Portraits at the Mall

img_881020copyEvery year, hundreds of people visit the Mall Galleries in London to view a diverse and exciting programme of exhibitions. From well-established artists to amateur painters, the Galleries host an abundance of different shows. Known for being Central London’s leading gallery for contemporary art, a whole range of visual arts can be viewed and purchased annually.

Run by the Federation of British Artists, the Mall Galleries gives individual artists and societies the opportunity to showcase their work. Established in 1961, FBA is a visual arts charity that comprises several of the UK’s leading art societies, including the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the Royal Society of British Artists and the New English Arts Club. With each of these societies hosting an annual exhibition, the Mall Galleries becomes host to an eclectic range of artworks from all types of mediums: oil paintings, watercolours, pastels, prints, sculpture and so forth.

rp300x233One of the more recent exhibitions, which opened for two weeks during May 2018, was curated by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Carefully selected by professionals, around 200 works by serious contemporary portrait painters of all stylistic approaches were there to be admired and appreciated, including various competition winners.

Now registered as a charity with Her Majesty The Queen as its Patron, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters was established in 1891 with painters such as Millais and Whistler as members. With the intention of promoting enjoyment and appreciation of the art of portraiture, it aims to encourage up-and-coming artists and develop new modes and perspectives of painting.

The past 500 years has seen portraiture at its most popular in Britain, beginning with the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Hans Holbein and Van Dyck, the latter two famous for portraits of the monarchy. These painters have helped to illustrate English history and give us great insight into the upper classes during the Tudor, Stuart and Victorian era. In more recent years, portraits of the middle classes began to emerge followed by the working class, as contemporary artists began using their family and friends and models. Examples include paintings by Lucien Freud and David Hockney who were prominent during the 20th century.

Present day portrait painters have entered an “art for art’s sake” period where commisions for sittings are less common leaving artists to their own devices and experimentation. With so many past art movements to be influenced by, painters have far more scope to play with, rather than in the earlier years when a particular style was expected. As seen in the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ exhibition, there is a huge range of techniques that not only portray a likeness of the sitter, express emotion and personal concerns as well.

There will come a day when these portraits of 2018 may be reflected back on in a similar vein to society’s appreciation of painters from the 16 and 1700s. Particularly in the case of well-known faces, such as Michael Noakes’ portrait of Her Majesty the Queen, some of these paintings will help to reveal what the people and lifestyle were like at the beginning of the 21st century (although, we also have photographs for that job). However, the majority of the paintings submitted to this exhibition were portraits of anonymous people, personally known by the artists, and therefore meaningless in terms of documenting history. On the other hand, they are a great way of studying different styles, techniques and talents of individual people.

Starting off the exhibition was an incredibly detailed portrait titled Sophia by the Spanish fine artist Miriam Escofet (b1967). An associate member of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Escofet describes herself as a contemporary figurative painter and has been painting ever since graduating from art school in 1991. Her work is inspired by classical painters, which can be seen in the smoothness of the brushstrokes that are virtually invisible in this hyper-realistic painting of a young woman. What makes the painting so remarkable, and arguably the best in the exhibition, is the attention to detail, particularly in the lace dress. It is almost as though one could reach out a hand and feel the material or stroke the hair. Sophia is a phenomenal piece of work, it is hard to believe it is a painting.

There were a few other extremely realistic portraits that took on the appearance of photographs rather than paintings. An example is Sandra Kuck’s (b1947) Yvonne in which a flawless young girl sits in front of an elaborately decorated background. In this painting, Kuck not only shows her talent for portraiture but displays her skill at working with intricate detail, delicate lighting and vibrant colours.

Although photorealistic portraits are awe-inspiring, the majority of the works included in the show were of a more impressionist nature. Neale Worley’s (b1962) small painting Ilea sits on the border between impressionism and realism. From a distance, the portrait could be mistaken for a photograph, however, up close the brush strokes are more visible. Similarly to Kuck, Worley is also extremely talented at capturing skin tone and the texture of the fabric in the background.

Some people confuse the concept of impressionism with surrealism but often these paintings still look realistic, however, with more obvious brush strokes. Although they could not be mistaken for a photograph, they provide a lifelike impression of the sitter. Alice Boggis-Rolfe‘s (b1990) highly commended Self Portrait with Brushes is produced with loose brushstrokes that concentrate more on the application of colour than the preciseness of the composition. Nonetheless, the final result is a faithful portrayal of the artist at work as seen through the reflection of a mirror.

Nneka Uzoigwe’s portrait of Fiona, on the other hand, is produced with more precise brushstrokes, yet still adopting an impressionistic approach. The model almost appears to be emerging from or fading into the dark background and looks ever so slightly blurred, resulting in an ethereal quality that most realistic paintings fail to achieve. Uzoigwe is mostly known for floral still lifes but she has managed to transfer her method of painting to portraiture to produce something as equally beautiful.

Toby Wiggins‘ Girl with a Ring may be more recognisable than other paintings in the exhibition since it was selected to be featured on the advertisements published online and in magazines. Wiggins studied at the Royal Academy Schools and is an established portrait painter and member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

“With every new sitter, I try to respond afresh to the repeated challenges that portraiture offers. I hope that my work is an honest expression of the particular individual(s), a translation of what I see and what I feel”
– Toby Wiggins

Girl with a Ring (stop looking at her hands, it is a lip ring) is more than just a portrait. It is full of unexpressed emotion and tension revealed through the contrast of the background with the blue dress, which leads the eye to the tense posture of the model. Although the girl appears to be attempting to suppress her true feelings, her wary facial expression and stance suggest a notion of unease.

Whilst the favoured medium of the exhibition tended to be oil paint or acrylics this was not everyone’s preference. Produced in monochrome, some artists opted for charcoal or etching for their portraits. The latter has reduced in popularity since the advent of digital art, so it was refreshing to come across an etching hidden amongst the numerous paintings. Bernadett Timko (b1992) is a figurative painter but chose to use the method of etching for her portrait of Franke. This allowed her to expressively draw the tightly curled hair and scratchy stubble, something that would have been nigh on impossible with a paintbrush.

Anna Pinkster was awarded the Prince of Wales Prize for Portrait Drawing for her charcoal sketch of Em and Bruno. Complete with a black background, charcoal was an interesting choice for a portrait containing a black cat; he almost disappears into his surroundings and merges with the material of Em’s shirt.

Michael Travis Seymour (b1976) also chose to work with charcoal for his Study of Tatiana. Unlike Pinkster, Travis Seymour has a much more delicate approach to drawing and does not rush the process. Although it is not a finished portrait, the face and hair almost look like a black and white photograph due to the fine lines and shading.

As well as Her Majesty the Queen, there were a handful of well-known people framed on the walls of the Mall Galleries. One of these was Dame Judi Dench by the English artist Michael Noakes (b1933) who was elected as a Member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1967. Known for painting several important people, including members of the royal family, Noakes comes across as someone who takes portrait painting very seriously, however, there is something not quite right with his portrait of Judi Dench. The 83-year old actress leads a very busy life and it was often hard to find a date to sit for the royal painter. On the occasions that she was able to meet with Noakes, she was often fidgeting, resulting in the artist deliberately adding an extra appendage to Dench’s body in an expression of his frustration. “That is why I portrayed Judi with three arms, showing her in a rushed state.”

Carl Randall (b1975) is another painter who produced portraits of famous names, however, his results are a little unusual. The two examples of his work submitted to the exhibition were of the animator Nick Park (b1958) and the illustrator Raymond Briggs (b1934). Animator Nick Park and the Dinosaur Gallery, to give it its full title, shows the Wallace and Gromit creator behind a representation of the Natural History Museum. In the foreground are eight three-dimensional, cartoonish-looking dinosaurs, prancing around outside of the building. Randall’s choice for this scene was inspired by Park’s memories of visiting the museum to sketch the dinosaurs when he was a student.

This portrait is part of a series called London Portraits in which Randall asked 15 British celebrities who had contributed to British society and culture to choose a location in London that meant something to them to be used as the background of their portrait. In this instance, Park became part of the background with his chosen location in front of him, however, the clouded sky that makes up the backdrop is remarkably eye-catching.

Walking into a gallery and seeing Animator Nick Park and the Dinosaur Gallery on the opposite wall, the eyes are immediately drawn to the optical illusion effect of the white clouds. Until seen standing directly in front of the portrait, the painting appears to be three-dimensional. It is easy to be fooled into thinking the clouds are made of plastic and stuck on to the canvas.

The portrait of Raymond Briggs, famed for The Snowman (1978), is less bold and does not “pop” like its neighbouring painting. Briggs selected 65 Ashen Grove as the backdrop of his portrait, which is where he grew up as a child. It is also the setting of one of his famous graphic novels Ethel and Ernest (1998) and, therefore, holds lots of meaning for him.

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Sisters – Saied Dai

Quite a few of the portraits at the Mall Galleries had won or been selected for various awards. One of these prizes included the RP award presented by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. This year, 2018, judges were looking for painters who had produced portraits that incorporated the theme “friends”. The £2000 prize was awarded to Saied Dai (b1958) whose portrait, Sisters, contained the interesting and engaging aspects the judges were looking for.

Dai was elected to the Society in 2004 and has since won several awards, with the RP being the most recent.

Seeing all the portraits together, it is clear that no artist has the exact same style as another. Whether photorealistic or impressionistic, everyone approaches the canvas differently. Naturally, there are similar styles, however, there were a couple that stood out from the others. These were not necessarily the best of the bunch but they were very different in terms of technique.

Melissa Scott-Miller, a middle-aged English artist, had two paintings in the exhibition. Both of these featured a figure named Adam, her son, who regularly appears in her compositions. Adam and Marsell, his friend since nursery school stood out for its cartoon-ish appearance, vibrant colours and detailed setting. The artist did not only focus on the human subjects, she painstakingly included everything in the room around them, from the apples on the table to the crucifix on the wall. She also added a picturesque view from the windows situated behind the two boys. Although this style may not be what people expect when thinking about portraits, it is still pleasing to look at and is refreshing to come across after so many generic portrait paintings.

David Graham, who likes to work in oils without any preparatory sketches, produced the portrait Coptic Priest, Jericho. This initially stood out for its energetic colours and brushstrokes, however, it also attracted attention for being one of the few paintings to represent a different culture.

“I relish working with artists who help me view the world from a different perspective, often challenging my own views in the process.”
Aliona Adrianova

Alongside the main exhibition was a smaller display of photographs by Aliona Adrianova who photographed many of the portrait artists in their studios. This is part of the Mall Galleries major project “In the Studio” which aims to encourage new artists by revealing the ways different artists work and to learn about the creating process. With her photographs, Adrianova aimed to capture the artists in their creative settings as well as reveal their relationship between life and art.

This was a perfect addition to the portrait exhibition, providing the opportunity to discover the artists behind the artwork and appreciate the time and energy focused on the creative process rather than only viewing the finished product. It is easy to forget the challenges and difficulties painters face in order to create the perfect outcome. These photographs reveal the artists as human beings rather than portrait producing machines.

Although this particular exhibition closed on 25th May, there will be future opportunities to view portraits by members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. The Society uses the Mall Galleries for their annual exhibition, therefore, keep an eye on the gallery’s diary for 2019 so that you do not miss out next year.

The Mall Galleries next exhibition is the New English Art Club Annual Exhibition 2018, which runs from 15th June until 23rd June. Admission is £4 (£3 concessions), however, National Art Pass holders receive 50% off. All exhibitions are free for Friends of Mall Galleries and under 18s.

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Matisse in the Studio

I have worked all my life before the same objects … The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a different role in ten different pictures.

-Henry Matisse, 1951

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As well as the annual Summer Exhibition, the Royal Academy of Arts has been exploring some of the work produced by one of the leading artists of the twentieth century. On 5th August, the Sackler Wing was opened to the public with an exhibition titled Matisse in the Studio, which, rather than being a general showcasing of the artist’s most famous work, concentrates on the relationship between Henri Matisse and his studio.

Throughout his life, Matisse obsessively collected objects that caught his eye in junk shops and places he visited on his travels. These items accumulated on shelves, on walls and in cabinets around Matisse’s studio, creating a self-constructed place of retreat from the rest of the world. These same articles were constant features in Matisse’s artwork and inspiration for future projects. With carefully selected paintings and sculptures, the Academy endeavours to impart the incentives behind Matisse’s art.

Henri Matisse was born in France on 31st December 1869. Unlike many artists of his age, Matisse was a late starter, having embarked on a legal career until 1891 when he abandoned his professional aspirations in favour of enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts. As a result, it was not until the 1920s that Matisse became internationally known, however, he still managed to achieve the status as one of the most illustrious painters of the twentieth century, alongside his friend, and fellow painter, Picasso (1881-1973).

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Yellow Odalisque, 1937

Unlike Picasso, who embraced the Cubist and Surrealist movements, Matisse developed his own style, which initially resembled art that could be categorised into the Neo-Impressionism movement of which Georges Seurat (1859-1891) was a founding member. Neo-Impressionists were drawn to the sensitivity of line and the beauty of colour, often encompassing a full palette.

Matisse’s work is also associated with the Fauvist style, which was predominantly in practice during the first decade of the 20th century. This, similarly, had a strong focus on colour, as well as wild brush strokes, and simplification or abstraction.

Matisse deviated from any traditional methods and movements, preferring to experiment with different principles and processes to create unique outcomes. He also took great interest in sculpture, which not only did he produce, he painted into his compositions.

Matisse in the Studio is divided into sections that group together works involving a particular genre or process. The paintings in the gallery span the years from his initial experimental phases during the First World War all the way up until the years preceding his death in 1954.

Essential objects from Matisse’s eclectic collection have been sought out by the curators to feature alongside the paintings in which they play a significant role. Rather than painting still-lifes of the actual items in question, Matisse likened them to actors who take on other personas. Instead of drawing a chocolate-pot, for example, the one gifted to him as a wedding present, Matisse used it as a vase to hold flowers. This same object featured in many paintings but never representing the purpose for which it was originally intended.

Another article in his collection that Matisse was completely enamoured with was a Venetian Chair that he stumbled upon whilst travelling in Europe. It is of a baroque nature with a silver gilt and tinted varnish. Matisse was particularly drawn to the scallop shell-like body work, which provided plenty of lines and angles to experiment with.

It was not only these found objects that made their way into Matisse’s paintings, he produced his own items too. Matisse was a versatile artist who often turned to sculpture whenever he reached a mind block in his painting. Sculpting help Matisse “to put order into my feelings” – a form of organisation rather than a means to an end. Due to his extensive travelling, Matisse fell in love with African sculpture.

Unlike traditional European statues that stay true to form, African art used simplified shapes to resemble the human body rather than portraying a lifelike representation. Between 1906 and 1908, Matisse accumulated over twenty masks and statues from Central and West African countries, and by studying them, developed his own in a similar style. The disregard of accurate physical forms was a significant turning point in Matisse’s artistic career. He began to challenge the attitudes of the Western world’s notion of beauty.

The strong, linear lines of African art worked well with the style Matisse was already becoming known for. The exhibition displays some of the paintings of the female nude that Matisse experimented with, however, quite a number of these are based upon sculptures he had made, rather than a live model. In the instances that he did have someone sit for him, the final painting resembled the African figures more than the physical person in front of him. Matisse believed that by stripping someone down to the bare lines created a truer character and avoided any risk of superficiality.

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The Italian Woman, 1916

African design also found itself entering Matisse’s portrait paintings. Again, rather than producing a lifelike picture, Matisse simplified the features as much as possible. In order to evoke a sense of his subject’s true identity, Matisse believed that accurate features would distract from this purpose.

An example hanging in the RA is a portrait of an Italian woman called Laurette, who Matisse allegedly painted fifty times in less than a year. With no photograph to compare it to, it can only be assumed that the flatness of the face and sharpness of the nose and eyebrows was not a precise representation of the model. This goes to show how fixed Matisse was on the concept of African art.

African masks, rather than sculpture, were the inspiration for the faces Matisse painted. He was particularly intrigued by their stylistic designs and lack of realistic human features. A few of his collection has been located by the exhibition curators and are on display for everyone to see. These date from the late 19th to early 20th century.

Interestingly, the majority of Matisse’s paintings of the human figure were not solely based on his sitter. Matisse painted in his studio surrounded by his accumulation of foreign artefacts, which he then used as part of the setting for his paintings. The photograph at the top of this page shows Matisse in his studio with a model. There are a number of other objects surrounding the woman, patterns in the background and many different materials. Once all this has been painted, the model becomes merely a part of the artwork, rather than the main focus. The particular scene in this photograph was for Matisse’s Odalisque on a Turkish Chair (1928), which can be found towards the end of the exhibition.

During the final decade of Matisse’s life, his ability to produce art was severely debilitated after a near-fatal operation in 1941 for duodenal cancer. During this period, he was mostly bedbound, however, this did not prevent him from continuing with his work, but his method of execution needed to change.

Rather than painting directly on to canvas, Matisse turned to gouaches découpées, which involved cutting out shapes from painted or coloured papers. Many of his studio workers assisted with the cutting and pinned the pieces in place following Matisse’s precise instructions. Some examples of this latter work clearly retain the evidence of the pins.

The paper cut out allows me to draw in the colour. It is a simplification for me. Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it – the one modifying the other – I draw straight into the colour.

-Henri Matisse, 1953

From African art to collage, Matisse’s work had always been about simplifying. Even his use of colour was made plainer with the lack of shadow and tone. This does not mean to say that Matisse’s work lacks colour – they are most certainly vibrant – but he leans more towards blocks of colour rather than a natural pigmentation. Apparently, Matisse’s doctor, whether in jest or seriousness, advised the artist to wear dark glasses to counteract the intensity of the paint.

Matisse is the type of artist that spectators either love or hate. His work is often child-like and unimpressive, however, as an artist, he introduced new ideas to the world. His Fauvist style established the notion of simplifying the human figure in order to focus on character rather than appearance. He also challenged the rule that the human figure should be the focus of an artwork. Instead, he gave surrounding objects and decorations identical treatment.

Although he relied on his art as a means of livelihood, Matisse appeared to be quite reclusive, preferring to hide away in his studio than spend time in the outside world. Rather than working for other people, Matisse was creating art for himself. With his collection of interesting objects, he generated a safe and comfortable retreat where he could focus on painting rather than the negative experiences in his life. Instead of pouring his emotion into his work, he let the paint bring himself some peace and happiness. If anything, it can be said that Matisse’s paintings have an air of positivity about them, regardless of whether the viewer finds favour with them.

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject-matter … like a comforting influence, a mental balm – something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue.

-Henry Matisse, 1908

Matisse in the Studio is running until 12th November 2017 and is open to the public between 10 am and 6 pm on Saturdays to Thursday, however, extends to 10 pm on a Friday. Friends of the Royal Academy are, naturally, free to enter, although, are advised to book a timed ticket. Everyone else is required to pay a fee of £15.50 (includes donation). It does not take long to walk around the exhibition, but if you choose to follow the audio guide, be prepared to be there for at least an hour.

We are not here in the presence of an extravagant or an extremist undertaking: Matisse’s art is eminently reasonable.

-Guillaume Apollinaire in an article published in La Falange (1907)

l4fh1dyvt9x4cntwc7x0A final note –
The eagle eyed amongst visitors to the gallery will notice the numbers in the bottom right-hand corner next to Matisse’s signature. This is (quite obviously, in my opinion) the date in which the painting was completed and NOT, as my friend Martin thought, the artist’s self-analysis score!

The Queen’s House

The Queen’s House Art Gallery

Completed in 1683, Inigo Jones’ first classical building in Britain is still standing and open to the public. Originally a royal villa intended for James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark, it became the home of Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria on its completion. As well as being famed as a royal pleasure palace, it later became home to a naval school.

Today, the classical building is primarily used as an art gallery, containing hundreds of paintings including a few from the masters: Turner, Gainsborough and Hogarth. As part of the Royal Museums of Greenwich and only a mere 150 metres from the National Maritime Museum, it is only natural that the artworks predominately feature ships, sailors and wars, making it the most important collection of maritime art in the world. The house also displays an impressive selection of British portraiture, from kings and queens to admirals and other important names.

Inigo Jones (1573-1652) was an English architect, stage designer, draughtsman and painter, the former being his greatest asset. He is still regarded as one of the incomparable English architects to date and was responsible for introducing and influencing a classic style based upon Italian architecture. For a country that had not previously been impacted by the Renaissance movement, this was a significant development.

Sadly, very few of Jones’s building resemble their original state as a result of restoration, disintegration or extension. The two most famous and equally important are located in London. One is the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and the other is the aforementioned Queen’s House at Greenwich.

The entrance to the Queen’s House for today’s visitors is through the undercroft, which whilst may not look all that inspiring, leads to the most impressive section of the building. To access the main floors of the house, visitor’s must make their way upstairs. This can either be done by lift (the boring way) or by climbing the Tulip Stairs.

The Tulip Stairs, so named due to the flowers on the ornate bannisters, are famed for being the first ever geometric self-supporting spiral staircase in the whole of Britain. With no additional supports necessary, it is possible to look up (or down) and see all the way through to the roof by peering up the middle of the staircase [image above]. The stairs create an amazing pattern as they spiral up into the heavens – although, thankfully, you do not have to climb that high!

The Tulip Stairs lead up to both the ground and first floor, from which you can experience another extraordinary feat of architecture. The ground floor is home to the Great Hall, which although not as big as you may imagine (12m or 40ft long), is a perfect square and the key example of the influence the Renaissance ideals of mathematics and harmony had on the magnificent architect. The floor of the hall, laid in 1635, is geometrically patterned with alternating black and white shapes. As a result, the room is perfectly proportioned.

From the first floor, a balcony allows you to overlook the Great Hall, providing an aerial view of the splendid flooring. In keeping with the symmetrical design below, doors to adjoining rooms are located in the same positions – one in each corner, and another along one of the sides.

For the majority of the rest of the House, the architecture is forgotten, although it is still possible to appreciate the ceiling paintings provided by Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639). The impressive collection of paintings is the main focus of all the other rooms in the building, beginning with an exploration of the sea through art. Most of these are from the 19th century and illustrate the changing affinities Victorian people had with the sea. Demonstrating the fisher-folk and boat builders that relied on oceans for their livelihood, there are paintings of ships, coasts and harbours showing a variety of scenes.

Some artists focus on the Thames rather than the sea – an apt setting for a Greenwich art gallery – whereas others, such as Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817-80), explored the uses of boats and ships. For example, O’Neil’s The Parting Cheer is a response to the migration of friends and families leaving in search of a better life elsewhere. On the other hand, some artists were still quite superstitious and influenced by old myths and tales of frightening creatures hiding in the depths of the murky waters. Davy Jones’s Locker by William Lionel Wyllie (1851-1931) is a great example of this.

Moving from room to room, the paintings come into the era of modern British art. The sea was still a major inspiration for many artists, particularly those from Britain on account of it being an island nation. The two world wars during the first half of the 20th century were also a significant source of direction for seascapes. Some of these may have been used for propaganda, but others were a means of encouragement for those fearing for the lives of their loved ones.

It is only natural that a gallery engrossed with nautical art and a building that once housed a naval school would also display portraits of important sailors and officers of rank. Until the First World War, portraits of men below the rank of an officer were virtually non-existent, however, in order to document the important events, it is impossible to ignore the significance of each and every participant. Alongside portraits of famous military leaders, for example, Captain Edward Jellico, are faces unknown to most.

The portraits continue on the first floor, however, are of people of particular renown or rank. After the restoration of the Stuart line of the British monarchy in 1660, the royal family began to take a great interest in the navy, commissioning portraits of Admirals and spectacular flagships. These can be found in various rooms around the house.

The war against the Dutch in the mid-1600s was also a popular subject matter amongst the upper-classes, therefore a large number of paintings in the collection display scenes of sea battles. Many of these depict Dutch ships, recognised by the striped flags, struggling amongst the waves, implying they were not as strong as their English rivals. At the time, these may have been used as forms of propaganda.

The paintings around the house are all of a similar style, largely due to the time periods they were produced in. But, paint is not the only medium used and collected. As can be seen in the photographs above, the gallery contains busts of various materials. There are a number of famous names amongst these, including Charles I and the Queen’s House’s architect, Inigo Jones.

Another form of artworks on display are pen paintings (penschilderji) produced by the Dutch artist Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611-1693). As a companion of Charles II and later an inhabitant of the Queen’s House, Van de Velde produced sketches of the naval battles that he witnessed first hand. It is inspiring to see what can be captured in basic pen and ink in comparison to paintings with a full-colour palette.

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Slag bij Livorno (Battle of Leghorn), Willem Van de Velde the Elder

The later paintings in the gallery focus on a completely different theme. The 18th century brought with it an advance in the interest of scientific discovery. It was also a time when women began to question the female role and strove to prove that they could also participate in the study of science through means of botany and astronomy. The artworks reflect these changing attitudes.

Although referred to as an art gallery, the Queen’s House is also a museum about the building’s uses and the royals who lived there. Along with the information plaques about the paintings, each room has a title and description to explain what its original purpose was.

Presumably, the Grand Hall would have been an area to entertain guests at banquets or ball dances, however, there are no references to the usage of the ground floor during its years as a royal residence. These rooms were most important during its time as a naval school. Now bedecked with paintings, visitors can walk through what was once the headmaster’s drawing room, assistant master’s dining room and so forth.

The upper floor is focused more on the original uses of the house, splitting the rooms into those intended for the King, and those used by the Queen. All the rooms are now devoted to art, from the King’s Privy Chamber to the Queen’s Closet. The nautical paintings inhabit the King’s side, presumably on account of it being a male-dominated period of history, whereas the Queen’s side focuses a lot on royalty. Here can be found portraits of the royals who spent time at the Queen’s House, including Queen Anne. Interestingly, there are also portraits of the Tudor monarchs who were long dead by the time the house was commissioned.

One thing that it is quick to notice about the collection of artwork in the Queen’s House is the lack of religious representations. This could be because the gallery is mainly focused on the maritime theme, however, it does seem odd that the past Royal family who held strong Christian beliefs would not display anything to epitomise their faith.

Despite the lack of religion, as a present for the 400th anniversary of the commissioning of the Queen’s House, Queen Elizabeth II has lent the painting Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Orazio Gentileschi, which is usually found in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. This painting is hung back in its original location from which it has been missed for over 360 years. This was one of many paintings King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria commissioned during their reign. For a temporary time, free talks about the painting are available at given times of the day.

The Queen’s House also holds small exhibitions of contemporary artists and designers at the back of the building where the functions of the original rooms are no longer known. Currently, the work on display is by Marian Maguire, an artist from New Zealand known for her lithographs and etchings that combine the classical Greek style of vase painting with the history of New Zealand. On display until October 2017, Maguire’s series of lithographs titled The Odyssey of Captain Cook tell a fabricated story of the meeting of the ancient Greeks and Maori people.

Maguire combines the voyages of Captain James Cook, whose portrait resides upstairs, with her native country and the Greek myths featured in Homer’s Odyssey. Taking liberties – or artistic license – Maguire creates a new myth surrounding a myriad of characters who in reality could not possibly have met. She weaves this tale through her recognised style of lithographs, mostly in the style of ancient Greek art. However, one particular piece, A Portrait of Captain James Cook with a Classical Urn from the Collection of the Admiralty (2005), also includes a realistic portrait of the famous explorer.

The Queen’s House Art Gallery is a beautiful building to visit containing some amazing works of art. The quiet atmosphere provides the perfect setting for art lovers to study paintings by artists of up to 400 years ago. Alongside this is the opportunity to learn more about the advances in art, science and the Navy, as well as discovering new details about the past British monarchs. With free entry and staff on hand to supply additional information, it is an opportunity that should not be passed up. The National Maritime Museum may be the most famous of the Royal Museums, but the Queen’s House is by far the more impressive. Enjoy your visit.