THE BEST OF ALBION. “From Elizabeth to Victoria” from London’s National Portrait Gallery

Tatyana Karpova

Article: 
CURRENT EXHIBITIONS
Magazine issue: 
#2 2016 (51)

While the British school of painting has always been appreciated in Russia, it is, unfortunately, far from fully represented in the collections of the country’s museums. Such an omission has been significantly remedied in recent years with a series of shows from various British museums held in Russia, many in the framework of the UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014, which included the exhibitions “Francis Bacon and the Legacy of the Past”, at the Hermitage; “Unrivalled Wedgwood”, held at Moscow’s Museum of the Applied and Folk Arts; “Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Manifesto of the New Style” presented at the Moscow Kremlin Museums; “Oscar Wilde. Aubrey Beardsley. The View from Russia” at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts; and the “‘English Breakfast’ in Russia. Late 18th-19th Century” exhibitionat the Historical Museum.

The 2016 Russia-UK Year of Language and Literature is now being marked by two outstanding events in the field of visual art: the Tretyakov Gallery’s exhibition "Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky” is on show in London, while the National Portrait Gallery exhibition "From Elizabeth to Victoria” has opened in Moscow.

"From Elizabeth to Victoria”, in the Engineering Wing of the Tretyakov Gallery, shows portraits of the 16th to 19th centuries from the collection of London’s National Portrait Gallery; this museum, which is extremely popular in the UK, holds a fascinating collection which is not widely known in Russia. This exhibition will finally introduce the Russian public to its remarkable collection, and continues a wider commitment to the development of cooperation between Russian and British museums.

An extraordinary panorama of more than 300 years of English portraiture unfolds in front of viewers. The exhibition features 49 portraits of figures prominent in British history and culture - Queen Elizabeth i and Queen Victoria, Oliver Cromwell, Horatio Nelson, isaac Newton, James (Captain) Cook, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, Robert Burns, George (Lord) Byron, Walter Scott, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Jerome K. Jerome - painted by famous British portraitists including Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, Thomas Lawrence, John Singer Sargent and George Frederic Watts; there are portraits and self-portraits by William Hogarth and others. The show follows chronological order, with particular themes - public figures, scientists, explorers, writers, actors and artists - grouped together within each era. This glorious array opens with the famous life portrait of Queen Elizabeth i (the so-called "Ditchley portrait”), and closes with a portrait of the legendary English actress Ellen Terry, renowned interpreter of many Shakespearean roles.

"From Elizabeth to Victoria” is running in Moscow concurrently with "Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky”, an exhibition of portraits from the Tretyakov Gallery at London’s National Portrait Gallery. it showcases writers, among them Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, Alexander Ostrovsky, Alexander Herzen and Vladimir Dahl, Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev, as well as composers, actors, art patrons and collectors - 26 portraits in all by celebrated Russian artists of the second half of the 19th and early 20th century, including Ilya Repin, Ivan Kramskoi, Vasily Perov, Nikolai Ge, Valentin Serov and Mikhail Vrubel.

The London exhibition features works that are the pride of the Tretyakov Gallery, "icons” of Russian culture in the truest sense of the word that rarely, if ever, leave the Gallery’s walls. This cultural exchange is a significant milestone in the history of artistic relations between Russia and Great Britain.

Remarkably, 1856 is the year when both museums - the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow - were established: it was in 1856 that the Moscow merchant Pavel Tretyakov purchased his first artwork by a Russian artist. Thus, the two exhibitions celebrate the shared 160th anniversary of the foundation of the two institutions.

The National Portrait Gallery was inspired by its own visionary - the famous Scottish historian, writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). He was instrumental in the creation of the museum and a member of its Board of Trustees. "Universal History...,” Carlyle wrote, "is at bottom the History of the Great Men. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world”.[1] Carlyle’s works were widely known and very popular in Russia: his book "On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History” (1841) was translated into Russian and reprinted several times.[2]

it is fair to say that the subsequent organization of gallery and museum portrait exhibitions in Russia was largely inspired by the British experience. For instance, it is known that the idea of the first portrait exhibition, held in 1868 in Moscow, was conceived by Leonid Panin, the Secretary of the Moscow Society of Art Lovers, after he had visited the exhibition of portraits of "prominent people” with its works by Hans Holbein the Younger, Anthony Van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough in London.

Panin was fascinated with the idea of "showing history through real people” and tried to cultivate it on Russian soil. in England the tradition of staging portrait exhibitions appeared in the first third of the 19th century, and was crowned by the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery in 1856. Such was the experience on which Pavel Tretyakov partly relied when creating his portrait gallery of "people dear to the nation”.[3] Tretyakov’s collection of portraits is now almost "dissolved” in the Gallery itself. Nevertheless, it did exist and still exists today - the proportion of portraits in the gallery’s collection is considerable. Today visitors come to the Tretyakov Gallery not only to see paintings by outstanding Russian artists and become acquainted with the masterpieces of the national school of painting, but also to meet the genii of Russian culture - its writers, composers, artists, scientists and philosophers - "face to face”, and consider their experiences of spiritual independence.

Inevitably, our work on the Russo-British portraiture project has raised the issue of comparison of the essence of the Russian and British portrait-painting traditions. British portraiture has a wide repertoire of poses, elements of composition, and ways of presenting the subject, all of which reflect the earlier emancipation of the individual, and a different degree of self-realization in society. in Russian art, portraiture started evolving into an independent genre only in the 18th century (almost two centuries later than in the UK), and reached its peak in the second half of the 19th century with the works of artists such as Perov, Kramskoi, Repin and Serov. The Russian portrait school has long continued to honour its hereditary connection to the medieval tradition of icon-painting: tending towards more static poses and more direct dialogue with the viewer, it is distinguished by its seriousness of tone and a desire to comprehend the inner depths of personality.

With a marked degree of contrast, the assortment of subjects presented in London’s National Portrait Gallery is quite colourful and varied. Not only great statesmen, scientists, writers, actors and artists look down on us from its walls, but also adventurers of all stripes and so-called "celebrities”. Thus, the National Portrait Gallery introduces us to the different strata of English society:[4] the portrait of Kitty Fisher[5] (1765) by Nathaniel Hone, exhibited in Moscow, illustrates such a phenomenon.

Peter Funnell, head of the research department at the National Portrait Gallery and a specialist in the field of 18th-19th century portraiture, became my co-curator and our guide into the world of British portraiture for the exhibition "From Elizabeth to Victoria”. On the pages of its catalogue he tells stories of the portraits, models and artists in an easy and appealing manner, one free of any desire to deify the "prominent men”, polish their image to a fine sheen, or edit history and its heroes, in perfect tune with the spirit and principles of the National Portrait Gallery.

Such experience is very important for Russia, where either we tend to worship and raise on pedestals those personalities who become "actors in history”, or we overthrow them with equal passion. it is characteristic, that despite repeated attempts, no similar such national portrait gallery was ever created in Russia,[6] whereas in the UK, where concepts such as "cult of personality” or "demolition of idols” are absent, it has been very successful: the country’s national character and history have become largely immune from any such sharp shifts of attitude, ranging as they do from glorification to public dismissal.

England was the first to create a National Portrait Gallery that brought together both political allies and opponents, friends and implacable enemies, in a dialogue of eras and generations. Attending the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the slavophile Alexei Khomyakov saw the essence of the British attitude to the antinomy of the old and the new in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. He was struck by the "ancient old trees of Hyde Park that no one dared to cut down” during the construction of the ultra-modern architectural structure.[7] Russia’s path of historical development, vulnerable to severe processes of reversal and accompanied by an atmosphere of permanent division in society, has formed our perception of England primarily as a country of fine manners, tradition and a stable "middle” strata of culture, the lack of which is so acutely felt in Russia.

Carlyle believed that a good portrait of a historical figure is "superior in real instruction” to half a dozen biographies. He compared the portrait to a "small lighted candle”, by the light of which such biographies should be first read and interpreted.

Russian viewers, familiar with the major figures of English literature and fine arts through their works, can expect a whole range of new experiences, perhaps even re-interpretations. Preconceived ideas about how "old friends” may turn out can take a surprising turn, like our encounters here with the dapper young Dickens, a grimly neurotic Jerome K. Jerome, or the dry and businesslike Rudyard Kipling. The exhibition showcases full-length monumental portraits of Queen Elizabeth i, Robert Devereux and Lord John Stewart by Van Dyck; a portrait of the architect Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller; and portraits of the actress Sarah Siddons and Frank Swettenham by John Singer Sargent, which introduce us to the achievements of the English ceremonial portrait in different eras. it also includes a series of small, chamber portrait studies, scenic sketches which are priceless in the immediacy and intimacy of contact with their subjects, among whom are William Hogarth, Jerome K. Jerome and Wilkie Collins.

Echoes of Anglo-Russian relations, evident from the biographies of the figures concerned, were taken into account when selecting portraits for the Moscow exhibition. Thus, the portrait of Captain James Cook, the renowned British explorer and navigator, may not only remind us of the well-known song by Vladimir Vysotsky, but also of events that took place after Cook’s tragic death in Hawaii, when the rest of his expedition headed to the Bering Strait in search of a northern route to return to the British isles, and made a stop in Kamchatka to replenish their food stocks and repair their ships. Magnus von Behm, the chief commander of Kamchatka, made the British sailors welcome and supplied them with provisions. in gratitude for such hospitality, Captain Charles Clarke, who had taken over command of the expedition after Cook’s death, presented von Behm with a collection of items of traditional art from the Polynesian islands. They were donated to the Cabinet of Curiosities (the Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1780.

One of the show’s highlights is the portrait of the famous British mathematician, astronomer and architect Christopher Wren, creator of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, painted by Godfrey Kneller, the most prominent British portraitist of the late 17th-early 18th century. Another of Kneller’s notable subjects was Peter I (1698, Hampton Court Palace, London), depicted during the Russian Tsar’s legendary journey to Western Europe with the Grand Embassy in 1797-1798.

Adelina Patti, the greatest coloratura soprano of the second half of the 19th century, watches us from the portrait by James sant. From 1869 to 1877 Patti frequently performed in Russia, with Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alexander serov and Konstantin Stanislavsky among the loyal admirers of her singing. in his famous novel, Tolstoy sends Anna Karenina to the opera to listen to Patti perform. She was no less loved in England - Patti was born to italian parents in Spain, and later held French nationality - where she performed on numerous occasions, and received British citizenship in 1898, retiring to Wales. Patti gave her last performance in 1914 at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Some of the portraits, though not artistic masterpieces in themselves, are interesting as iconographic monuments of enormous historical value - the portrait of Shakespeare, in particular (its inventory number is "1”: it was the first work in the National Portrait Gallery collection), as well as those of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, well-known in Russia from the translations of Samuil Marshak, and Charles Darwin, after whom one of Moscow’s most-visited museums is named.

The exceptional quality of the works included in the Moscow and London exhibitions is the result of our committed cooperation,[8] complete trust in one another,[9] the desire to create two equally memorable exhibitions, and the atmosphere of openness and mutual support that attended all the stages of our collaboration.

While preserving the images of such "heroes” of the past, the National Portrait Gallery, just like the Tretyakov Gallery, also addresses the present. The London gallery is famous for its annual portrait competitions, as well as its collection of portraits, which include graphic and photographic works, from the 20th century. We deliberately defined the conclusion of these Moscow and London exhibitions as the end of the 19th-early 20th century in order to continue our cooperation in the future by displaying British and Russian portrait art of the 20th century.

  1. Carlyle, T. “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History". St. Petersburg, 1908. P. 18-19.
  2. Naturally, the Moscow exhibition features Carlyle's portrait by G.F. Watts.
  3. Tretyakov made business-related trips to London in 1862, 1863 and 1865, also visiting museums and exhibitions. there is every reason to assume he did not neglect the national Portrait Gallery, and soon after his last return started actively commissioning and purchasing portraits (see Karpova, T.L. “Meaning of the face: the Russian Portrait of the second half of the 19th century. the Experience of selfactualization". st. Petersburg, 2000; Andreeva, G.B. “Pavel Mikhailovych, as always, visited England..." // Tretyakov Gallery Magazine. 2004. No. 1. Pp. 21-28).
  4. The “founding fathers" of the National Portrait Gallery assumed that the gallery “should become a place of history studies and teaching, and have authentic historical works depicting, among other personas, those who have committed 'big blunders and mistakes', preventing it from turning into a sanctuary of heroism. it should serve more as a 'means of education rather than a basis for imitation'. Lack of exaltation or desire to praise historical figures is typical of the English when they discuss their past, whereas the French act exactly the opposite." (Peter Funnell. 'The National Portrait Gallery. Historical Background'. // “From Elizabeth to Victoria. 16th-19th Century Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery Collection, London". Exhibition catalogue. M., 2016. P.22)
  5. Catherine Maria (Kitty) Fisher (c.1741-1767) was a famous courtesan, whose beauty, wit and charm conquered London at the end of the 1750s-1760s. Generals, politicians and members of the royal family were among her frequent visitors. Society was both shocked by and fascinated with her. Contemporaries noted that young women would try to mimic Fisher's style of dress, and in a pamphlet she was named “the public's favourite and the idol of the century". Her depiction as a “kitten trying to catch a goldfish in a large aquarium" was a visual pun on the young woman's name (Kitty) and surname (Fisher). The reflection of a crowd peeking through the window on the side of the aquarium was Hone's subtle hint on the curiosity which his subject, who defied many generally accepted social norms, was creating. (“From Elizabeth to Victoria. 16th-19th Century Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery Collection, London". Exhibition catalogue. M., 2016. P. 106.)
  6. For example, in the late 1860s, Vasily Dashkov, director of the Moscow Public and Rumyantsev Museums, privately commissioned several artists, including ivan Kramskoi, ilya Repin, Valentin Serov and Viktor Vasnetsov, to create a “gallery of portraits of Russian historical figures in the form of monochrome copies of the old original paintings, prints and photographs". Today Dashkov's collection of portraits is housed in the Historical Museum.
  7. “i admit that above all, i wished to see those ancient old trees of Hyde Park, which they did not dare to cut down. They required more space in the new building so it was made higher for a few dozen yards. There was a special charm in them to me. Special guidance. indeed, England knows how to respect the deeds of times past. The novelties of today never insult upon the work created by centuries... England remains faithful to her old days; that is the source of her intellectual strength. There is no stagnation or rejection of innovation for which she can be blamed, but no single generation here fells ancient trees to plant yearling flowers". (Quoted from: Sternin, G. “Russian's Artistic Life in the Middle of the 19th Century". Moscow. 1991. Pp. 65-66).
  8. Preparation and selection of works for the exhibitions began in 2012.
  9. Dr. Rosalind (Polly) Blakesley, curator of the exhibition “Russia and the Arts", was a student of the academician Dmitry Sarabyanov, and has repeatedly participated in Tretyakov Gallery conferences. She is a frequent and favourite guest of the Tretyakov Gallery and the author of many articles on Russian art of the 18th century.

Illustrations

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Queen Elizabeth I (“The Ditchley portrait”). c. 1592. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Queen Elizabeth I (“The Ditchley portrait”). c. 1592
Oil on canvas. 241.3 × 152.4 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
John Taylor (?). William Shakespeare. c. 1600–1610
John Taylor (?). William Shakespeare. c. 1600–1610
Oil on canvas. 55.2 × 43.8 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Joshua Reynolds. Self-portrait. c. 1747–1749. © National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Joshua Reynolds. Self-portrait. c. 1747–1749.
Oil on canvas. 63.5 × 74.3 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Lord George Stuart. c. 1638. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Lord George Stuart. c. 1638
Oil on canvas. 218.4 × 133.4 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt. Sir Christopher Wren. 1711. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt. Sir Christopher Wren. 1711
Oil on canvas. 124.5 × 100.3 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Studio of Enoch Seeman the Younger. Sir Isaac Newton. c. 1726. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Studio of Enoch Seeman the Younger. Sir Isaac Newton. c. 1726
Oil on canvas. 127 × 148 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Дж. Опи. Портрет М. Уолстонкрафт. Около 1797. © National Portrait Gallery, London
John Opie. Mary Wollstonecraft. c. 1797
Oil on canvas. 76.8 × 64.1 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
William Hogarth. Self-portrait. 1758. © National Portrait Gallery, London
William Hogarth. Self-portrait. 1758
Oil on canvas. 45.1 × 42.5 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt. Wilkie Collins. 1850. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt. Wilkie Collins. 1850
Oil on panel. 26.7 × 17.8 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
George Frederic Watts Thomas Carlyle. 1868–1869. © National Portrait Gallery, London
George Frederic Watts. Thomas Carlyle. 1868–1869
Oil on canvas. 66 × 53.3 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
George Frederic Watts. “Choosing” (Ellen Terry). 1864. © National Portrait Gallery, London
George Frederic Watts. “Choosing” (Ellen Terry). 1864
Oil on panel. 48 × 35.2 cm.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Ramsay Richard Reinagle. John Constable. c  1799. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Ramsay Richard Reinagle. John Constable. c. 1799
Oil on canvas. 76.2 × 63.8 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
James Barry. Self-portrait. c. 1767. © National Portrait Gallery, London
James Barry. Self-portrait. c. 1767.
Oil on canvas. 60.5 × 50 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir William Beechey. Sarah Siddons. 1793. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir William Beechey. Sarah Siddons. 1793.
Oil on canvas. 245.6 × 153.7 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas Gainsborough. Karl Friedrich Abel. c. 1765. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas Gainsborough. Karl Friedrich Abel. c. 1765
Oil on canvas. 126.7 × 101.3 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas Jones Barker. “The Secret of England's Greatness” (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor). c. 1863. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas Jones Barker. “The Secret of England's Greatness” (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor). c. 1863
Oil on canvas. 167.6 × 213.8 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
John Collier. Charles Darwin. 1883. © National Portrait Gallery, London
John Collier. Charles Darwin. 1883.
Oil on canvas. 125.7 × 96.5 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Т. Филлипс. Портрет Дж.Г. Байрона. 1835. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Т. Филлипс. Портрет Дж.Г. Байрона. 1835
Холст, масло. 76,5 × 63,9
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir William Beechey. Horatio Nelson. 1800. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir William Beechey. Horatio Nelson. 1800
Oil on canvas. 62.3 × 48.3 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Nathaniel Hone. Kitty Fisher. 1765. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Nathaniel Hone. Kitty Fisher. 1765
Oil on canvas. 74.9 × 62.2 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
James Sant. Adelina Patti. 1886. © National Portrait Gallery, London
James Sant. Adelina Patti. 1886.
Oil on canvas. 109.9 × 85.1 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Solomon Joseph Solomon. Jerome Klapka Jerome. c. 1889. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Solomon Joseph Solomon. Jerome Klapka Jerome. c. 1889
Oil on panel. 24.1 × 14.9 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Sydney Prior Hall. Joe Chamberlain, Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour. c. 1895. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sydney Prior Hall. Joe Chamberlain, Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour. c. 1895
Oil on canvas. 61 × 91.8 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
James Tissot. Frederick Burnaby. 1870. © National Portrait Gallery, London
James Tissot. Frederick Burnaby. 1870.
Oil on panel. 49.5 × 59.7 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London
John Singer Sargent. Sir Frank Swettenham. 1904. © National Portrait Gallery, London
John Singer Sargent. Sir Frank Swettenham. 1904.
Oil on canvas. 170.8 × 110.5 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London

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