Cen­turies of Bri­tish royal drama at MFAH

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - ZEST - STAFF WRITER By Molly Glentzer Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, Lon­don

Walk­ing through “Tudors to Wind­sors” feels like binge-watch­ing a 500-year ver­sion of “The Crown.”

The first big ex­hi­bi­tion of the sea­son at the Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Hous­ton opens Sun­day and of­fers a de­li­ciously en­gross­ing his­tory les­son, even if Bri­tish roy­als are not your usual cup of tea.

The saga of King Henry VIII, with his six un­for­tu­nate wives and his du­el­ing queen daugh­ters, Mary and El­iz­a­beth I, will be fa­mil­iar. Ditto the fa­mous love story of Queen Vic­to­ria and Prince Al­bert, who mar­ried off eight of their nine chil­dren to form al­liances across Europe that ripped the fam­ily apart dur­ing World War I, and the cur­rent four gen­er­a­tions of Wind­sors, whose wed­dings and fu­ner­als have cap­tured big­ger TV au­di­ences — in the 20 mil­lion range — than many of this sea­son’s NFL games.

“There’s so much plot, as it were, in terms of the wives, the drama, the re­li­gion.” Char­lotte Bol­land, Lon­don’s Na­tional Por­trait Gallery 16th-cen­tury spe­cial­ist

But they are just part of a seem­ingly end­less cast of cap­ti­vat­ing fig­ures who were all the pop stars of their day.

It makes you won­der, why do we find Bri­tish roy­alty so fas­ci­nat­ing?

For one thing, be­cause they still ex­ist, hav­ing en­dured in spite of the dis­ap­pear­ance of other Euro­pean monar­chies. Even the dy­nas­ties of cen­turies ago re­main wildly alive in lit­er­a­ture, plays, op­eras and in count­less books and films. And they’re not bor­ing: Blood­thirsty, cruel, fash­ion­able, over­sexed, they’ve got it all.

David Bom­ford, the Bri­tish na­tive who led the MFAH cu­ra­to­rial team for “Tudors to Wind­sors,” calls the roy­als ge­niuses of rein­ven­tion. “If a line of suc­ces­sion ran out of heirs, which hap­pened with amaz­ing reg­u­lar­ity, some­body else could al­ways be found to slip into the driver’s seat to keep the for­mi­da­ble ma­chine rolling along,” he said. “Mind you, it wasn’t al­ways a smooth ride. In the first room of the ex­hi­bi­tion alone, no less than eight peo­ple lose their heads. And in the sec­ond is the regi­cide (killing of a king) that still seems shock­ing to­day.”

Char­lotte Bol­land, a 16th­cen­tury spe­cial­ist from Lon­don’s Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, also thinks we can’t re­sist the juicy nar­ra­tives. “There’s so much plot, as it were, in terms of the wives, the drama, the re­li­gion,” she said.

Bol­land finds the Tudors’ story es­pe­cially rich; their era brought the dawn of por­traits by in­ter­na­tional mas­ters such as Hans Hol­bein the Younger, who were the first to de­pict roy­als with their real like­nesses. “So you have this co­in­ci­dence of in­cred­i­bly seis­mic change hap­pen­ing with images by Hol­bein … that sud­denly bring these peo­ple into pop­u­lat­ing your imag­i­na­tion,” she said.

An­other ma­jor shift ar­rived in the 20th cen­tury, when Vic­to­ria and Al­bert em­braced the new medium of pho­tog­ra­phy. Sud­denly, the world be­gan to see roy­als in more in­ti­mate sit­u­a­tions, at home. “They al­lowed peo­ple in and cre­ated a dif­fer­ent kind of icon,” Bol­land said.

King Ge­orge V, Vic­to­ria and Al­bert’s grand­son, can­nily rec­og­nized the value not just of that im­agery but ev­ery­thing be­hind it. As World War I erupted, the chaotic world needed sym­pa­thetic sym­bols of sta­ble, pa­tri­otic, fam­ily val­ues. The roy­als could pro­vide that, along with shar­ing the much-needed pomp and cir­cum­stance of their fairy-tale ex­is­tence.

Ge­orge V lit­er­ally re­branded the royal fam­ily in 1917, chang­ing their sur­name from Al­bert’s prob­lem­atic, Ger­man “Sax­eCoberg” to the made-up “Wind­sor,” af­ter one of their cas­tles.

Be­cause Hous­ton is the only U.S. venue for “Tudors to Wind­sors,” a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery that also will go to Aus­tralia, the city can ex­pect a small in­va­sion of An­glophiles from across the coun­try who will travel here to see it. (Re­tail­ers are cap­i­tal­iz­ing al­ready: Cen­tral Mar­ket had a dis­play of goods from the Bri­tish Isles up last week.)

The show con­tains about 150 works, mostly paint­ings, with a few sculp­tures and other ob­jects that make the per­son­al­i­ties feel even more im­me­di­ate and real. (Among those pieces are death masks, an or­nate breast­plate worn by King Henry VIII and a ball­gown that be­longed to Diana, Princess of Wales.)

The gal­leries are di­vided by dy­nasty — Tudors, Stu­arts, Ge­or­gians, Vic­to­ri­ans and Wind­sors — each a mag­nif­i­cent re­minder of many less-cel­e­brated princes, princesses, kings, queens, mis­tresses and mis­cre­ants who have con­trib­uted to the royal mys­tique.

Most of the paint­ings fairly drip with the glit­ter of the sub­jects’ gems and the pal­pa­ble tex­tures of bro­cades, vel­vet and er­mine. One highly an­tic­i­pated mas­ter­piece is a late ar­rival that will be hung in the com­ing weeks: a fa­mous Hol­bein por­trait of King Henry VIII from the Bar­berini Palace in Rome.

The show’s bigggest drama sur­faces in a work that’s a his­tor­i­cal paint­ing, not a por­trait: Paul De­laroche’s “The Ex­e­cu­tion of Lady Jane Grey,” a highly ro­man­ti­cized, 19th-cen­tury work imag­in­ing the be­head­ing of the teenager known as the “Nine Day Queen.” The paint­ing has caused a sen­sa­tion twice: when De­laroche ex­hib­ited it at the Paris salon and again, a few decades ago, af­ter it was dis­cov­ered rolled up in­side a car­pet in the base­ment of the Tate Gal­leries.

No one would want to mess with the un­touch­able fig­ure of the mag­nif­i­cent “Ditch­ley” por­trait, which opens the show.

Stand­ing au­thor­i­ta­tively atop a map of Eng­land, wear­ing a dress three times larger than her body that’s be­decked with jew­els and other sym­bols of her im­mense wealth and power, Queen El­iz­a­beth I is not just di­vine, but a di­vin­ity. That was the point of Mar­cus Gheer­aerts the Younger’s awe-in­spir­ing por­trayal.

Bol­lard said such styl­ized images re­flect a “great rup­ture in vis­ual cul­ture” that hap­pened dur­ing the Ref­or­ma­tion. “The idea is the dis­trust of images,” she said. “They’re not in any way try­ing to trick you into think­ing this is a real per­son. It is a de­pic­tion.”

A num­ber of the early por­traits are so highly styl­ized they look odd now. For ex­am­ple, painter Wil­liam Larkin gives Ge­orge Vil­liers, the 1st Duke of Buck­ing­ham, as­tound­ingly long and skinny legs, a de­sir­able at­tribute.

The stun­ning book­end to the “Ditch­ley” por­trait is Chris Levine’s “The Light­ness of Be­ing,” a mar­velous lentic­u­lar pho­to­graph in a light­box — like a holo­gram — of Queen El­iz­a­beth II with her eyes closed. Is she serene or just tired? One might in­ter­pret it ei­ther way. She looks as oth­er­wordly, in a con­tem­po­rary way, as her an­ces­tral name­sake.

But look at all the por­traits around her — in­clud­ing sem­i­nal images of Diana, Charles, Wil­liam and Harry — and it’s a re­minder that to­day’s roy­als are beloved not be­cause they are di­vine but be­cause they are hu­man. Like all of us.


Mar­cus Gheer­aerts the Younger’s “Queen El­iz­a­beth I (the ‘Ditch­ley‘ por­trait),” circa 1592, is on view in “Tudors to Wind­sors.”

Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, Lon­don

Sir James Gunn’s in­ti­mate and re­laxed “Con­ver­sa­tion piece at the Royal Lodge, Wind­sor,” shows King Ge­orge VI and his fam­ily par­tak­ing of a most Bri­tish pas­time, drink­ing tea, in 1950. The women are, left to right, Queen El­iz­a­beth (the Queen Mother), Princess El­iz­a­beth and Princess Mar­garet.

Palazzo Bar­berini, Rome / Palazzo Bar­berini, Rome

Hans Hol­bein the Younger’s 1540 mas­ter­piece “Por­trait of Henry VIII” will be hung in the ex­hi­bi­tion in the com­ing weeks.

Wil­liam Hustler and Ge­orgina Hustler / Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, Lon­don

Beatrice John­son and Dorothy Wild­ing’s hand-col­ored bro­mide print “Queen El­iz­a­beth II” is from 1952.

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