Though mention of baroque usually conjures up images of gloriously over-the-top European courts – personified by the Sun King himself, Louis XIV – a new exhibition at Tate Britain, the first of its kind, showcases baroque art and culture in Britain. Covering the later 17th century, from the restoration of Charles II in 1670 (his father Charles I had been executed in the aftermath of the English Civil War) to the death of Queen Anne in 1714, it explores the overlap between art and power in this often-overlooked era.
In times of societal transformation and upheaval of entrenched institutions, baroque art was used to construct a renewed, magnificent vision of monarchy. Hence, lavish portraits of Charles II and the splendour, colour and vivacity of the Restoration court. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given the king’s well-documented promiscuity) royal mistresses are included: portraits by Lely, including Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland with her son, as the Virgin and Child 1664, were used to illustrate the important position held by royal mistresses. Meanwhile, works by Jacob Huysmans, such as Catherine of Braganza c.1662-4, shaped the independent visual identity of the Queen consort.
In the early 18th century, war and politics dominated the reigns of William III and Anne. This too is reflected in the exhibition’s display: heroic equestrian portraiture, panoramic battle scenes and accompanying propaganda are showcased, as well as portraits of Whig politicians, representing the growing power of the new political elite. Mythological mural paintings, which frequently carried contemporary political messages, were designed to overwhelm spectators and impress upon them the power, taste and leadership of their owners.
Some of the most recognisable British buildings were also constructed during this period, St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Blenheim Palace among them. The profound visual impact and drama of baroque architecture is therefore be represented with designs, prints and models of works by the great architects of the age: Christopher Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh.