Thursday, December 6, 2018

Tudors to Windsors British Royal Portraits - Background - Essay

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Henry VIII,
1540, oil on wood, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

"..It’s easy to imagine Henry glittering in the torch light at Whitehall Palace..."

Tudors to Windsors British Royal Portraits - Background - Essay

Standing in front of Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1540 portrait of Henry VIII, I couldn’t help but think of Walter Pater.  Irrespective of Pater’s reputation for corrupting lower class boys, probably unfair given Victorian piety and prudery, I'm drawn to his aestheticism.  Practice sharp and eager observation, Pater urged, to recognize moments of perfection.

To mouth old Walter’s aesthetic approach these days can get you impeached, downright disparaged, nevertheless I glean perfection in Holbein’s offsetting of ultramarine blue pigment with crimson and gold tones.  The result is jewel-like and hypnotic.  It’s in Holbein’s handling of the effects of luminosity on the different surfaces of Henry’s costume, however, that reveals the artist’s infallible skill at pictorial representation.  Closely observe his treatment of light reflected on intricate gold silk brocade in Henry’s doublet, and on faceted sapphires in Henry’s necklace.  Resplendent!  It’s easy to imagine Henry glittering in the torch light at Whitehall Palace.

An inscription on the portrait informs that Henry was forty-nine when Holbein painted it, the king would soon enter a pathetic state of obesity and sickness, with military failures.  Thus the illusionistic portrayal of brute force.

After Allan Ramsay, King George III, 1761–62, 
oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery,  London. 
       © National Portrait Gallery, London

One of my favorite stories about King George III comes from Winston Churchill’s four-volume “History of the English-Speaking Peoples.”  Churchill’s narrative echoed dismay that after two Hanoverians occupied the English throne, Teutonic accents aside, doubt persisted that George III was an “English” monarch.  According to Churchill, George’s mother cut through the baloney.  “George, be King!”

The royal image bombed.  For all its grandeur, authority, and formulaic propaganda, George III’s portrait failed miserably to convey the notion of god-saved imperium to those annoying American colonists.  As if disobedient offspring and lunacy aren’t burdensome enough, poor George suffered unreasonable demands about taxation and representation.

He lost the god-forsaken colonies, which is why some scholars call his royal portrait, intended as a visual representation of his majesty and the everlasting glory of his realm, “unpersuasive.”  On the other hand, there’s no denying the skill with which the artist rendered ermine and silk damask, and deftly applied greenish pigment to form the contours of George’s double chin.  Mad George managed to reign for sixty years, and Churchill labeled him one of the “most conscientious sovereigns who ever sat on the English throne.”  George’s portrait is in fact a notable focal point in “Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol,” from the National Portrait Gallery, London, an exhibition which documents 500 years of the British Monarchy at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) through January 27, 2019.  As usual, I don’t intend to describe the show, will simply offer a few bits of fun background material, for instance, George III gave Buckingham Palace to his wife Charlotte as a gift.

“Princess Margaret,” 1930-2002 Lord Snowdon, 
1967 Gelatin silver press print.

George III buggered-up Princess Margaret’s plans.  Worried his dimwitted children would make unsuitable matches, King George enacted the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 which gave the sovereign, and to a certain extent Parliament, “marriage approval” over heirs to the throne.  Hark forward to 1953.  Bored after Elizabeth’s coronation, Margaret expressed desire to marry divorced Peter Townsend, fully aware that just seventeen years earlier Parliament had unequivocally told her uncle Edward VIII that as King and Defender of the Faith of the Church of England which did not recognize divorce, he could not marry Wallace Simpson.  It was suggested that millions of Englishmen had sacrificed their lives for their country, surely Edward could sacrifice the American hussy.  H. L. Mencken described the constitutional crises that led to Edward’s 1936 abdication as “the greatest story since the resurrection.”

As third in line for the throne, small wonder that Parliament requested Margaret renounce her royal status to marry.  Ultimately, the princess came to her senses and chose “duty” over love, and announced, “Mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth,” I decided not to marry Peter Townsend.  

Antony Armstrong-Jones’s 1967 photograph gives us a ravishing Princess Margaret.  A mere “commoner,” photographer Armstrong-Jones snagged the title Lord Snowdon when he married Margaret in Westminster Abbey in 1960, their wedding televised for three million of her majesty’s subjects.  Unfortunately the marriage went down the toilet, and by the time of their 1978 divorce, Margaret’s and Anthony’s extramarital affairs had stirred up scandal.  Add to the princess’s woes, on-going parliamentary grumbling about lowering her salary, she was over-paid for royal duties, which she found tiresome.  Margaret was in fact fond of horse breeding.  And she adored scotch.

Robert Elliot, Winston Churchill, 1943, bromide
print, National Portrait Gallery, London.
© Estate of Robert Elliot / National Portrait Gallery, London

When I came upon Robert Elliot’s 1943 photograph of Churchill, I wondered if Churchill felt vindicated when Hitler “swallowed up the rump of Czechoslovakia,” to borrow from biographer Roy Jenkins.  All along, Churchill knew Hitler was a liar and a lunatic, who mocked the pacifists and appeasers.  Intelligence dispatches and unofficial secret reports kept Churchill informed that Germany had been illegally re-arming for years, and that Hitler intended nothing less than to dominate Europe.  Further the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were in sorry states indeed.  From his isolated backbench position, he pleaded with the bloody fools in government to address the loathsome menace and to arm England against inevitable tyranny, and by the time Churchill was given power, the Admiralty in 1939 and the government in 1940, he worried it was too late.

How does one inspire countrymen and allies to grievously fight to the death?  With fiery oration.  When Churchill addressed the nation on the BBC, he said, “We have differed and quarreled in the past; but now one bond unites us all - to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and agony may be.”  Immediately after becoming Prime Minister he told the House of Commons, our policy is “to wage war by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”  Our aim is “victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”

Biographer William Manchester perceived Churchill as a moral counterforce to contemptible self-serving government appeasers.  By contrast with Churchill, who believed in absolute virtue and absolute evil, the appeasers who cozied up to the Third Reich wanting a buffer against bolshevism, rationalized Nazi criminality, sold out allies, and led England to the gallows.  That is, until the House of Commons in a revolt of conscience, wrenched power from them, and summoned Churchill who had foretold all, and who had tried year after year, alone and mocked, to prevent the war.

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