Head down to Victoria station and this seems to be yet another location in the capital currently undergoing fevered infrastructural building works. Hopefully, when it’s all finished and the last of the cranes, portakabins and hard hats have departed, the entrance to the mainline station will be cleared of the chaotic hodge-podge of temporary add-on structures that have been installed to accommodate the sprawling mess of bus termini. It would be so nice to once again have revealed the full architectural grandeur of the original rather impressive façade. But I won’t be holding my breath. In the meantime, I take a hearty inhalation of the usual cocktail or particulate pollutants and dodge my way past the hordes of crushed commuters and touristy travelers and exit out on to Buckingham Palace Road en route to get to the Queen’s Gallery. Our glorious nonagenarian majesty has been having another one of her regular rummages around the monarchical store cupboards and graciously decided to coordinate the organisation of yet more entertaining little displays of her chattels for the edification of her grateful subjects. And, that being the case, I naturally feel obliged to go along and take a look, reciprocating her spirit of kind generosity by buying a ticket and so contributing another ten pounds to the coffers of the Windsor billionaires.
So, what’s on show this time? Well, first off is a substantial selection of works taken by the Victorian photographer Roger Fenton after he was commissioned by the publishers Thomas Agnew & Sons to go out and embed himself amongst our troops in the Crimea for a couple of months in the Spring of 1855. Presumably, his brief was to produce a sort of propagandistic record showing how the brave lads of our great imperial army were battling away alongside their French and Ottoman allies in a heroic effort to contain the dastardly and despicable expansionist actions of the rumbling Russian bear. And while there aren’t any actual action shots – I’m guessing that the long exposure times required to settle the negative emulsional chemicals on his large glass plate filmical equipment would have rendered proper battle scenes just a hopeless blur of gray ectoplasmic mush – Fenton does manages to record handsome portraits of various generals, officers and other lower-order ranks. These all come by way of carefully staged tableaux and, frankly, everybody seems to be having rather a jolly time, cultivating their extravagant ornamental whiskers and then dressing up in a series of fancy uniforms – decked out in gold braid epaulettes and topped off with assorted hats, plumed with ostrich feathers or padded with furry bearskins.
I kind of think that the actual battles, at places with familiar names like Balaklava and Inkerman, not to mention the final Siege of Sebastopol, were probably all utterly grisly affairs and that the general living conditions for the mass of the fighting men were similarly appalling but, if that were indeed the case, then Fenton either didn’t see – or simply chose not to photograph – them. Even the rather charming picture of a nurse offering a drink to a wounded soldier is, as the accompanying caption advises, an utterly contrived and fictional piece of theatre which, I suppose, makes Fenton not just the first professional war photographer but also the original perpetrator of fake news.
If the colour scheme of the Fenton exhibition is black, white and sepia then, by contrast, the other show here at the Queen’s Gallery is full of bright reds, shimmering golds and the sparkle associated with the sheen of precious gemstones. Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs is a fairly frothy commemoration of the historical ties linking the British and Russian empires during those various happy times when the two great nations have been allies not enemies. As such, it provides a wonderful excuse to disinter a mass of marvelously hackneyed and lacklustre portraits of all manner of aristocratic family members, from tsars and empresses down to various minor princesses, counts, grand dukes and grander duchesses.
Ironically, there’s an even greater display of military medals and ribbons pinned to the pampered breasts of the portly players here than there were attached to the more deserving chests of the actual battle combatants in the previous exhibition. But then royalty seems obsessed with self-ornamentation and the desire to dress up in fancy fantasy costumes layered with jewelry and medallions, sashes, flashes and furs. Judging by the disappointing overall artistic quality of many of the great parade of regal personages on show here, however, it seems that the very requirement to accurately detail all these opulent accessories that overwhelms most of the artists, few of whom are able to imbue their regal subjects with convincing signs of life beyond their exulted symbolic status. There are a couple of exceptions – Gustav Richter and Franz Xaver Winterhalter manage to correctly catalogue all the regal finery while giving plausible character to the faces of those weighed down with all the extravagant accountrements, although I wouldn’t be all that surprised to find that the artists might just have ever so slightly flattered their models’ physical forms.
Exiting the Gallery I manage to resist the temptation to indulge myself in some retail therapy but anyone looking for last minute Christmas gifts might want to consider checking out the Gallery shop. Here they’ll find a wonderful assortment of stuffed corgis, fake coronets and dozens of attractive postcards on offer that suggest the regal fancy for dressing up and wearing silly hats and assorted medals and paraphernalia is being selflessly and self-consciously carried on by the current members of our own dear royal family.
After which it’s quite refreshing to take a brisk stroll down the Mall, cross Trafalgar Square and then enter into the National Portrait Gallery to take a look at Gainsborough’s Family Album, an interesting exhibition of portraits of the relatives of the eponymous artist. I seem to recall a few years ago the Gallery here put on a large display of full-length portraits of various lords and ladies, strutting countrymen and simpering society beauties, the production of which had not just made Gainsborough’s financial fortune but also ensured his place in the pantheon of internationally-regarded British artists alongside Reynolds, Turner and the like. That series of paintings seemed to stress the slick professionalism of the businessman who knew how to charm and flatter his clients and so gain the continuing stream of lucrative commissions that had enabled him to elevate his position from that of the poor son of a bankrupt father to the owner of a large house and studio in Pall Mall, the most fashionable street in the city.
By contrast, the current show is full of more intimate studies and sketches (many half-finished – presumably having been set aside when a more valuable commercial opportunity arose) that show the artist using his family as models in order to practice his technical skills as well as experiment with possible poses and compositions. And, of course, the end results were also ideal advertisements for Gainsborough to show potential clients exemplars of what they might expect to receive should they commission him to paint their own portraits. As such there are character studies of all manner of great aunts, second cousins and other members of his extended family although, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most tender and touching of the works come about when he endaevours to capture the likenesses of his wife and two daughters.
Walking through the exhibition the viewer gets to see the children grow from a pair of sweet young girls chasing a butterfly to a couple of confidently composed young women dressed every bit as elegantly as any of the true daughters of the landed nobility who would otherwise have been posing for Gainsborough’s attention. Equally poignant is the record of the temporal journey made by the artist and his wife as they move from a sweet young couple sat on a bench in the woods – he wearing a tricorn hat, frock coat and knee breeches, she dressed in a flouncy gown daringly revealing a glimpse of lower leg – to a pair of comfortably assured, middle-class, middle-aged parents worried about how to pair off their daughters to suitors of suitable standing. And reading the various accompanying wall panel texts and labels in the show does provide a sort of gossipy introduction to the manners, morals and mores of 18th century British society prefiguring the similar concerns and conundra that fill up the novels of Trollope and the Brontes a century later.
While there are only a couple of really great paintings on display here (both of which I’ve referenced above), there are a good few dozen attractive and interesting second tier items which, taken as a whole, make up quite a reasonably entertaining if understated sort of a show that just about justifies the £6 reduced entry fee I paid on production of my National Art Fund card.
And that leaves just enough time and space for me to nip off round the corner to take a quick look at a couple of free displays in the National Gallery. The Lion and the Unicorn is a 12-minute film by Rachel Maclean that offers some kind of critique of the debates surrounding the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. So, we get a speech by the Queen praising the union intercut with other comments by the former PM David Cameron and a hostile Jeremy Paxman interviewing an evasive Alex Salmon, former leader or the SNP with all of the extracts mouthed by the film’s creator dressed up in a series of extravagant pantomime costumes. Production values are high and everything is played out very professionally but while I’m fairly sure that the artist is trying to make some punchy satirical points, I couldn’t really discern exactly what they were, nor even whther she was herself a McLeaver or McRemainer.
A rather more straightforward act of symbolistic artistic presentation comes in the form of another small display at the National which presents Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen alongside some accompanying preparational sketches relating to the production of this tribute to Scottish resilience and fortitude. Of course, poor Landseer’s reputation has diminished to near invisibility during the century since his demise, cursed as he is by his association with a brand of anthropomorphic sentimentalism that became increasingly deplored by the artistic cognoscenti of the Modernist 20th century. And that’s a bit of a shame for Landseer was, at least in my opinion, technically a really very gifted artist and, alongside his more soppy creations, could occasionally produce a really impressive work like the one on show now.
Finally, I’d like to wish anyone who has managed to read up to this point my congratulations, a Happy Christmas and offer the promise that the normal ranting rambling service will return in the New Year following on from a short seasonal break.