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In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. 10th May – 6th October 2013.

Reviewed by David AHB Taylor


[1] The exhibition, In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, presents an impressive display of sixteenth and seventeenth-century portraits, as well as rare items of clothing and accessories from the period. As such, it provides a very welcome opportunity to reconsider some of the most iconic early portraits in the Royal Collection, in terms of costume and appearance, rather than merely as likenesses of individual sitters.

[2] The wide-reaching subject area of the exhibition – fashion in early modern portraiture spanning two centuries – must have been a daunting remit for curator, Anna Reynolds, given the number and quality of the works in the Royal Collection from this period but it is a carefully imagined and well thought-out display. The greater part of the exhibition comprises painted portraits, including many rarely seen pictures. Most, however, are by Old Masters – not just Holbein, Van Dyck and Lely but, for example, Rembrandt, Bronzino and Jan Steen (the latter included to illustrate various sartorial points, rather than fitting neatly into the ‘Tudor and Stuart fashion’ category). There are also some fascinating ‘lesser’ works, such as an unidentified woman painted c.1620, who wears a magnificent, low-cut embroidered waistcoat, as well as portraits of unknown sitters by key artists, such as Paulus Moreelse’s fat toddler in his ‘short coat’, who holds up his teething rattle like a sceptre or commander’s baton.

[3] The portraits in the exhibition are considered not merely as representations of elite figures, produced to record a likeness, but as persuasive images of individuals inhabiting their dress as a means of transmitting key messages to the viewer. Of course, most of us know many of the messages on offer here so for an understanding audience the relationship between portrait and viewer is often transactional. Mark Twain’s oft-repeated opinion that ‘Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society’, identifies the basic rationale of this exhibition, that socially important men and women wanted and needed to be viewed in a certain way and that the display of power was fundamentally connected to actual power. As such, the portraits in the exhibition show people in their richest finery, accessorised with signs and symbols. An unknown Flemish artist’s portrait of a young Henry Frederick of the Palatinate, still in skirts, shows the material of his clothes co-ordinating with his suite of furniture, so that every surface is covered in pacific olive branch motifs. Add to this the little toy cannon he holds, and we can see what sort of ruler he is expected to become. Other sitters seem somehow restricted by their outwardly authoritative appearances. For example, Anne of Denmark, in a portrait attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, wears an old-fashioned wheel farthingale in a deliberate aping of the iconography of Elizabeth I (much of whose wardrobe she inherited), an appropriation which could have subsumed her own persona, had she not decorated her hair and ruff with jewellery which explicitly references her Scandinavian royal lineage.

[4] The appearance of the main rooms in the Queen’s Gallery is, as you would expect, impressively sumptuous. There are many highlights, such as Charles I’s purported Garter sash, placed next to the moving Van Dyck portrait of him in three positions, which was painted to assist Bernini while carving his marble bust of the King. Or, indeed, the fantastic Robert Peake portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales, in his modish hunting costume, portrayed in front of what appears to be a fanciful view of the deer park below Stirling Castle, where the prince was raised before 1603. Another highlight is the recently conserved Portrait of a Man in Red, which gets its own room. This enigmatic picture, possibly executed in Germany, continues to intrigue the viewer and the accompanying interpretation raises questions over authorship and sitter. There is little confusion however over the two portraits of Charles II’s maybe-mistress, Frances Stewart, later Duchess of Richmond, displayed together and providing a fascinating and humorous sartorial juxtaposition. Peter Lely’s other-worldly portrayal of her as the goddess Diana, walking through an evening forest in a ‘night-gown’, is hung next to Jacob Huysman’s depiction of a rather wry-looking Stewart dressed as a soldier, complete with a (feminised) military buff coat and with her long hair curled to appear like a man’s wig.

[5] A fascinating image of Mary Stuart, Princess of Orange, in the parrot-feather masquing cloak that she wore in 1655, ‘very well dressed, like an Amazon’ (but surely not by Hanneman, as described – see that artist’s posthumous portrait of her in the same costume in the Mauritshuis collection instead), shows how exotic, luxury fabrics were utilised – here as fancy dress, articulating a Dutch notion of what an Amazon warrior should look like. A staggering wall of Habsburg portraits, representing the influence of continental fashion on Britain, shows a more formal and formulaic representation of costume than the Dutch dressing-up picture. At the centre of these Spanish and Austrian paintings are Juan Pantoja de la Cruz’s portraits of Philip III and his lantern-jawed consort, Margaret of Austria, whose Spanish court dress, covered in Castilian castles, Leonese lions and Habsburg double-headed eagles, represents the ‘saya’ she wore at her marriage several years before. She also wears the La Peregrina pearl, which no doubt created a sense of nostalgia in court circles, when the portraits arrived as a diplomatic gift in London, following the signing of the Anglo-Spanish Treaty of London in 1604, as it had been given to Mary I as a wedding present from her husband, the future Philip II.

[6] One of the main attractions of the hang, however, is the ability to see the paintings at close hand, which allows us to examine the sitter’s clothes in detail. It offers the opportunity, for example, to view the magnificent pair of portraits attributed to William Scrots of the future Edward VI and his half-sister, Elizabeth, which are displayed next to each other, close enough to examine the fabrics and materials that convey these particular portraits’ messages regarding status. This is especially important in Elizabeth’s portrait, in which she (under her red dress) wears cloth of silver interwoven with gold, reminding the viewer of her royal position. Her status was of vital importance when this portrait was painted, since she was still officially illegitimate and would have been expected (and have needed) to make a good marriage for her own security.

[7] There was a real risk of this exhibition being seen as a ‘filler’ show, but it certainly holds its own within the Royal Collections’ current programme and will undoubtedly be a popular exhibition with the public. Its achievements include introducing considered discussions regarding interpreting colours, shapes and patterns within portraiture, while the unusual step (for the Royal Collection) of loaning in exhibits for display means that we are better enabled to understand the pictures, complemented as they are by material objects, for example, armour, purses, shoes and lace. Also to be recommended are the interpretation panels, which include illustrated glossaries of dress terminology, explanations of different weaves of material and the construction of fabrics, as well as descriptions of the pattern books, costume books and fashion plates that helped disseminate designs.

[8] The greatest achievement of the exhibition, along with the legacy of the large and beautifully illustrated catalogue, is that it enlightens the visitor with the rhetorical power of clothing in these portraits and makes us really examine the actual garments to re-consider why and how the sitters are dressed the way they are. Another sartorial observation from Twain observed:

‘Clothes and title are the most potent thing, the most formidable influence, in the earth. They move the human race to willing and spontaneous respect for the judge, the general, the admiral, the bishop, the ambassador, the frivolous earl, the idiot duke, the sultan, the king, the emperor. No great title is efficient without clothes to support it.’

In Fine Style makes us look at these pictures in a different light, re-consider them with a sharper focus and question to what extent the clothes served the purpose of the portraits – in supporting the great titles of the various wearers.

 National Trust, June 2013