MFAH royal portrait show a historical feast

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Visitors look at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, Jan. 1

Sometimes, one gets a nice surprise. I decided to take a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston early on Jan. 1 to start the new year with an art fix (by the way, at 8 a.m. on new year, the highway is practically empty. What a pleasant drive). I wanted to see the Venezuelan modern art exhibit (review to follow soon) but I decided that I should probably pop in and see “Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol” while I am there.

Now, I realize the collective shout from my American breathren is, “But it’s royal and it’s your home. Why wouldn’t you want to see it?” I get that every time there’s something royal going on. “Did you watch the royal wedding?” No. “What do you think about Kate’s fifth baby? Nothing (I have no idea how many babies she has, but I know she seems to be popping them out quite regularly). “What did you think about Meaghan’s new hat?” What?

I am not much of a royalist, and as most of the pieces were from the National Portrait Gallery in London, which I have visited many times since I was young, I did not expect there to be much to interest me. And truth be told, from an art perspective, there wasn’t, really. But from a history perspective, it is a fun show that quickly grabs the attention.

The show runs chronologically, beginning with Henry VII, who defeated Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, at the Battle of Bosworth (you know the drill, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse), thus beginning the Tudor dynasty. There’s a portrait of him. The picture titles feature whopping great amounts of historical reference, and I found myself spending as much time reading the walls as looking at the pictures.

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Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540

Next up is Henry VIII, he of the wives (did you know, despite popular myth, he didn’t just go around slaughtering his wives. He only executed two of the six. When I was a kid we were drilled on a rhyme to remember how it went: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived — lucky old Catherine Parr). Anne Boleyn is there, with her head still intact. The exhibition features Holbein’s classic portrait which is how most people think of Henry, statesmanlike and powerful.

 

Popular culture gives us a lot of reference points, and two modern classics are represented by facing portraits — Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. More is the central character of the Oscar-winning film “A Man for All Season.” Cromwell has come to the fore recently as the central figure in Hillary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.” The two men represent England’s split from the oppressive influence of the Pope (British history). More was a man of high moral character, who chose to be executed rather than swear an oath that Henry was divine head of the new Church of England. Cromwell, born of working class stock, was an astute political figure who rose to be one of Henry’s most influential advisors. The two men were at odds in life, and have been cast as opposite sides of history’s coin. That they face each other here is fitting.

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Sir Thomas More after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century, based on a work of 1527, and Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century, based on a work of 1532-1533

Moving around the opening gallery, past Edward VI and Bloody Mary, we find ourselves in the Elizabethan era. Her giant portrait dominates the entry to the entire exhibition and it is a well-deserved spot. She is the most influential English monarch, building England to world prominence — and her era gave us Shakespeare, so that alone makes this period great. The gallery hosts portraits of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh (who, legend has it, was so chivalrous, he laid his cape over a puddle lest the queen get her shoes wet. He also introduced the English to the potato and tobacco, which he brought back from Virginia, which he named for her — the virgin queen, so called because she never married). She did have suitors, the most ardent being Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who spent a week proposing to her. He was most certainly one of her lovers and remained a favorite until his death in 1588.

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Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

It didn’t always pay to be one of the queen’s favorites. Drake was one until she found out he married one of her royal ladies. He was imprisoned and ultimately executed. Dudley’s stepson, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, took over some of the old man’s duties (wink), but he did not remain in Elizabeth’s good graces. In his desire for power, his ambition, and arrogance, ultimately led him to the executioner’s block, where it took three blows of the axe to kill him. Looking at his portrait, one can see the arrogance — did the artist capture it or does the story influence how we see the painting.

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Queen Anne by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1690

On through the gallery we pass by Queen Anne, star of the Oscar-tipped film, “The Favorite.” Amazingly, she had 17 pregnancies, only four of which made it to term, and none lived past childhood. Let that nugget of information sink in for a moment.

Anyway, moving past George III, the man who lost the Americas, which haunted him the rest of his life. He was known as the mad king, although now it is thought he suffered from porphyria, a disease, the symptoms of which include not only pains but also blue urine. It was said that he would talk to himself as he wandered the grounds, but he may have been simply groaning to himself from pain.

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Maria Anne Fitzherbert by Sir Joshua Reynolds

As George III was considered too mad to rule, power was transferred to his son, George as Prince Regent. “Prinny” as he was known, was extravagant in his tastes, but also ushered in a new era of style — the Regency era. I am particularly acquainted with the period as my home town of Brighton is a prime example of Regency architecture. When Dr. Russell proposed the benefits of sea water, George built a “beach cabin” — the Royal Pavilion — and spent much time there, transforming a fishing town into the cosmopolitan city it is today. There are none of the cartoons of the time that parodied the corpulent prince’s extravagant lifestyle, but there is a nice portrait, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, of Maria Fitzherbert, the prince’s lover and secret wife. She was a Catholic divorcee, so the marriage was never legal, and if George had wished it so, he would have had to give up his accession to the throne. The pictures of Robert Walpole, England’s first Prime Minister, and William Pitt the Younger, who became PM at only 24, are also interesting.

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Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield by Sir John Everett Millais, 1881

The more recent images are less interesting to me, but the exhibition carries on with its excellent history lesson. The graphic which calls Queen Victoria the grandmother of Europe is very informative. A quick look at the Russian Czars, German Kaisers and English Kings shows the inbreeding of the royal houses. Of the paintings, the portrait of Benjamin Disraeli by Sir John Everett Millais is most interesting. The great statesman was ill and in the last year of his life, but the most interesting thing is to see a different side of Millais, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose most famous painting may be “Ophelia.” While it is an excellent example of Victorian portraiture, there is an element of classical eulogy in the pose.

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Princess Margaret by Lord Snowdon, 1967

In the modern section, viewers of “The Crown” will recognize the photograph of Princess Margaret taken by Tony Armstrong Jones, later Lord Snowdon. The taking of it was a big scene in the series. Also of interest for anyone of a certain age is the 1969 portrait of Elizabeth by Pietro Annigoni. The painting caused quite a stir when I was young. It’s not a stunning likeness, but it certainly has a regal bearing.

The exhibition is interesting and really belongs in a history museum rather than an art museum. Maybe that’s pedantic, but, regardless, it is well worth a visit. That I would recommend a royal tour is unusual, so that should tell you something.

“Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol” is on display through Jan. 27.

For more, visit mfah.org.

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