Rubens and Britain, Tate Britain, London
Sunday 18 December 2011
In 1629, Rubens came to London to negotiate a treaty between England and Spain; that done, he was knighted by Charles I and arose as Sir Peter Paul.
His knighthood was not just for services to diplomacy. The ceremony took place at Inigo Jones's new Banqueting House in Whitehall. Six years later, the ceiling of the building would be covered in a series of vast paintings, also by Rubens – a quartet of canvases, 2,000 square feet in all, depicting the apotheosis of the King's father, James I, and allegorical scenes of his happy reign. A dozen years after that, these images – cornucopias, thrones, Reason Governing Discord – were the last Charles was to see as he stepped out of a Banqueting House window and on to the scaffold.
All of which is to say that Sir Peter Paul Rubens is central to English history in a way that no other artist is – as a diplomat, maker of art, arbiter of taste, and progenitor of English Baroque. Yet we persist in thinking of him as a Fleming who painted women with big bottoms. Thus the point of Tate Britain's new BP British Art Display, Rubens and Britain.
Centred on an early sketch for the main ceiling panel, The Apotheosis of James I (c.1628), this new hang sets out to move Rubens back to centre-stage in both English history and English art history. Lest we go away with the idea that he was merely a plutocrat who landed plum jobs through royal connections, the Tate shows his sketches of worthies such as the Earl of Arundel – brisk, brilliant images that pre-empt the English art of a century later.
This is a clever and necessary display, not least because it reminds us of 17th-century England's place in the broader European taste of the time. Eurosceptics, stay away. It is also a reminder of the Banqueting House ceiling itself, seen largely by tourists and ignored by everyone else. Including me: I haven't been for 30 years. So that's New Year's resolution number one. Happy Christmas!
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