British Baroque: Power and Illusion review, Tate Britain: a lot of wigs, silliness and artists you've never heard of

3
An orgiastic pile-up: detail from Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II, detail (1674)
An orgiastic pile-up: detail from Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II, detail (1674) Credit: The Royal Collection Trust

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” When Newton came up with his third law of motion, I doubt he was thinking about the Restoration or 17th-century British art.

But it’s impossible to understand the splendour of Charles II’s court without considering what came immediately before: the dreary, barren years of the Interregnum, when art was something idolatrous, fit only for smashing up.

This explains all the cascading curls and fluttering lace of the king’s exuberant likenesses in the opening gallery of “British Baroque: Power and Illusion”, the first exhibition in Tate’s history to focus on the last Stuart monarchs. Guess who’s back, these flamboyant busts and bombastic paintings seem to say – a Merry Monarch, strutting like a rock star at a stadium concert.

Even the sun, like a spotlight, illuminated Charles II’s coronation in 1661 – understood, at the time, as a sign that the grey, grim-faced age of zealotry was over, and a bright new frolicsome era had begun. The royal motto was, effectively, “Party time!” It must have been enormous fun.

Thankfully, some of that fun animates this exhibition of around 170 works, which, on paper, sounds like a tedious history lesson about British kings and queens. In the second gallery, for instance, a whopping silver chandelier, seemingly exploding like a firework above our heads, is surrounded by portraits of the jostling wits and beauties of the Restoration court. In one, the Earl of Rochester, that notorious libertine, crowns a vervet monkey with a laurel wreath, signalling his delight in monkeying around. The whole ensemble offers a riot of sensuous colour and risqué glamour.

Peter Lely, Barbara Palmer Duchess of Cleveland with her son (c. 1664) Credit: National Portrait Gallery London

Yet, as well as splendour, there’s a lot of what the curators politely call “eccentricity”, but we might term plain silliness. The Duke of York play-acting a Roman general, for instance, in a full-length portrait by the French artist Henri Gascar. Sporting catwalk-ready mint-green leggings and bejewelled sandals, he looks absurd. As for the massive group portrait of the children of a courtier close to Charles’s queen, by her preferred artist, Jacob Huysmans – well, the less said about its artistic merits the better.

A portrait by Benedetto Gennari, Guercino’s nephew, of an Italian duchess who was briefly Charles’s mistress dolled up as the goddess Diana, is much stronger. But, boy, does it make for uncomfortable viewing: she is surrounded by hunting dogs and black servants wearing silver collars.

After a while, even the celebrated, silk-swathed “Beauties” by the King’s Principal Painter Peter Lely begin to curdle. Why does Lely depict the king’s official mistress as a pregnant Madonna? Oh, yes, because it implicitly casts Charles in the role of God. We are in a world of archness, sycophancy, self-regard.

It’s a curious period, the second half of the 17th century. Certain figures loom large: roistering Charles, Pepys, Wren. Yet, the historical details are a little hazier, half-remembered. We’ve all heard of the Great Fire of London – and the show includes architectural drawings for St Paul’s Cathedral, which eventually emerged from the embers. But what about the “Popish Plot” of 1678? And why, exactly, is the Revolution of 1688 described as “Glorious”? By the reign of Queen Anne – dramatised with earthy relish in Yorgos Lanthimos’s recent movie The Favourite – the rumbustious back-and-forth of party politics had arrived.

Cascading curls and fluttering lace: Honoré Pelle, Charles II (1684) Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum

Books about British art generally gallop through these decades, in their haste to race from Van Dyck to Hogarth. (Given the show’s title, Van Dyck is here conspicuous by his absence.) Many of the foreign-born artists in the exhibition will be unfamiliar: award yourself a gold star if you’ve heard of the Dutch still-life specialist Van Roestraeten, whom Lely would only introduce to Charles II if he promised not to paint portraits, fearing Van Roestraeten would steal all his work.

Frankly, I suspect the Tate is even nervous about the pulling-power of Lely, the show’s best-known artist. There is a surprising gallery full of Italianate religious art. Gennari’s “Annunciation” (1686), an enormous altarpiece on loan from Florida, once hung in James II’s extravagant Roman Catholic chapel at Whitehall Palace, at the heart of this Protestant nation.

More surprises follow, in a room devoted to the fashion for novelty art so realistic it tricked the eye. A life-size, cut-out painting of an unknown bewigged gentleman holding a cane fools us into thinking we’ve stumbled onto the set for the BBC’s latest period drama; Rembrandt painted a similar cut-out of his maid, which he put in his window. A painted violin “hangs” on a real door from Chatsworth House. The skilful flower paintings of Simon Verelst are also present, because their verisimilitude once astonished Pepys.

Elsewhere, the delicate, unfurling foliage of Grinling Gibbons’s limewood carvings still elicit wonder and delight. Likewise, the subtle miniatures of Samuel Cooper – the freshest, most truthful works in the show. These are the exhibition’s best moments, characterised by playfulness and discovery. More “Beauties”, this time painted by Godfrey Kneller and Michael Dahl, appear, as they originally did, beside full-length looking glasses, Japanese lacquerware, and blue-and-white porcelain.

Benedetto Gennari, The Annunciation (1686)  Credit: The Ringling, Sarasota, Florida

Yet, their former glamour (after all, these women were the influencers and it-girls of their day) fails fully to sparkle – which you’d never say of later British portraits by Gainsborough or Lawrence. Perhaps the blame lies with Dahl, who had a knack for making even the most rosy-lipped maiden appear a touch awkward and sullen. He did the same to Queen Anne.

Other parts fall flat. An academic room of studies for full-blown mythological painted walls and ceilings makes the past seem a strange place. It’s a relief, in the final gallery, to come across a comparatively “modern”, pared-down portrait of a man who isn’t wearing a wig.

Throughout, we are invited to marvel at all the “magnificence”. But we need more than the cosy tone of a BBC Four documentary about a stately home. For me, the slightly “off” quality of some of the art – its awkwardness, not splendour – is what makes it interesting.

Consider the recently conserved allegorical painting being used to promote the exhibition: “The Sea Triumph of Charles II” (c. 1674) by the Neapolitan Antonio Verrio. Compositionally, it’s all over the shop: an orgiastic pile-up, threatening to engulf the king. But maybe that’s fitting, given the debauchery of his court. Sometimes, shortcomings are strangely compelling.

From Tues [Feb 4] until April 19; information: 020 7887 8888