Sunday, June 12, 2016

National Portraits Royals, Then to Now

 The National Portrait Gallery stood before me as I turned the corner that morning. Inspired by the colors and emotions experienced a few minutes earlier at the National Gallery, I felt a desire to keep exploring the city I’d fallen for. A Monet Water Lilies umbrella (a gift to myself from the National Gallery) served to protect from the midday sun.Climbing up the steps to the National Portrait Gallery, I found myself engrossed in collections of the The Early Tudors. Curiosity lead me to the Elizabethan England collection. From there my exploration lead to Victorian, Edwardian, Georgian and then more contemporary art. Still reeling from our visit to Parliament, my focus remained on monarchy and the royal families in Britain’s history.    Two paintings in particular stood out as a powerful example of Britain’s past and present. As an emerging art lover, I interpret a  "powerful painting”  as one that compels you to walk by it again...and then again...and again. The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace ( 1913) proved to be one such painting. The painter, Sir John Lavery, captures King George V,  the Duke of Windsor (when Prince of Wales), the Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood ( when Princess Mary) and Queen Mary. Dressed in full regalia, the family poses in the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. A drawing room implies a more casual and comfortable atmosphere. Comfort may be interpreted by the way that Princess Mary rests her elbow easily on her mother’s lap. Contrary to the attempt, the clothing and posture of the family appears rigid. As a royal family in 1913, the appearance of power and rigidity convey strength. Relatability and  a sense of  “humanness” are among the qualities lacking in Lavery’s work. However, the intent of the painting in that time period may not have placed value on relatability. The positioning of the family falls short of being congruent with their attire and facial expressions. The picture gives off a sense of exclusivity and disconnect.
               A view of another family was depicted in The Royal Family: A Centenary Portrait ( 2000) by John Wonnacott, and it looks as though it was also painted in the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. Painted 87 years after Lavery’s The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, Wonnacott’s work portrays the modern Royal Family, surrounding Queen Elizabeth the First. Both of the paintings make it obvious as to center of the family. In Lavery's painting, the family sits apart from King George V, showing his importance and “ otherness”. In the 2000 painting by Wonnacott, the family stands around Queen Elizabeth. The focus of the painting done in 2000 is a happy family, enjoying being together. A reason for this could be to change from the tone dynasticism to domesticity ( Schama, 1986).
The differences in the paintings are just as obvious. The attire in the modern painting is more casual, and so is the posture of the family. We see the family in a relaxed, relatable light. Perhaps the need to “ show what you have” does not matter as much to the modern monarch. It could be that they want to show people that family is important to them, and that they are “ just like everyone else.”  This painting is easier to look at because it feels light and familiar. It could be any family ( probably a wealthy, upper class family) posing for a picture meant ness to honor their grandmother. Nowhere is the proof of royalty (except for those of us who have taken British Life and Culture know exactly who this family is!). The dogs on the floor imply warmth and friendliness, as most of us can relate to a pet we love sitting by our feet as we enjoy our family. This attitude would be strikingly different from the serious painting by Lavery's which seems to want to present the image of a powerful and capable monarch. The painting of King George’s family says, “ You don’t know us and we are not just like you. Respect and admire us.” The ironic point of that could be that we respect and admire people we know and can feel something for.
 I see the more contemporary painting as an attempt to show a “ silent power”.  This could be in part due to living in a society that makes it easy to know a famous family through use of media. We have daily access to the lives of the “ rich and famous.”  Back in 1913, most people did not have physical or visual contact with rulers. The painting of the family in 1913 would have been a way for people to gain a reverence  and orchestrated respect for their leaders, thus being reassured in a not so stable time. 

Schama, S. 1986. The Domestication of Majesty: Royal Family Portraiture. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 17 (1). 155-183.

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