Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – British Baroque: Power and Illusion at Tate Britain from 4 February to 19 April 2020

Exhibition Review – British Baroque: Power and Illusion at Tate Britain from 4 February to 19 April 2020

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Tate Britain presents a new exhibition which is the first exhibition to focus on baroque culture in Britain. The exhibition entitled British Baroque: Power and Illusion covers the period from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The exhibition includes many new discoveries and works displayed in public for the first time, many on loan from the stately homes for which they were originally made.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The baroque is more often associated with the mainland European courts, like that of Louis XIV, but the movement also thrived in Britain but under very different circumstances. Whilst the European royal courts tried to outdo each other in extravagance and splendour, in Britain it was the Restoration that provided the opportunity to assert the power of the monarchy.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The exhibition begins by exploring art’s role in the construction of a renewed vision of monarchy, the room including portraits of Charles II by Sir Peter Lely and Antonio Verrio, dominating this room is Verrio’s The Sea Triumph of Charles II c.1674 which represents the king as a mythical hero.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Lely was a popular painter with the King and the court, a series of portraits of court beauties by Lely is on display, including Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland with her son, as the Virgin and Child 1664. The Queen favoured the artist Jacob Huysmans who painted Catherine of Braganza c.1662-4, giving her a different visual identity from her husband.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The exhibition explores some of the issues related to the religious differences of the period, Protestant and Catholic worship dominated the period. On display are altarpieces from the Catholic chapels of Mary of Modena and James II and beautiful carvings by Grinling Gibbons and Thornhill’s designs for the painted dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

One style that attracted the royal courts were the novelty of trompe l’oeil paintings, these visual illusions were very popular and the show including works by Samuel van Hoogstraten, Chatsworth’s famous violin painted as if hanging on the back of a door, and the hyper-real flower paintings of Simon Verelst.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Baroque architecture is represented with works by the great architects of the age: Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh. A number of architectural designs, lavish prints and wooden models provide insights into some of the most significant buildings of the age, such as St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Blenheim Palace.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

If the exteriors were spectacular, the painted baroque interiors of palaces, country houses and public buildings were on a scale seldom seen before with mythological and ancient history mural paintings by Antonio Verrio, Louis Laguerre, Louis Cheron and James Thornhill.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

In all this splendour, the idea of beauty became a valuable quality for women, this is illustrated by Michael Dahl’s Petworth Beauties, a series of portraits of young women in their prime.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

War and politics dominated the reigns of William III and Anne. The exhibition includes a number of heroic equestrian portraiture and panoramic battle scenes that reinforced the idea of Britain being a major player on the European stage.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

In the final room, there is evidence of the shift in power from the royal court to party politics. Some of the new political elite is seen in Kneller’s depiction of the Whig Kit-Cat Club and John James Baker’s large group portrait The Whig Junto 1710.

This fascinating and unusual exhibition offers the opportunity to study British Baroque through outstanding paintings by the leading artists of the day, including Sir Peter Lely, Sir Godfrey Kneller and Sir James Thornhill. In many ways, British Baroque was a reaction against the dour puritan years of Cromwell’s reign and an assertion of the authority of the monarchy. However, all over Europe, the extravagance and decadence was to be a final act before revolution and political power changed this world forever. The grand buildings and large works of art may have expressed power and status at the time but to the modern viewer they represent elites out of touch with the reality of religious and political turmoil.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Recommended

For more information or to book tickets, visit the Tate Britain website here

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