An afternoon at Windsor

23 April 2010

So anyway, the whole point of my going to London last month was to meet up with my former university tutor, Mr Desmond Shawe-Taylor, who is now the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.

Actually, I’ve just recalled that not only was Desmond my tutor at Nottingham, but he also interviewed me for my place on the course. At the time I was undecided between Bristol, York and Nottingham, but it was my interview with Desmond that made me decide on the spot that I wanted to go to Nottingham. I was already a fan of his work on Georgian art and I really looked forward to learning more about it from an expert.

It is Desmond that you have to thank for my love of Baroque religious art and for an appreciation of sculpture. The other tutors at Nottingham prefered a more factual, less flamboyant style in their essays – it was Desmond who taught me that writing about art history is boring without drama and flair and encouraged me to write about what I saw vividly and with vigour.

He left Nottingham in my second year to Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery and then later on became Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, which basically means that he is responsible for the Queen’s painting collection.

I was thrilled and excited when he offered to meet up in the wake of the opening of Victoria and Albert: Art and Love at the Queen’s Picture Gallery and had lots of questions planned. However, it didn’t quite work out that way and we ended up having an informal but fascinating conversation about art history instead.

First of all we talked about the exhibition about Victoria and Albert, which I had assumed was inspired by the film Young Victoria or at least was planned with it in mind, but it seems that it was just a happy coincidence that they happened so close together.

We talked about how the world is ready for another reinterpretation of the Victorians and this focus on the young Queen Victoria and the romance between her and Albert is a fresh new look at both the Queen and the period that she lived in, challenging the staid view that people tend to have both of the Victorians and also Victoria herself. The last big rethink about the Victorians seemed to involve focussing on their sex lives and debunking the myth that they were repressed and moralistic – now, it seems that it is time that we looked at the romantic Victorians.

There are cross overs as well between the Queen’s Gallery’s previous exhibition about conversation pieces and the new exhibition about Victoria and Albert: both are intrinsically focused on the contentment of happy domestic life, the intimate moments that until the eighteenth century had not been depicted so often in art. On one hand, we have the somewhat stiff but still affectionate family groups of the conversation pieces and on the other we have the visual evidence of the great love between Queen Victoria and her Albert.

The paintings of the royal couple with their children bear a definite relationship to the earlier paintings, most closely with those of George III, Queen Charlotte and their numerous children. It is clear that what is being depicted here is not just an idealised happy family life but also a very definite attempt at propaganda – on one hand there is George III, his wife and band of pop eyed children, painted at their leisure either seated before a dressing table or at their ease in a quintessentially English landscape, using a very English conceit to distance themselves both from their embarrassing Stuart ancestors and also the unpopular earlier Hanoverian kings and on the other, there is Victoria and Albert, dressed just like any other middle class family, openly showing their love and distancing themselves from Victoria’s family, which at the time comprised her degenerate uncles.

Both exhibitions encompass a movement towards a very informal, middle class form of art. Before the conversation piece, portraiture was the preserve of the aristocracy and usually depicted nobility dressed in their finest clothes, posing self consciously, an arch smile hovering about their lips and the conversation pieces are the antithesis of this. They also chart the movement of the royal family towards a more intimate and informal way of life, reflecting their own wish to be more wholesome in an attempt to gain security and separate themselves from the bad behaviour of the past.

Desmond and I talked regretfully about the fact that these attempts were inevitably doomed to failure. George III and Queen Charlotte did their best to raise good, well behaved children who would be totally unlike their ancestors and instead managed to produce a brood who have gone down in history as a iniquitous rabble. Victoria and Albert had better luck, although their eldest son Prince Bertie could be classed as a definite failure.

We also touched on the burgeoning interest in German art and writing, with its more moral and sombre themes than that of France. It’s interesting that in the eighteenth century, France, Germany and England fed off each other culturally and yet retained their own distinct character. The main crux of this would seem to be the role of court culture at the time and the movement away from behemoths like Versailles towards the more culturally diverse and lively salons of Paris. At the same time, London was a centre for writers and artists while the court at Windsor (with the exception of Frances Burney, who loathed it) was stultified and dull.

Another interesting point was the difference in reactions to the various Germanic consorts at this time – we all know about Marie Antoinette’s shattered reputation in France, but how does this contrast with the way that Queen Charlotte, a German princess, was viewed in England and then, much later, how the Saxon Prince Albert was regarded by the subjects of his wife, Victoria.

It was a fascinating afternoon and so thank you, Desmond, if you read this, for being so kind and for the fabulous conversation! I took so much away with me and have been feeling very inspired ever since.

More posts about this:

Victoria and Albert: Art and Love.

The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life.

The Young Victoria.