Review – British Baroque at Tate Britain

Us British aren’t exactly known for being a flamboyant and outgoing people. So when the Tate announced a new exhibition devoted to British Baroque – that short lived but extravagant art and architectural style – I was intrigued.

What exactly is British Baroque I hear you ask? Well, have you ever been to Blenheim Palace or Castle Howard? They are two perfect examples of the British Baroque style architecturally applied – highly theatrical and very decorative.

British Baroque – The Exhibition

British Baroque: Power and Illusion covers the reigns of Charles II to Queen Anne. A lot of change happened in those 54 years – the restoration of the monarchy, the Glorious Revolution, and the rise of party politics and parliament to name just a few. British Baroque studies this shifting power through the medium of art.

The exhibition is laid out in a series of 10 thematic (and roughly chronological) rooms, starting with the restoration of Charles II and ending with the politics of Queen Anne’s court.

The first thing that struck me is that this is a very painting-heavy exhibition. If you love your traditional portraiture you will be fine here. Luckily I am a big fan of the court painters such as Lely and Kneller who take up much of the wall space.

Because of these preference there were some rooms I liked more than others. I loved the room devoted to Charles II’s restoration court. Here you can find famous paintings of all the court beauties, including Charles’ many scandalous mistresses.

For similar reasons I really liked the room which contained paintings from Godfrey Kneller’s Hampton Court Beauties and Michael Dahl’s Petworth Beauties. Both sets of paintings were commissioned during the reign of William and Mary. There are two portraits from the latter set of paintings which have been restored to their full-length beauty after having their legs cut off in the 1820s. They really are a triumph of restoration.

Probably the most fun room is entitled Illusion and Deception. It contains trompe l’oeil paintings – paintings that trick the eye into thinking things are real. I discovered that the Stuarts liked cutouts, including those of people. They used to put them in their houses to trick people, which I thought was hilarious!

There’s also a heavy dose of architecture and interior design. There are rooms devoted to religious and painted interiors, as well as country houses and Baroque architecture. The latter is basically a love letter to Sir Christopher Wren, the architect responsible for St Paul’s Cathedral.

British Baroque – My Thoughts

The main drawback of this exhibition is the interpretation, which I found a bit basic and ‘clumsy’. It reads like not much effort or thought has been put into it. I read the reviews for British Baroque after I visited (I always do it this way round so I am not swayed) and was not surprised to find some agreed with my comments about the lacking interpretation.

It also seemed a bit too convenient that an artistic movement such as British Baroque aligned neatly with the reigns of certain monarchs. It was almost as if it was easier for the curators to build an exhibition around the later Stuart monarchs and certain events than the actual subject matter of the exhibition!

Overall, I would recommend a visit to see British Baroque because I enjoyed it – pure and simple. I admit its not pushing any boundaries in terms of interpretation and display. However it is a solid ‘traditional’ exhibition with some stunning paintings. Just ignore the interpretation, and you’ll be fine.

British Baroque: Power and Illusion is at Tate Britain, London from the 4th of February to the 19th of April 2020. Tickets are £16. Please see website for concessions.

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