This classy exhibition, mounted at the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich by the National Portrait Gallery, while their own building is under re-configuration, is the first since the lockdown finished, and runs until the end of October. It traces an unbroken line of 500 years of British monarchy, apart from one unfortunate beheading of a monarch, which led to a new republican commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, who ruled Great Britain as Lord Protector. The king was Charles I, and the year was 1649. Cromwell ruled from 1653 until his death, of natural causes, in 1658, to be succeeded by his son Richard, who was a weak leader. This led to the return to the throne of Charles II, who heralded in an age of hedonism and libertarianism, becoming known as the Merry Monarch and restoring the line of kings and queens of Britain. Between the Tudors, starting with Henry VII and the earliest known portrait in the exhibition, painted in 1505 by an unknown artist, and the present-day Windsors, visitors will see portraits of every Stuart, Georgian and Victorian monarch (and their mistresses) in between.
Royal portraits have, since the Tudor dynasty, attempted to portray power, wealth, tradition, nobility, continuity and strength through the skill of the artist. There are two pictures of Henry VIII, one by Hans Holbein the Younger with which we are all familiar, showing a self-confident, robust king, and an engraving by Cornelius Metsys done in 1545, portraying a bloated old man, far from the heroic, sportive figure of his youth. There is a sumptuous full-length portrait from the studio of William Larkin of one of the most attractive and arresting men in the royal court: Georgie Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, a favourite, confidante and lover of James I. You will not see a better pair of legs anywhere, made even more fetching by the presence of the Order of the Garter attached below the knee. He was regarded as one of the most handsome men in Europe, and became rich and influential as James’s lover-in-waiting. He was murdered by a disaffected lieutenant in the army in Portsmouth, after Buckingham led a disastrous campaign in La Rochelle during the Anglo-French wars. He also had a very close relationship with James’s son, Charles I, an unusual double-act.
Some of the very best painters were employed by the royal family over the years, both home-grown and imports from the Netherlands, including Hans Holbein, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, who painted the exquisite Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth I, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Sir Peter Lely, originally from Holland, Sir Godfrey Kneller, born in Lübeck, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, Sir James Gunn and Frank O Salisbury, who was the first portraitist to paint HM Queen Elizabeth II. Pietro Annigoni famously and controversially painted her in 1969, and, after that, the medium changed to film, although Queen Victoria also had a penchant for photography. Modern royals have been snapped by such exponents as Patrick Litchfield, Terence Donovan, David Bailey, Mario Testino, Lord Snowden and Annie Leibovitz. One of the most striking portraits is a lenticular print on a lightbox of the Queen by Chris Levine, which shows her, serenely, with her eyes closed. This is a fascinating and absorbing exhibition, well-mounted and beautifully lit, which informs and reminds one of one’s slightly hazy take on the kings and queens of England over half a millennium.
National Maritime Museum
Until 31 October