One doesn’t immediately think of the British for their heritage of great painting. As Britain rose as a great mercantile power starting in the 16th century, it had to import painters, typically from Northern Europe, to their isolated island. For two hundred years, those foreigners largely defined English visual accomplishments and taste. British portraiture never lost its affinity for realism that came from Holbein, or the Italian palette—or sympathy with power—that Van Dyck brought. In subsequent centuries, as painting become more native (and more painters, apparently, have as their first name “Sir”), the story becomes more complicated. The current exhibition at the Taft of some fifty works from the William and Bernadette Berger Collection walks us through one version of this story, one room and one century at a time, to get us from late medieval to contemporary art in England.
The first room, truly, is a treasure house. The English Reformation had a particularly violent streak of iconoclasm. The chapels and abbeys that Henry VIII did not seize for their wealth were very often destroyed by Protestant forces, including Puritans, for whom the commandment about graven images was a very serious proposition. The survival of the Berger Collection’s “Crucifixion” (c. 1395) is remarkable, considering how few British medieval devotional images are still extant. The background is made up of highly patterned embossed and gilded tin. There are fabulous painted details of fabrics and flowers. The faces of the mourners at the foot of the cross are formal—decorousness is something the English tend to be very good at, especially before the influence of Giotto’s intensity, and all that follows from that.
There is a portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales (c. 1538) from the studio of Holbein that testifies to the English love of crystal clear line rather than moody shadows. And there is a remarkable portrait of Henry VIII (c. 1513) as a young man. Before he became the colossus and the sexual monster we know him to have become, he was a prince—a young man interested in the world around him.
My personal favorite is the anonymous “Alice Barnham and Her Sons Martin and Steven” (1557). Alice Barnham was a successful businesswoman married to a successful businessman, but the wealth in the portrait is extremely unostentatious. Her dress may be silk, but it is simple, and even the fur collar has nothing gaudy about it. Her face—like those of her children—is pale and plain. The family is envisioned as epitomizing Protestant dignity. She can read and write (it is, after all, after the Reformation), and she takes her first-hand knowledge of the scriptures seriously: she is writing passages from the Bible in her own hand and has taught even her youngest child to read the Bible. The family is lined up at a counting table of some sort, but they could also be kneeling at an altar. Part of the point of Reformation values is that in a world that took worldly success as a sign of divine grace and favor, it could be both at once.
In the 17th century, everything changes. After the initial victory of the radical Protestant forces over the King (and his execution) and the austere government of Cromwell, came their eventual defeat, which allowed the royal court to return from its decade or so of exile in Holland, Belgium, and France. They bring back with them, among other things, the music, literature, theater, and the conventions of visual culture familiar to continental Europe, but very foreign to England. The restoration of the monarchy creates different forms of patronage, celebrations of citizen wealth, and narratives of nationalism. One way to see the Taft show as a whole is to think about the range of ways British nationalism is being defined, renamed, and reoriented. Adriaen van Diest’s “Battle of Lowestoft” (c. 1690), depicting a British naval victory over the Dutch, is one way of celebrating English triumphalism, but so is Jan Siberecht’s less jingoistic “Pastoral Landscape” (1684). Here, colorful peasants with baskets of flowers are placed in a scene featuring a working quarry in England’s East Midlands. More than one painting in the show celebrates England by bringing together the mythic and the actual, the eternal and the mundane. It is impossible to miss England’s triumph at the end of World War I in Sir Claude Francis Barry’s “Victory Celebrations” (1919). An awesome, wall-sized work near the very end of the show, it partakes of the French Pointillist aesthetic some twenty years after it had been done in France, a rather typical English time lag, mixed with England’s own devotion to the decorative tradition (think William Morris). The streamers of fireworks give way to shapes more like confetti which in turn, come to look like a heaven’s-worth of little stars falling to earth. But English values are also being celebrated in the utterly quiet “Nuneham” (1860) by Edward Lear. It is a perfect English landscape with trees, meadows, and sleeping sheep. Everything is relaxed but is also coiled with potential economic value. The glory and the power of a nation are not only measured by having the last flag afloat.
National pride takes many forms. Holbein’s portrait of the very young Edward VI celebrates the king-to-be partly as the dynastic victory over time that comes with any royal baby (provided that it’s male), and partly the echo of Christ raising his hand in a blessing with his golden rattle. But there is also a celebration of a more domestic nationalism in Benjamin West’s portrait of Queen Charlotte (1776). She has set her needlework aside and is looking aside wistfully. Though the elaborateness of her dress and the extreme verticality of her hair announce her royalty, she is behaving at least as much like a woman as she is like a Queen. In the 18th century, the court painter could see royalty in a Queen who is like an ordinary woman—or an ordinary woman who happens to be the Queen.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the exhibition suggests, the portraiture of women continues to change. More skin is showing, and silks come on a wider range of colors than Alice Barnham’s black. Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s “Dorothy, Lady Dacre” (c. 1633) is only in her twenties, but there is little about her that is girlish. It was easy to age fast in the 17th century. Dorothy had already lost a husband by the time Van Dyck painted her and, the label suggests, was perhaps in the market for another. Her expression is both open to the viewer and yet also as reticent as a distrustful Byzantine Madonna. She has been placed in the imaginary corner of her family home that is located both outdoors and indoors: we can see storm clouds behind her on one side and the folds of a gold and red tapestry on the other, defining her in relationship to both art and nature. Though she is plainly still in mourning, there is a lot of flesh showing, and her skin has a glow that seems partly natural and partly cosmetic. In a world in love with artifice—like many of the women portrayed in the show, she’s wearing some great pearls—what does it mean to be natural?
A lot changes in the course of a century. In his porthole-style of “Miss Craigie, later Mrs. Reid” (1741), Allan Ramsay paints a young women whose prettiness is likely to feel familiar to modern eyes, although she is surely corseted and is showing a fair amount of bosom (the dress she is wearing emphasizes her breasts in several ways). Her silks are tight around her waist, puffy at her sleeves, and cascade loosely behind her. In her demure way, she is rather sexual and seems to have something on her mind, with a small and slightly preoccupied smile. Towards the end of the century, there is a fabulous unfinished “Portrait of a Lady” (early 1790s) by Sir Thomas Lawrence. She is emerging from a monotone brown, and the shadows that she casts form a dark, cave-like opening. Her face is close to being finished, but everything else in the painting is neither more nor less than Lawrence’s bravura brushstrokes, which are made to look alternately like powdered hair or gauzy fabric or shadows. Her coiffeur is partly perfectly piled and partly hanging down in disarray. The curatorial note suggests that the piece was intentionally left unfinished so that it could serve as a sample of, well, something to Lawrence’s prospective customers. What it seems to do more than anything else is to remind us of the wild, energetic painting that sits just beneath the surface of the polite and demure sexuality of the portrait.
The exhibit suggests that the 18th century is about the spread of middle class values and pleasures, many of them familiar to this day. The imperial eye was being developed. People traveled and saw the amazing (eruptions of Vesuvius), the exotic (ruins of Egypt), and the merely foreign (the landscape of Italy). Painters recorded these places and customers wanted souvenirs; in their need to adorn walls of a wider economic range of customers than those who owned paintings a century or two before, paintings tend to be smaller. But with the 18th century section of the show, there are surprises about works that aren’t there as well as works that are. There are no epic portraits by Reynolds or Gainsborough, for example, who are typically the anchor legs of the 18th century relay. There is no Hogarth or other of the 18th century socially-engaged artists. In place of these sorts of works, the show suggests that the Bergers have taken a different approach to the canon, and imagine arriving at the present day by a different arrangement of works, genres and artists.
The Berger Collection, for example, takes “British” broadly, and features works by artists originally from outposts of the empire. In addition to Sargent and Whistler, for example, who are among the usual expatriate suspects, the show features three pictures by Benjamin West, one of the earliest of American painters to move across the ocean for opportunities he couldn’t find at home. It is also interesting to see Angelica Kauffmann in the 18th century room, a female founding member of the Royal Academy, who in the context of the show actually looks conservative, one of several artists drawn to mythology and classical history as the essential backdrop for figure painting. Against her, the wildness of Lawrence’s unfinished sketch looks much fresher. The exhibit has a work by Joseph Wright of Derby, though it is not one of his eye-popping works where a domestic group gathers around a dimly-lit display of scientific instruments: Enlightenment meets Gorges de La Tour. Instead, it is an outdoor portrait of Miss Frances Warren (c. 1762-4), a child with a lamb, a painting that plays into a variety of familiar symbolic systems. If in some ways the picture looks backward, in the details of the distant landscape behind Miss Warren we see a looseness and expressiveness worthy of Corot, suggesting directions to come.
There is a Gainsborough, but it is a landscape, the genre he professed to prefer. “A Coastal Landscape” (c. 1782-4), a diminutive and lyrical piece, shows cows and those who tend them gathering by the water’s edge where small boats are unloading or sailing off in a sedate way. It is unlikely to have been sketched from nature, but was rather pulled together from sketches, memories, and pure imagination. It evokes a combination of work and leisure in the countryside; no one is at rest, but no one needs to be working very hard. It is difficult to explain why there are cows down at the beach, aside from a wish to expand the inclusiveness of pastoral. Gainsborough has painted the scene with wet and loose brushstrokes. The whole thing is a kind of timeless tone poem. It is in striking contrast to John Constable’s “Yarmouth Pier” (c. 1820-22) in the next room. Especially when compared to Gainsborough’s, Constable’s work seems to be focused on a single, actual moment, the immediacy of the passing world memorialized in very particular clouds and very particular waves breaking on the shore. The pier itself looks like it would provide dubious security in such a storm. A couple stands together to admire the dark waves—it is, after all, the age of Romanticism—and distant boats are being blown about. If everything about Gainsborough’s canvas is smooth and even, everything in Constable’s work is rough, thick with impasto, and brimming with turmoil. It is amazing how much has happened in the forty years between the two works.
And yet it is fair to wonder whether the Berger Collection has as authoritative a showing of the 19th century as it does of the 16th, 17th, or 18th. Though there is a small, brooding “View in Richmond Park” (1850) by John Martin, an artist normally better known for huge-scale apocalyptic visions and Cecil B. DeMille-like portrayals of empires tumbling down, it is striking that there is nothing by Blake or Samuel Palmer. There is certainly nothing that captures the energy of Turner. There are other striking omissions. There are fine, small sketches by Sargent and Whistler, but they barely provide a taste. There is nothing of the Pre-Raphaelites, and nothing by the most significant painters of English Impressionism or Post-Impressionism. This ends up with a representation of the 19th century that feels flat and proper, with pictures done with skill but without passion or innovation at a time when visual culture across Europe and even America was bursting with passion and innovation and new ideas about what things looked like and how to capture those looks. It may be a flaw in the Berger Collection itself or in the works selected for the Taft’s show of the Berger Collection, but it may also reflect a problem with British art. It is hard to contemplate the accomplishments of British art without dealing with the Royal Academy, and the forcefulness with which it spoke to most artists and for a certain kind of public that expected art to satisfy a pretty prescribed set of desires for subjects and styles of representation. Without the ability to pass a single law, the RA imposed a series of restrictions on art by its codification of taste.
Which brings us to horses. The work at the core of the Berger Collection’s interest in horses is “A Saddled Bay Hunter” (1786), a terrific picture by George Stubbs who approached his subject matter with the dedication of a scientist and the sensibility of a visionary. Like most of Stubbs’s horses, this one is in profile, its most statuesque angle. As many critics have pointed out over the years, Stubbs painted portraits of horses—it is hard to miss their individuality and even personality, though like many portraits, one often feels as if there is something being held back in reserve at the same time. Some of Stubbs’s horses are bareback and some are saddled, like this one; this animal has been brought well within the human sphere of influence, though there is something aloof and undomesticatable about it at the same time.
There are several other paintings of horses in the show. James Ward’s “Cossack Horse in a Landscape” (1820s) is a prime example of the high romantic horse painting, showing a riderless white horse buffeted by a storm. There is something anthropomorphized about this horse as it feels the wind but stands tall and still against it. Is it perhaps the best part of the Cossack identity? John Frederick Herring, Sr.’s “A Soldier with an Officer’s Charger” (1839) seemed to me to represent the worst part of the horsey world. Herring’s horse seems reluctant to accept whatever the uniformed soldier is offering it, either food or affection. Neither seems at ease; it is not a natural moment between them. They are stiff without being statuesque. It is perfectly possible that I’m being unfair about it. It’s true that there is almost a hallucinatory quality to the way that every detail about the horse, the soldier, and the landscape are rendered with equal attention. But it seems that the point is that this unsaddled horse belongs in the human sphere in a way that Stubbs’s saddled horse never could. Interestingly, the horse most in line with Stubbs’s vision may be “Sir Abe Bailey’s Tiberius” (1935), painted in his stall by Sir Alfred J. Munnings (who was, for a time, President of the Royal Academy, in the interests of full disclosure). Painted with bravura and economy, Tiberius stands patiently and indifferently for his portrait, the reflection of bright light like a halo behind him contributing to the picture’s theatricality. This horse, above all, is glistening. It is slick as an eel, or perhaps as wet as a newborn calf, celebrating something about the horse that is deeply alien to us, even if it has been named after its owner.
The show makes no pretense of trying to capture the many original directions of English painting in the 20th and 21st centuries, though it is still noteworthy that none of the classics are here: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Peter Doig, Damien Hirst, or David Hockney, among many more. But there is a remarkable portrait of “David Hockney, RA” by Adam Birtwistle (2002) that provides a fine way to end the show and summarize its many strengths. It is, of course, a portrait in a show whose best works tend to be portraits. It has some of the obstinate linearity of Holbein; it is has the baroque love of the telling shadow that we see in Van Dyck. And there is a bit of a tweak, I would think, on the painter’s part to remind viewers in the title that Hockney may be a rebel, but he is an Establishment rebel, a member of the Royal Academy. Birtwistle is not.