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February 27, 2007

Christie Davies is overwhelmed by images of monarchs and revolutionaries - and is convinced of Gillray's critical role in preventing revolution in England: Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760 - 1830 at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760 - 1830
Royal Academy, London
3rd February - 20th April 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

At the Royal Academy exhibition, you meet the kings before the citizens. As you enter, full length standing portraits of Catherine II (the Great) Empress of Russia by Vigilius Eriksen 1765 and of Louis XVI by Antoine-François Callet 1789 tower over you, all robes and crowns, pillars and draperies, the very essence of absolutism.

Louis' portrait was a true icon. Wherever the King's portrait was hung, it was forbidden to turn your back on it, for was the portrait not the king himself? Can you imagine our own patriotic constabulary in their uniforms and medals having a magnificent formal dinner of faggots and peas garnished with pickles and HP sauce in the banqueting hall of Bramshill Police College in Hampshire and, then, shuffling out backwards to avoid insulting the sixty foot high portrait of our dear Queen that has presided over their meal? Let us be grateful for our constitutional monarchy, our citizen police force and our Protestant distrust of images.

It was ever so, for next to us in the Royal Academy exhibition are the hemmed-in-by-a-constitution seated portraits of King George III 1779 and his wife Queen Charlotte 1779-80 by Sir Joshua Reynolds, far more modest in their powers and pretensions. Anyone who has previously seen the caricatures of the pair of them by James Gillray in Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal, 1792 in The Introduction 1791 and in Anti-Saccharrites 1792 will recognise them instantly, and not be able to take Sir Joshua Reynolds' version seriously.

Yet because of Gillray both George and Charlotte survived, where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined. No one was ever going to execute Gillray's figure of fun, affable Farmer George, a Berkshire gentleman who wrote articles for the agricultural press. Can you imagine Louis XVI doing so, or being mocked as one who could enjoy a frugal meal of a boiled egg and greens as George and Charlotte were? Why kill King George III when you have the liberty to mock him?

Louis XVI lack of practical sense, lack of the common touch and inability to restrain his wife's extravagance in a country that was a financial and military failure led to his death in a left-wing revolution. The usual sequence was followed. A brief liberal democratic interlude (Mirabeau as Kerensky), a period of terror, wars with dissidents and outside countries and then a new and more effective despotism.

Here is the military despot himself, Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne by Ingres, 1806, one of the finest paintings in the exhibition. As a self-made and truly European emperor, Napoleon wears the laurels of Caesar and poses as Charlemagne, filling the entire picture as he holds Charlemagne's staff at an angle. Napoleon is the dominant individual, who holds the past and is the present - note the very modern carpet around the dais beneath his feet, with its woven-in eagle reduced to a set of simple shapes. Yet the Napoleon of the picture is also the very stuff of science fiction. You can imagine space travellers of the future being brought before someone like the man in the portrait and being told:

I am Nap, Imperial High Froschesser of the Inselaffen. Why have you come to our galaxy? We have no need of traders here.
How very forward-looking Napoleon was; his dynasty and ideas would last until Sedan. How very backward looking science-fiction is with its hierarchical empires and exotic rulers, the new Napoleons of galaxies many light years away.

Napoleon fell and the old order returned but was now unsure of itself. Poor Ferdinand VII in Royal Robes, by Goya 1815, may be in the process of restoring absolutism and he may be wearing the gear of a king, but Goya has contrived to make him look like Tenniel's chess-piece kings in Alice in Wonderland.

Why did Goya paint Ferdinand against a totally blank, dark background such that his high collar makes his neck disappear? Why did Goya accentuate the contrast between the shiny white of his fat stockinged calves and the black of his breeches, breeches as black as a black hole in space giving out no light, so that between waist and knee he ceases to exist and looks a complete short-arse? Goya's portrayal of the king with the traditional deformed chin of his ancestors that crumples his mouth into his nose, combined with the black, black, Morisco-black of his hair, eyebrows and eyes do not exactly project a regal presence. The robes are there and so are the wand and the sword hilt, but where is the king? Was Goya, in an ever so subtle a way, winding his monarch up?

The same doubts may be felt when looking at Sir Thomas Lawrence's George IV, 1822, but for a quite different reason. Lawrence has given the former Prince Regent the full royal treatment with Corinthian columns and draperies and a romantic sky behind, the prince in full robes, a magnificent crown on the table next to him. The deep red drapery behind his head undercuts any possible neck-shortening effect from his high collar, his legs are long and well-formed and the artfully draped royal robe, (assisted we are told by a corset) conceals all hint of embonpoint. And yet Lawrence's George IV looks like an actor, playing the part of George IV.

Perhaps, once again, we see George IV as a mere actor because we know our Gillray. The King in his finery is merely the Prince of Wales whom we know from Gillray's Bandelures, 1791 and A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion, 1792, now dressed up in the opulent robes of a king for a coronation, ….or is it for a masquerade, a fancy dress party or a tableau vivant? Lawrence's flattery is very successful, but somehow we know better.

In the next gallery to the kings are the citizens, led appropriately enough by Gilbert Stuart's George Washington, 1800, a portrait of the father of the first and of the only lasting revolution of the age of revolution 1760-1830. Stuart has given Washington the columns, the draperies and almost the chair of a king, but Washington has set aside his notorious, Duke of Edinburgh style, personal love of uniforms to appear as a plain, though distinguished, gentleman in sober black. Washington's hand rests on a lawyer's table with quill and ink and documents on top and the leather tomes of the new republic's constitution and laws beneath. It was to be rule not by men but by lawyers. It is an iconic portrait; it is how we envisage Washington today.

It is very like the statue of George Washington which stands in Trafalgar Square outside the National Gallery, looking down towards the Houses of Parliament of the country that his successors have long controlled. The statue was placed there in 1921 by the state and people of Virginia, SPQV, after America had rescued Britain from certain defeat in World War I. The year 1921 was chosen because the numbers 1, 9, 2 and 1 add up to 13 and Washington was a prominent freemason. There, as in his portrait, Washington is tight-lipped but there can be no doubt that he is saying to London and Livingstone "we are the masters now" and George Washington never told a lie.

Next time you pass his statue, make sure you bow or curtsey to it. We must know our place. Indeed it is time the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square was occupied by a statue of an American president, possibly an equestrian one.

In America itself Stuart's image of Washington became the dominant one and was endlessly reproduced. There were and are more pictures of Washington in American homes, as well as in public places, than there were of Lenin in the former Soviet Union. Indeed more places in the world were named after Washington than after Lenin and, what is more, the place names have proved permanent, not like St Petersburg. From being a mere Colonel in the British Army and a slave and tobacco plantation owner in Virginia, Washington became the founder of what was to become the richest and most powerful empire that the world has ever seen.

Next to Washington is another of America's founding fathers, David Martin's portrait of Benjamin Franklin, 1767. Franklin sits at a table beneath a bust of Sir Isaac Newton, intently reading a scientific text. Franklin was fond of this painting and had it copied, for he saw it as a British tribute to him as a scientist, a scientist well appreciated in England, and, as the inventor of bifocals, he was able to appreciate the centrality given to his spectacles by the painter. You can't see Franklin's eyes, but the tilt of the frames of his glasses indicate his concentration on his scientific work and his hand holds his head in place so that his specs won't fall off.

The painting is accompanied by Jean-Antoine Houdon's terra-cotta bust, Benjamin Franklin, 1778, done when Franklin was in France, concocting the alliances which alone made American independence possible. America was not won by the victories of Washington but by the scheming of Franklin. In England Franklin had worn the brisk, formal wig and the handsome coat of a gentleman scientist and a friend of the free-thinking Hume, Priestly and Dashwood. In England the suave Franklin had used his influence with the British elite to get his illegitimate son made Governor of New Jersey. In France Franklin cynically dressed as a plain, elderly rustic and wore his own hair, or such as was left of it after the ravages of age and baldness, uncombed, unpowdered and hanging long and straggly on his shoulders. He created himself as the deliberate antithesis of the glittering bemedalled diplomats from established nations. It worked. The French proved suckers for this model of republican simplicity and this is the image Houdon gives us. Franklin was an honest dissembler, faithful to what he believed in but skilled in manipulating appearances to gain it. His face deserved to make it onto the US $100 bill.

Perhaps the most famous painting of a French citizen in the exhibition is Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat, 1794. Marat, having called for the murder of all luke-warm patriots and counter-revolutionaries was himself murdered, not by a royalist, but by Charlotte Corday, a Girondiste. (Curiously Lenin was shot, unfortunately not fatally, by Fanny Kaplan, a Social Revolutionary opponent of the Bolsheviks). Now the Revolution had a martyr and David, a fellow Jacobin and friend of Marat's, painted him using the artistic language of Christianity. Marat's head and naked shoulders fall back and sideways from the bath, the blood from the stab wound falling onto the cloth that envelopes his bath. Marat is well lit and peaceful in death, the background black and blank. In his one hand is a quill pen, in the other the letter brought to him by Charlotte Corday; her knife, the instrument of his death lies on the floor. Marat is sacrificed for the French people, killed as he was saving them. It is a reminder that Ingres' picture of Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne, 1806, discussed earlier, also draws on older images of Christ the King.

The French Revolution, unlike the American, really was a revolution, the entire over-turning of an entire social and religious order and the appropriation of its royal and Christian iconography for quite other and opposed purposes. The opium of the people became the amphetamine of the revolution.

In a way it would be as well if the exhibition were to stop here, after a plethora of citizens and kings, but the organisers are determined to make it cover the whole of the Enlightenment. It is too much for one exhibition. How can you possibly cover portraits of reforming statesmen by their desks, portraits illustrating the new respect for scientists and savants, the portrayal with feeling of the new companionate family, artists self-conscious depictions of themselves, Enlightenment perceptions of nature and landscape and the rise of the bourgeoisie all in one exhibition? The answer is that, "no, you can't".

It is, though, well worth going to the exhibition and the book of the exhibition, that accompanies it, is truly magnificent, but you will need plenty of time and a good deal of patience and energy. Give yourself four hours ecstatic viewing time and a long break in the middle for culture-fatigue. You can always relax for twenty minutes by looking for chance resemblances, such as that between Joseph Nollekens' Charles James Fox 1802 and Bernard Manning, the gifted Manchester comedian or between Jacques-Louis David's Robertine Tourteau, Marquise d'Orvilliers, 1790 and Dr Helen Szamuely, a leading member of the British intelligentsia. Can they by any chance be related?

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.


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Who wrongly headed up this article and despoiled it by referring to the prevention of revolution in 'England', when the period written about was over 50 years after the creation of the United Kingdom?

Credit due to at least to writer Christie Davies for consistently getting this context right when he refers to the 'British' Army and the 'British intelligentsia - and with reference to the latter; it's worth noting that the British contribution to the Enlightenment was lead and dominated by Scottish interests (Smith, Adams, Hume et al)

Posted by: Ted Harvey at March 1, 2007 08:52 PM
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