paintings by Benedetto Gennari are prominent here: the Annunciation and the Holy Family. The chapels were closed when the Protestant William and Mary replaced the Catholic James.

The recusant experience is also noted. Henry Arundel, head of one of the most prominent Catholic families in England, commissioned a painting of himself and his wife at the foot of the Cross, as a gift for the Convent of the Poor Clares in Rouen, where his daughter was a nun.

Baroque architecture is featured. There are drawings of plans for the new St Paul’s Cathedral by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, for a proposed replacement for Whitehall Palace, partly destroyed by fire in 1698, and for the glorious Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich, which still astounds with its beauty today. Huge country mansions became fashionable, and there are stunning bird’s-eye paintings of several, including Blenheim Palace, Hampton Court, and a three-metre square painting of Chatsworth and its gardens.

These were conspicuous displays of power – but what of the illusion of the exhibition’s title? This is just one room, featuring some intriguing trompe-l’oeil work. Two large paintings have a dog and small child almost stepping out of the foreground between pillars – an excellent use of perspective. But the pride of place is a peepshow perspective box. Looking through the open front there’s a distorted view of a couple of rooms: nothing much of interest. But peer through the peepholes on either side and the scenes spring into life: several rooms inside a house, a woman reading a book, a dog sitting on the tiled floor, paintings on the walls, the view outside through a window. It’s truly remarkable. The paintings and the peepshow box are all by Dutch artist Samuel van Hoogstraten, who moved to London in 1662 and was friendly with members of the recently-founded Royal Society. As the catalogue says, such experimental works were “vehicles of investigation in the pursuit of knowledge, which showcased ingenuity and were received with wonder and delight”. These are certainly among the highlights of the exhibition.

The religious tensions, the shift in power from monarch to politicians, the conspicuous display of wealth, scientific experimentation in art and architecture: all of these, yes – but nothing about Baroque music or theatre, just the slightest nod to the Duke of Rochester’s erotic poetry. The gloriously OTT spirit of the Baroque is almost absent throughout. For an exhibition titled Baroque, much of it is surprisingly unexciting: all a bit underwhelming, really.

British Baroque: Power and Illusion is at Tate Britain, London until April 19