Anne Gardom writes about three current exhibitions
Painting, Passion and Politics: Pictures currently on loan from the Walpole Collection in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
The elegant small Hermitage galleries in Somerset House are showing some pictures from the collection amassed by Sir Robert Walpole in the first half of the eighteenth century. They were designed as a statement of his prestige and success – very valuable, many very large, a reflection of his taste, judgement and wealth. When he died, the collection was world-famous, but huge debts were also bequeathed to his son, and only six years later, on the latter’s death, to his grandson whom his uncle, Horace Walpole (of Strawberry Hill fame) described as ‘the most ruined young man in England’.
The combination of extravagance, eccentricity and ultimately madness led to the sale of the bulk of the Walpole Collection to Catherine the Great, also on the lookout for symbols of power, prestige and success. There was great consternation at the departure of the pictures from this country, especially as Russia was seen as a remote country inhabited by near-barbarians! Now they are a jewel in the Hermitage Museum, and some of them have come back to London on loan.
Robert Walpole had an eye for quality, and the collection bears the stamp of his taste. He bought to impress, but he bought what he liked. He was a great admirer of Italian paintings. The magnificent portrait of Pope Clement IX had pride of place in the Maratti Room, so-called because of the number of pictures by that artist displayed there. There are also two of his enchanting paintings of the Virgin and child, bathed in golden light, with warm and gentle colours, described by Walpole as ‘most perfect and beautiful pictures in his best and most finished manner’.
There is a wonderful, very large, painting of the Fathers of the Church disputing the Christian Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Guido Reni – six grey-bearded patriarchs deep in thought and discussion, whilst, floating above them, the girlish figure of the Virgin is lost in mystical contemplation – an astonishing concept triumphantly achieved!
When Lord Wharton was forced to sell his estates and his pictures, Walpole bought nineteen works by Van Dyck for £1,500, a bargain even then. One, of two little Wharton daughters, shows Van Dyck’s ability to catch the touching fleeting quality of childhood. Magnificent portraits of Inigo Jones and Sir Thomas Challoner show him at the peak of his powers.
Rembrandt’s Sacrifice of Isaac is a picture of unforgettable power and drama, a violent moment with the gleaming knife falling from Abraham’s hand as the angel seizes his wrist, the naked prone body of Isaac in the foreground with Abraham’s left hand clamped over his face – all lit by a shaft of unearthly light.
Walpole commissioned as well as bought paintings, and was a great patron of John Wootton. Wootton painted him as a landed aristocrat, with his horse, his groom and his dogs.
There is much else of interest in this exhibition, some lovely Rubens, a charming portrait, once thought to be by Titian, and many other treasures. It can only be an indication of the riches of the original collection, the greater part of which is in St Petersburg where there must be marvellous things to be seen.
Madame de Pompadour, Images of a Mistress, at the National Gallery
This is a very interesting and unusual way of looking at Madame de Pompadour who was, brilliantly, one of the world’s survivors. This exhibition of pictures, china, jewellery and furniture shows how she came from a bourgeois background to be mistress of Louis XV, and how, after she no longer shared his bed, she maintained and enhanced her power and influence.
The beginning of the exhibition shows a huge portrait of Louis XV in a magnificently elaborate gilded frame, a clear statement of his position and the focus as centre of the French court. It shows too, his Polish Queen, and the new young mistress, modestly pretty in rouge and powdered hair.
As her position became more secure (she was appointed Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen – unheard of for a mistress of the King), we see her painted by her favourite painter Boucher, a relaxed and confident woman in an exquisite rose-sprinkled dress, surrounded by subtle tributes to her virtues and attributes – books, musical instruments and other possessions. As her undoubted power and prestige grew, she spent generously as a patron of the arts. With her position, great wealth and undoubted taste she was a huge influence on the French court, socially, artistically and politically. There are splendid examples of Sevres and Vincennes porcelain, jewellery and furniture which she commissioned.
Later she made the delicate transition from being the King’s mistress to his loving and loyal friend, confidante and adviser, a position she held until her death. There is an enchanting portrait of her in a straw hat, showing her to be a gardening enthusiast. A full-sized statue, titled Amitie, showing her offering the hand and heart of loving friendship to the King. was displayed opposite his statue in an exhibition making the point quite clear.
As her influence at court grew, so of course did the opposition of some of the Royal Family. She countered accusations of extravagance and immorality by re-inventing herself as a devout and pious noblewoman given to charitable causes. She gave religious paintings to a number of churches, owned devotional works, and was painted rather charmingly as a Vestal Virgin.
In the final room is a huge portrait by Drouais, completed after her death, showing a sumptuously dressed, plump, still beautiful Madame de Pompadour at her embroidery frame – the epitome of style, power, confidence, secure in her position as the most important and influential woman in France.
Shirley Hughes at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
A totally different type of picture power is to be seen at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which has a small and utterly delightful exhibition of children’s books by Shirley Hughes. There are working sketchbooks, some beautiful traditional illustrations of her own stories (calling to mind such giants as Arthur Rackham and W Heath Robinson) as well as the exuberant, beloved, rumpled children which have won her devoted readers of all ages.
Shirley Hughes is at the Ashmolean till 26th January. Free entry.
The Walpole Collection at Somerset House till February 22nd. Entry £6 (£4 concessions).
Madame de Pompadour is on at the National Gallery till 12th January. Entry £7, concessions £5.
The Wallace Collection has Pompadour in Love running concurrently with the National Gallery’s exhibition.
Anne Gardom is the Art Critic for New Directions.