Friday, 18 May 2018

The Art & Power of Charles II:Fables of the Restoration/Restoration of the Fables.

"Tear me apart and boil my bones. I'll not rest 'til she's lost her throne. My aim is true. My message is clear. It's curtains for you Elizabeth., my dear" - Elizabeth, My Dear, The Stone Roses.

"I'd like to drop my trousers to the Queen. Every sensible child will know what this means. The poor and the needy are selfish and greedy on her terms" - Nowhere Fast, The Smiths.

"God save the queen. She's not a human being and there's no future in England's dreaming" - God Save The Queen, The Sex Pistols.

"Try shaking a box in front of the Queen 'cause her purse is fat and bursting at the seams" - Flag Day, The Housemartins.

"Hello, hello, hello, now here's a massage from your queen:- "As figurehead of the status quo I set the social scene. I'm most concerned about my people, I want to give them peace so I'm making sure they stay in line with my army and police. My prisons and my mental homes have ever open doors for those amongst my subjects who dare to ask for more. Unruliness and disrespect are things I can't allow so I'll see the peasants grovel if they refuse to bow" - Big A Little A, Crass.

There I was, an avowed anti-monarchist (as you may've already guessed), in a line to get in to Buckingham Palace for my first ever visit. I wasn't there to pick up a gong, nor was I there to take personal possession of an invite to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Windsor this weekend, and I wasn't even there with a small consignment of gunpowder to blow the place up. I wasn't even going to graffiti a picture of Prince Charles sucking his own cock in the, unsurprisingly rather lovely, bogs.

I was there, of course, to look at art. What else do I do? The exhibition Charles II:Art & Power was being hosted as a way of celebrating how "the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 led to a resurgence of the arts in England" after "a decade of austere Cromwellian rule" and while it certainly did that it also, as became increasingly apparent as I dutifully plodded from one room to the next, acted as a show of strength and power from the monarchy, from the establishment, to us poor proles who paid for the stuff in the first place and now have to pay again if we want to see it.

John Michael Wright - Charles II (c1671-6)
Whilst still a republican (in the British sense, definitely not in the American one), I'm not as vehemently anti-royal as I once was. I don't wish death upon them. Just quiet retirement. Maybe to Hastings or Eastbourne. Somewhere nice where the Queen could walk the corgis on the beach while her castles and palaces offer beds to the increasing, exponentially so under the Tories, homeless population of the UK. If they genuinely cared about their citizens it's the least they could do.
But, of course, they don't. They care about power. They care about power far more than they care about art. Much as I'd genuinely come along expecting to look at, and later write about, art it was hard to shift my mind from the power games that the royal family play, the obscene wealth they rub in the noses of those they stole it from, and what a disappointment it was that the only time we got rid of them it was under the command of Oliver Cromwell who banned music, banned Christmas (or at least mince pies), whipped boys for playing football on Sunday, told women how to dress, and went round chopping people's heads off. It seems as if ISIS stole most of their 'best ideas' from Cromwell.
The royal family aren't so much like Cromwell's Puritans. They're more like Saddam Hussein. Living lives of luxury in vast palaces that their subjects are forced to pay for while they suffer outside the gates and are occasionally permitted to wave a flag at a passing motorcade or buy a commemorative shiny sixpence to celebrate one of the Windsors getting hitched. We may not have the military displays of power that Russia and China seem so keen but our 'soft' power displays are just as insidious, equally indefensible, and, to the outside eye one would assume, comparably ludicrous.
At least it's not boring - and this exhibition looks back to one of the most exciting and tumultuous times in English, and royal, history. It takes up from Charles I's public beheading in January 1649 outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, through the rise and fall of the Cromwells' Puritanical reign, to Charles II's return from exile and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy and in doing so demonstrates how art was all but weaponised in its pursuit of legitimising the authority of a monarchy that didn't wield the absolutist power of some of its European counterparts.

Edward Bower - Charles I at his Trial (1648/9)
The confidemce, or arrogance if you'd rather, of the Stuarts did not abate during their downfall or their absence. Edward Bower's portrait of Charles I shows him at his trial.Charles, accused of being a 'tyrant, traitor, murderer and ... enemy to the Commonwealth of England', refused to co-operate, enter or plea, or even acknowledge the legitimacy of the court that was trying him. His crimson velvet chair acts as a proxy throne and his tall black hat, one he refused to remove during his trial, a proxy crown. Soon his hat was removed - along with the head it perched upon.
Being dead didn't stop Charles I's book,  the modestly titled 'Eikon Basilike:The Pourtrature of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings', becoming a best seller. Cromwell's Commonwealth government's attempts to suppress the book floundered as the tome's combination of irenic prayers, justification for royalism, and pleas for its readers to pardon Charles's executioners became a best seller. In some ways Charles, though it is highly disputed that he was even the book's author, had, with this book, planted the acorn from which the next great royal oak would grow. An image grew of Charles I as a pious, peace loving king who'd been martyred for the cause. As often is the case the seeds of the next revolution were forged in the white hot furnace of the current one.
The fact that Oliver Cromwell himself had taken to the trappings of a monarch (as Lord Protector, Cromwell lived in palaces and affected to be addressed as 'Your Highness') must've only made the English people question if they'd simply replaced the king with a de-facto king. They'd tried something completely new but was it a case of better the devil you know?

Pierre Lombart - Oliver Cromwell (1655)

William Van de Velde the Younger - The 'Royal Escape' in a Breeze (c.1675)
The Battle of Worcester, the final battle of the English Civil War in 1651 more than two years after Charles I's execution, saw Cromwell's New Model Army final defeat of Charles II's predominantly Scottish royalists and soon Charles II was escaping from England to France, over a choppy cloudy sea by the looks of Van de Velde the Younger's oil painting from a couple of decades later, on a coal brig called Surprise. Charles II spent nine years in exile but after the restoration he purchased the Surprise and renamed her (why are boats always female?) the Royal Escape.
This exhibition does rather skip over Cromwell's Parliamentarian reign. It's understandable that Buckingham Palace would be the very last place you'd expect to be fostering republican sentiments but it's a surprise (or a royal exchange?) that they haven't at least gone for a hatchet job on the Roundheads. I mean, there's enough shit on them to see them hung, drawn, and quartered several times over. Perhaps, in the circumstances, it's understandable that the curators of the exhibition have taken a Cavalier approach! I'm here all week, folks!
So we jump forward to 1660. The restoration of the monarchy. The revival of ceremony. Loads of boring, yet ostentatious, golden flagons, candlesticks, altar dishes, and maces. The sort of shit that, like a monarchy, nobody actually needs but looks good. If you're into that kind of thing.
As Charles II returned to London and to power so did such indispensable pleasures as the rituals of the Chapel Royal and the Order of the Garter and the medieval custom of 'touching for the king's evil' (we're informed that Charles II 'touched' 100,000 people, more than any other British monarch). The royal regalia, which Cromwell and his fun loving friends had had melted down, was remade and Charles II's coronation was the most extravagant since that of Elizabeth I 102 years earlier. Samuel Pepys, not yet thirty years old, was so overcome by it all he wrote "I may now shut my eyes against any other objects, or for the future trouble myself to see things of state and shewe, as being sure never to see the like again in this world". Pepys was a Tory and therefore an arse licker non pareil.

Johannes Lingelbach - The Embarkation of Charles II at Scheveningen (c1660-70)

Some gold stuff.

John Bill II and Christopher Barker - A proclamation for the better ordering of those who repair the Court for their Cure of the Disease called the Kings-Evil (1662)

Unknown engraver - Charles II (c.1661)
Kowtowing was, again, all the rage with the fickle English public who having had his dad's head lopped off were now putting the fizzog of the son on the side of engraved mugs and other tat to celebrate his return. When, in 1662, Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, in Portsmouth of all places, her dowry included the port of Tangier. This didn't stop Charles II cheating on the daughter of the Portuguese king and soon Charles II got busy putting himself into various mistresses.
He fathered ten children by six different women but failed to produce a legitimate heir with Queen Catherine so when, in 1685, he died in Whitehall Palace after an apoplectic fit, aged just 54, the crown passed to his Catholic younger brother James II. Much to the dismay, predictably, of many Protestants though not to Charles II himself who had staunchly defended his brother's right to the accession.

A hastily built equestrian statue of James II was erected in the marketplace of Newcastle but James II's reign, still the last by a Roman Catholic in this country, lasted less than four years before, in what became known (by Protestants presumably) as the Glorious Revolution, he was ousted by the forces of his son-in-law William of Orange. Drunken soldiers pulled down the Geordie monument and lobbed it in the Tyne. The bronze was later salvaged and recast into church bells.
Inheriting all of Charles II's palaces was a mixed gig for The Hague born 'King Billy'. Cromwell had overseen the demolition, sale, or repurposing for military use of many palaces during the Commonwealth era as well as selling off most of their furnishings and paintings to fund his regime. Only Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court had retained their glory. Charles II had made extensive improvements to Windsor Castle and significant changes to Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh but funds were not available to enact anything but minor adjustments in both Winchester and Greenwich.

Hendrick Danckerts - Hampton Court Palace, Long Water and Longwater Avenue (c.1670)

Antonio Verrio - Charles II (1684)

Painters at the time were either encouraged, or emboldened, to celebrate pomp and circumstance or even go all out mythical in their depiction of the king. In the first camp we have Sir Henry Tulse (the man who gave his name to the hill in South East London) being sworn in as a mayor on the Thames. In the latter, Antonio Verrio (a favourite of Charles II), portrays the king riding a shell backed chariot led by Neptune in front of the royal fleet. It was nominally made to celebrate the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War but more so to shout out loud that Britannia, with Charles II at her helm, now ruled the waves.

Anglo-Dutch School - The Lord Mayor's Water-Procession on the Thames (c.1683)

Antonio Verrio - The Sea Triumph of Charles II (c.1674)

Some old books.
As well as commissioning paintings bigging up himself and his properties, Charles II did genuinely appear to take in interest in art and the history of art. One of the first acts passed by the House of Lords after the Restoration was to form a committee tasked with the recovery of the Royal Collection and around the same time Charles II received the 'Dutch gift'. Not clap off an Amsterdam prostitute as those of you familiar with Viz's Profanisaurus may be thinking but a selection of twenty-four Italian old masters and twelve antique sculptures from the States of Holland and West Friesland. Charles II thanked the Dutch for their generosity, promised them a closer alliance in the future, and then just three years later went to war with them in the aforementioned Third Anglo-Dutch War!
Leaving aside the idle promises of rulers both monarchical and democratically elected the room containing these paintings is the only one in the whole of this exhibition that really stands up art wise. Historically, the rest of it is as interesting as it is infuriating but the art, for the most part, is so-so and has been created with forelock tugged in deference and one eye cast aside towards the executioner's block.
Bloodthirsty times they may've been but that did not preclude an all too predictable English squeamishness when it came to depicting the same. Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Massacre of the Innocents is an account of the infanticide ordered by Herod (can we assume Herod was a big influence on the work of Benjamin Netanyahu?) but the dead children have been covered up so that the massacre becomes a mere plunder.
It's suggested this retouching was done on the demand of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, to avoid direct parallels with atrocities committed by the Habsburgs who reigned over Bohemia at the time. But it's instructive that this pre-watershed take on biblical bloodshed was the one that found favour in the court of Charles II. I thought it was a Christmas fair at first.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-7)
It wasn't just Dutch and Flemish Renaissance stuff that found its way to England but also actual proper Italian painting. Paolo Veronese and Titian were two of the bigger names whose works entered the Royal Collection and as if to tease us just that little bit more Titian's Madonna and Child in a Landscape with Tobias and the Angel is hung about eleven foot up a wall so that it's virtually impossible for anyone to see. Even Robert Pershing Wadlow ('the tallest man the world has seen' according to Roy Castle) would struggle. Not least because he died 78 years ago.

The colours in the Veronese and Titian are both still astounding to this day and one can only imagine how bright, how foreign, they'd have looked all those centuries ago. But, also, one can't help wish we could be allowed a proper look at them. Lifted loftily on to walls at an exhibition that costs £11 to enter and uses airport level security simply sends a message that there is an us and there is a them and the art, absolutely, belongs to them. I refuse to believe it.

Paolo Veronese - The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria (c.1562-9)

Titian - Madonna and Child in a Landscape with Tobias and the Angel (c.1535-40)
Other big hitters on show include Anthony van Dyck and Palma Vecchio. Van Dyck always seems to me to be something of a show off, something of a royal lackey, but his Infant Christ and St John the Baptist elicits a more tender side to the Antwerpenaar. The Venetian Palma Vecchio's A Sibyl gives the viewer the cheap thrill of a pert nipple poking out from under a white blouse and if you think that's just this reviewer's sweaty palmed assessment of a rather poignant painting then it is said that Charles II himself had a 'taste for portraits of women in fashionable 'undress''. Palma Vecchio was an old hand at painting Venice's 'courtesans' and sometimes went as far as to painting them with both their norks out.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck - The Infant Christ and St John the Baptist (c.1639)

Palma Vecchio - A Sibyl (c.1522-4)
So while the king got to live in palaces, swan around in boats both real and mythological, hump half the society ladies in London, marry a Portuguese princess, and, in his spare time, ogle what passed for Renaissance grot the plebs at the time, it is presumed, got to press their unwashed faces up against the windows and walls of his stagecoaches and palaces and be bloody thankful for it before riding a knackered old donkey back to the crumbling shed they called home, sharing a turnip for dinner with their wife and twenty-seven children, and shitting in a bucket.

Perhaps that's why the Royal Collection still owns A Boy Looking Through A Casement. To remind themselves of our supplication and to remind themselves if they keep us entertained with bread and circuses for long enough we'll not rebel. It seems highly unlikely that Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prince William, or even Prince George will find, like John the Baptist, their heads served up on a plate to either Salome or the republican cause.

McCarthy (the band) opined that "once there was class war" but "we are all bourgeois now". A lot of us aren't. A lot of us are struggling but The Daily Mail and The Daily Express have found new hate figures for us. Refugees, the EU, hoodies, women who don't know their place, anybody and everybody it seems except the dear old unelected Royal family who stole their position in society and now expect us to fund their lavish lifestyle. A few nice works of art is too small a reward for more than a thousand years of being subjected to their rule.

I don't wish Harry and Meghan any ill. I hope they have a nice wedding and a happy life together. But I also hope that, in some point during their life, the royal family ceases to exist as an institution. I don't want to be a subject. I want to be a citizen.

Carlo Dolci - Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (c.1682)

Flemish School - A Boy Looking through a Casement (c.1600-10)

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