Cecil Beaton photograph of Queen Elizabeth II
It feels that interest in the British Royals has never been stronger than it is at this time. So, how timely is it that our Museum of Fine Arts Houston is featuring an exclusive Royal Exhibit that has been several years in the making in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery in London. I was fortunate enough to be able to preview the exhibit recently before it’s opening date of October 7 and be taken through it all by a team led by Museum Director Gary Tinterow, David Bomford, British native, who led the MFAH curatorial team and Charlotte Bolland, a 16th century specialist from London’s National Portrait Gallery. The presentation by these specialists made for a very insightful and behind the scenes discussion of each of the major works that depicted a monarchy’s history and a nation’s history through them.
About the Exhibit….
Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol showcases masterworks primarily of painting, with photography and some sculpture as well, dating from the first monarch of the House of Tudor, Henry VII to Elizabeth II, the reigning queen. This major partnership between the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston presents an exclusive survey of the history of the reigning British Royals over five centuries. Through some 150 objects, most never before seen outside of England, the survey showcases the extraordinary history and fascinating figures of five centuries of British Royalty. The exhibit is only available in Houston and then Australia. The exhibit begins at the end of the Medieval era to present time. An interesting approach is to begin with the ‘family tree’ that is on display as you enter the exhibit…an excellent overview of what’s ahead, by Royal. You will be treated to masterworks by Hans Holbein, Sir Peter Lely and Sir Joshua Reynold to the modern icons Cecil Beaton, Andy Warhol and Annie Leibovitz. It is an unparalleled overview of a collection of kings, queens, princes and princesses.
It is an exhibit that is rich with so much history, drama and stories of how the entire lineage came about and has continued. We were fortunate to receive a guided tour with so many interesting stories. However, the walls are filled with much information and I would encourage a self-guided audio tour. There is so much to know and learn about within these rooms, set up by dynasty…..Tudors, Stuarts, Georgians, Victorians and Windsors and featuring a blend of famous and not so famous that it would be an asset to viewing the exhibit, as the stories are so vivid behind each.
Some of the points you will learn was that the Tudors were the first to depict Royals with their real likeness after learning to use funeral masks. It was in the era of Victoria and Albert that they discovered and were fascinated by photography and enabled Royals to be shown in more intimate settings and that it was George V, grandson of Victoria, that rebranded the Royal Family in 1917, changing the surname to Windsors, named after a favorite castle. It was after World War I, when Germany had been at war with England that the German name from Albert became problematic , so it was decided to change the name to Windsor. That is only a sampling of the rich history that you will find throughout this exhibit.
Some of the Masterworks from the Exhibit….
Queen Elizabeth I, in what was known as the Ditchley portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1592
This portrait opens the exhibit and shows Queen Elizabeth I standing atop the map of England, in a dress three times her size and adorned with jewels. All symbols of her great wealth and power.
Henry VIII portraiture by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540
One of the areas of the exhibit, I found, very fascinating was the specific details of Henry VIII, the man, and the details of his wives and what each brought to the monarchy and of their off-springs and history.
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche
This painting presents one of the most interesting stories of the exhibit. This highly-romanticized, 19th century work depicting the beheading of the teenage royal known as the “Nine Day Queen”. The painting caused quite a stir when it was first shown in a Paris salon but more recently when only a few decades ago, it was discovered rolled up inside of a rug in the basement of the Tate Galleries in London and restored to its rich beauty.
Sir James Gund, Conversation Piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor, 1950
King George VI and his family having tea….shown also, Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mother), Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret.
Beatrice Johnson and Dorothy Wilding’s hand-colored bromide print “Queen Elizabeth II”, 1952
Terence Donovan, Diana Princess of Wales, 1990
Chris Levine’s “The Lighthouse of Being” a Lightbox portrayal
This lenticular photograph in hologram style is present in a Lightbox at the exhibit’s end. A contemporary portrayal of the Queen who we were told had been sitting for a series of photos in rapid sequence….the photographer captured that one moment where she closed her eyes. A perfect contemporary closing to this exquisite display of fine portraiture.
In closing, this exhibit is a must see for all as the newer images of the Windsors is so familiar and exquisitely portrayed. Also fascinating for me was the former dynasties and all of the rich history of England that was told so vividly through the portraiture.
If you love the exhibit as much as I did and want to take a part of it and/or England home with you, the Museum Gift Shop set up specifically in support of this presentation is chocked full of wonderful items and is adjacent to the end of the exhibit. Below a few examples…..
When: October 7 – January 27
Where: Law Building, MFAH 1001 Bissonet
Details: Tuesdays-Sundays; mfah.org; 713-639-7300
photos provided by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston