The kings and queens of England (and other mafiosi)

Portraits of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs are on show alongside those of powerful contemporary families at the Tate's 'Dynasties' exhibition. By Charles Nicholl

"If we will have anything well painted, carved or embroidered," grumbled Sir Thomas Elyot in 1531, "we abandon our own countrymen and resort unto strangers." His complaint is borne out by "Dynasties", the Tate's fascinating survey of painting in Tudor and Jacobean England. The home-grown talent is here - Nicholas Hilliard, George Gower, Inigo Jones, William Larkin, Sir Nathaniel Bacon, etc - but the exhibition is dominated, statistically at least, by foreign artists, mainly Dutch and Flemish.

Some of these "strangers" were visitors, like Holbein and Van Dyck, but many settled here and became naturalised Englishmen or "denizens". They brought an invigorating new range of techniques that transformed English art. Most of the paintings and drawings on show here are portraits, but the exhibition is not the dour gallery of Tudor mug-shots that this might suggest. They come in a marvellous variety of styles, and in all shapes and sizes, from the fastidious miniatures of Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, painted on two-inch snippets of vellum glued to bits of playing-card, to the tall, lush, overbearing canvases of Stuart court artists.

There is also a variety of ideas as to what a portrait is, and what it should say about its subject. We see here, as Karen Hearn says in her catalogue, "an ebb and flow in the desire for naturalistic representation". Among the earliest works are exquisite Holbein sketches from the 1530s, where every hair on a young woman's eyebrows seems alive, but for much of the Tudor period the capturing of physical and personal detail seems almost incidental. The portrait is seen more as a mode of display, a finely tuned statement of the sitter's status and allegiance, a creating of his or her "image" in the public relations sense of the word we use today.

These are pictures to be read as much as viewed, their messages signalled in costume details, Latin mottoes and heraldic devices, and in a range of symbolic props in which everything from gillyflowers to goldfinches has an emblematic meaning.

The chief "dynasties" portrayed here are the Tudors and Stuarts, but there is a powerful presence of those other great English families - aristocrats, arrivistes, merchants, politicians - whose flair, energy and greed were as decisive in the history of the period as the policies of the monarchs themselves.

One of the most arresting pictures is the Cobham family portrait. Painted in 1567 by an unnamed artist in the service of the Countess of Warwick, it shows William Brooke, 10th Lord Cobham, at the age of about 40, together with his wife and sister, his six young children, and their assorted pets. It is mealtime, specifically dessert: a scene of domestic togetherness, but painted with that deliberate waxy stiffness, that sense of ceremonial hush, which takes one away from the everyday and into the realm of the painting's messages and meanings.

The message is precisely dynastic. The Latin inscription compares Lord Cobham to Old Testament patriarchs like Jacob and Job. "God grant that the line of Cobham beget many offspring such as Joseph." The prayer is already answered by the clutch of doll-like children below; indeed the whole composition has the diagrammatic look of a family tree.

On the table there are fruit - apples, pears, grapes, walnuts: a tribute to the prolific orchards of Cobham Hall, and a restatement of the picture's message of fruitfulness and dynastic harvest. Another symbolic prop is the diamond pendant Lady Cobham wears, in the shape of an ocean-going ship. This suggests another kind of harvest: the riches of maritime trade filling the Cobham coffers. The parrot and the monkey - imported New World pets - are part of the same idea. The ship also has an emblematic meaning of happiness, alluding to a Roman emblem showing a ship named Felicitas.

The Cobham portrait seems almost a kind of talisman, an invoking of familial health, wealth and stability in an age of slippery fortunes. In fact, there are historical ironies to the picture. The title was inherited by Henry, seen here as a two-year-old with a puppy on his lap. Implicated in a conspiracy against King James in 1603, he was attainted for treason and stripped of his peerage, thus bringing to an abrupt end the dynastic aspirations expressed in this painting.

We catch the Cobhams in a moment of eminence which proves somewhat temporary. Portraits of the Catholic Howards have a similar resonance, particularly the canvas of the Earl of Surrey, the nobleman-poet, bursting with confidence and Italianate elegance. It was painted in 1546, when he was 29; a year later he was beheaded on a trumped-up charge of treason.

The Brookes and the Howards were powerful but expendable satellites around the central dynasty of the monarchy. Royal portraits form the heart of the exhibition. The earliest (c 1500) is the poignant little portrait of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII's elder brother, who died at the age of 15. This was rediscovered a couple of years ago, at Castle Forbes in Ireland, and is seen here for the first time.

An entire room is devoted to images of Queen Elizabeth. She was the most cultish of all the Tudors, and fully exploited the propagandist element of portraiture. Most of the surviving pictures of her are known by some symbolic device or allusion. Here we have the "Armada portrait", and the rather ghostly "Sieve portrait". The most striking is the "Phoenix portrait" (c 1576) attributed to Hilliard, though it is not the symbolic paraphernalia that catches the eye - the phoenix jewel and the Tudor rose - but the brilliant detail of Hilliard's workmanship. The gold embroidery of the dress is represented by paint, principally lead-tin yellow, rather than by the actual gold leaf used a generation earlier (for example, in the 1544 portrait of Mary Tudor). This kind of technical advance contributed to the growing autonomy of the artist, enabling him to represent precious materials without having to afford them.

The portraits of Elizabeth do not invite personal or biographical interpretations, but the study of King James, by the Dutchman Adrian Vanson, certainly does. Painted in 1595, it shows a very human James at the age of 29 (though some of its unusual intimacy is a result of a later cutting-down of the picture). The face is sallow, the gaze weary, the mouth thin and ironic. One thinks of the personal traumas of his childhood: the murders, the night flights, the execution of his mother. He seems slightly slumped. His tall sugar-loaf hat is tipped back, giving him the air of a melancholy young boulevardier resting between bouts of absinthe.

Right beside this is a portrait of the wily Sir Robert Cecil, painted by De Critz in about 1602, on the eve of James's succession to the English throne, which Cecil as Secretary of State had done so much to engineer. Here is a man in control of his own destiny - far more so, one feels, than the droopy young king next door. On his table are folded dispatches, a seal-bag, a bell to summon his amanuenses and clerks. This is the new man, the bureaucrat, the political string-puller.

In the portraits of Cobham and Cecil, and in the lesser-known merchants and gentry staring huffily out, one gets a sombre, mafia-like sense of Elizabethan power- mongering. But there is plenty of the more flamboyant side, the peacockery and swagger, as in Hilliard's famous miniature of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, in an extravagant costume of azure and gold embroidered with astrological and alchemical devices. He is dressed up for the Accession Day Tilt, a mock-chivalric festival in which aspiring courtiers jousted for the Queen's favours.

Cumberland - an inveterate gambler and a courageous sea-captain - epitomises the panache of the era. Even more eyecatching is Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, painted by William Larkin in "cloth of silver embroidered all over in slips of satin, black and gold". He is the perfect dandy, from his doily-like ruff down to his pom-pommed pantouffles. This probably shows him at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and the Elector Palatine, 14 February 1613, at which it was said he "dazzled the eyes of all who saw".

Among all the monarchs and magnates are a few pictures of the artists themselves. Easily missed is the wry self-portrait by George Gower (1579). It is the only large-size self-portrait in existence by a 16th-century British artist. He holds a palette and a paintbrush. An inscription celebrates his work "by pencil's trade" and the rewards it has brought him: "What parents bore by just renown, my skill maintains."

And so a new professional group edges up the increasingly crowded and competitive social ladder. Essentially of artisan class - servers of apprenticeship, members of guilds, guarders of trade secrets - they have acquired an indispensable role as the image-makers of Tudor high society.

n 'Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630' is at the Tate Gallery, London SW1 to 7 Jan 1996 (0171-887 8000)

n Charles Nicholl is the author of 'The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe', Picador pounds 7.99, and 'The Creature in the Map', Cape, pounds 18.99. He will be participating in an international symposium on 'Dynasties' at the Tate Gallery, 30 Nov-1 Dec; (details: 0171-887 8758)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent