This article originally appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.
The Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace has, somehow, over the past few years, emerged as one of London’s most consistently impressive exhibition spaces. Enchanting the Eye: Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age is pretty much pure delight. Economy is by no means the least of its charms. Not for the Palace the cheap expedients of padding — pointless interactive displays, large empty spaces, evident ‘filler’ works coupled uncomfortably with incontinent use of the word ‘masterpiece’ — no need, either, for promotional bombast, curatorial hype or pseudo-stories seeded throughout the dutiful broadsheet media. Enchanting the Eye needs none of these things. Neither do we, and here, for once, we are spared them.
Instead, the visitor to the Royal Collection, climbing those pleasing stairs from the entry hall, is presented with two rooms, one large and one small, lined with cerulean linen and hung with perhaps 50 paintings from the greatest age of Dutch painting. The result is an exhibition that not only — as the title implies — looks amazing, but also one that piques the intellect and plays engagingly with the imagination. Plenty of the works on show are as beautiful and important as anything in the National Gallery or the Rijksmuseum. All are worth seeing. The context, finally, makes a big difference, if only because the fact that they’re part of a centuries-old collection serves to remind us how much tastes have changed over the last few hundred years. To the extent that we treasure the same bits of painted canvas that our eighteenth and nineteenth century forbears did, we tend to do so for very different reasons — sometimes, indeed, we simply treasure very different bits of canvas. So part of the very real thrill of this exhibition lies in realising the extent to which this was the case. The reward? A degree of liberation from some of the faintly deadening stereotypes clustered around the whole concept of ‘Dutch Painting of the Golden Age’ and a chance to reawaken our relationship with this perennially engaging body of work.
The Old Masters weren’t always old
It’s worth remembering that when Golden Age Dutch painting first entered the Royal Collection, it was as contemporary art. The motor driving it was a combination of economic migration and asylum-seeking, as doctrinal and political turbulence in the Low Countries drove Dutch artists, like their Flemish neighbours, to the faintly desperate expedient of seeking patronage in whatever peripheral parts of Europe would offer them sanctuary. British visual culture, still reeling from all those reformations, urgently needed the sort of boost these immigrants provided. All of which explains why so much sixteenth and seventeenth century British painting — everything from the ‘iconic’ royal portraits of Hans Eworth, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Daniel Mytens and Anthony Van Dyck to darkened and disregarded journeyman daubs cluttering the panelling of Oxbridge college halls and minor statelies the length and breadth of the land — was the work of Netherlandish hands. There is no doubt that this influx of a sophisticated foreign practitioners significantly affected the course of British art in terms of style, subject-matter and technical expertise.
Dutch painters were good at what they did — generally much better, in most ways, than their British competitors. Hence it’s not surprising that Charles I owned several works by Gerrit Houckgeest, whose ‘Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria and Charles, Prince of Wales dining in public’ — a vivid evocation, for all its imaginary architecture and daring perspective effects, of the court etiquette of its day — was first recorded in the Royal Collection during the reign of Charles II, or that two generations of Van de Veldes were poached from the Dutch to paint maritime scenes for Britain, or that amongst three paintings presented to Charles I by Sir Robert Kerr (later 1st Earl of Ancram) was a new work by an up-and-coming young painter named Rembrandt van Rijn. Condemned by doctrinal necessity to turn their backs, in theory anyway, on the art of the Italian city-states and Spain, British connoisseurs continued to turn to the technical skill and aesthetic vigour of their at least notionally protestant neighbours across the Channel. The arrival of a Dutch king, William III, on the British throne only strengthened such bonds. Works like the meticulous and possibly symbolic still lifes and flower paintings of Maria van Oosterwick were collected because their depiction of contemporary people, places, things and events was of a quality that could scarcely have been equalled by any artist painting in these islands. From the Medicis in Florence to Louis XIV of France, in Poland and Prague, all across Europe, everyone who could afford to do so acquired such works. They were part of the international cutting-edge art scene of their day.
Successive British monarchs both encouraged Dutch artists working here, and acquired Dutch art from abroad. A few of works acquired by the Stuarts are on show here. Many others were either illegally flogged off by Cromwell and his excerable henchmen, sent back to The Hague by William III (where the Mauritshuis still shows several of them), or simply lost. There followed, during the reigns of the early Hanoverians, a bit of a lull. George III made further acquisitions, the most important of which were purchased on his behalf as a job lot from Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice, since that excellent monarch was more interested in books, farming and ruling conscientiously than in buying pictures. The same cannot be said of his successor. Indeed, the great bulk of the show is made up of works purchased by George IV, who was so much more satisfactory as a collector than he ever was as a king. At the same time that the 3rd Marquess of Hertford was putting together the works that would later make up the Wallace Collection, and that Apsley House and what would become the Dulwich Picture Gallery were filling up with Dutch painting of both importance and charm, George IV was haemorrhaging cash in the direction of the art market. The bumper year for the collection was 1814, when George IV bought 86 Dutch paintings from the banker Sir Francis Baring and his son Sir Thomas Baring. In doing so, he expanded the Royal Collection’s Dutch holdings to about 200 works.
The profligate ‘Prinny’s’ enthusiasm for Dutch art was very much in keeping with the sophisticated taste of his era. Like so many of his contemporaries, he preferred Dutch genre paintings, landscapes and portraits to still lifes and religious paintings. He looked at these works not with simple wonder at their illusionistic success, but with the practiced eye of the connoisseur. What mattered was subject matter, skill of execution, luxurious smoothness of finish, and provenance – in other words, what the works said about his taste. This was the age in which private collections in Britain first began to be opened to a relatively well-dressed, well-scrubbed, more acceptable minority of the general public — less to civilise them further, as would be the motivation a generation or so hence, than to reflect the taste and liberality of the collector himself. And the goal here, oddly, was to look back to the sophisticated tastes of early eighteenth century France. A love for Dutch art allowed British connoisseurs to take their places alongside the great French collectors of a vanished age (the Dutch influence is clear enough in the work of Watteau and Chardin) — men whose collections had been torn apart by the great enormity of 1789. Once again, turbulence in continental Europe had a direct and beneficial effect on British art. For those who could afford them, Dutch paintings, prints and drawings poured into Britain.
Not that everyone admired Dutch art. Inevitably, what one thought about it hinged completely on what it was that one thought art ought, first and foremost, to do. As the excellent catalogue for Enchanting the Eye (of which, more later) points out, the late eighteenth century saw some formidable assaults on Golden Age Dutch painting, not least by the magisterial founder President of the Royal Academy himself, Sir Joshua Reynolds. In his Journey to Flanders and Holland in the Year 1781 he wrote regarding the great age of Dutch art:
One would wish to be able to convey to the reader some idea of that excellence, the sight of which has afforded so much pleasure: but as their merit often consists in the truth of representation alone, whatever praise they deserve, whatever pleasure they give when under the eye, they make but a poor figure in description. It is to the eye only that the works of this school are addressed; it is therefore not to be wondered at, that what was intended solely for the gratification of one sense, succeeds but ill, when applied to another.
Such art departed from ‘the great purposes of painting’, as he wrote in his Discourses, ‘catching at applause by inferior qualities’. Instead of aiming at the universal and ideal, Dutch art was moored, perpetually and fatally, to the local and particular:
With them a history-piece is properly a portrait of themselves; whether they describe the inside or outside of their houses, we have their own people engaged in their own peculiar occupations; working or drinking, playing or fighting. The circumstances that enter into a picture of this kind, are so far from giving a general view of human life, that they exhibit all the minute peculiarities of a nation differing in several respects from the rest of mankind.
Unable to rise about incident, anecdote and the absolutely ordinary, what was there in this art to exalt or inspire? Wasn’t it a shame that so much skill had been wasted on such pointless ephemera? Yet plenty of painters in the England of Victoria took away another lesson from Dutch art, which is that the demotic legibility of particular strands of it could be turned to the services of moral instruction and improvement. While Constable and Turner learned from the landscapes of the Dutch masters — for what it’s worth, our word ‘landscape’ is a simple theft of the Dutch word — Wilkie and others looked to genre scenes for composition, finish and narrative appeal.
After the slow, dyspeptic, bibulous, tearful yet largely unlamented death of George IV, the Royal Collection mostly ceased to acquire further Dutch art. It hardly matters. The collection that yielded up the 50 paintings shown in the present exhibition holds hundreds more. It is to the credit, then, of the curator — Christopher Lloyd, the soon-to-retire Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures — that the works on show here not only include a number of genuine masterpieces, but also a variety of less familiar, in some ways more challenging, work that at every turn expands our understanding of Dutch visual culture.
There’s no point in writing out a laundry-list of treasures, enjoyable though it is to revisit them in memory — a luminously mysterious Vermeer, three brilliant Rembrandts, a powerful Hals, plenty of Jan Steen doing what Jan Steen does best, Nicolaes Maes’ ‘Listening Housewife’ or Van de Velde the Younger’s magnificent ‘A Calm: a States yacht under sail close to shore, with many other vessels’ — the latter a miraculous work where the usual long Dutch maritime horizon is punctured again and again by the staccato intrusion of mast and sail and rigging, the paint transparently thin yet as fresh as if applied yesterday, the drawing both apparently accurate at the level of fact and fantastic at the level of formal achievement. What could be more beautiful? Whether it’s the macerated plum-and-chocolate richness of Rembrandt’s ‘Old Woman’, or the shimmering topaz of a Cuyp evening sky, this is work that really demands to be seen at first hand, examined in detail and admired at leisure. The pleasantly proportioned spaces, unfussy hanging and good light of the present exhibition encourage sustained looking. What could be more unlike that sullen bunker in Trafalgar Square?
Yet Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Van de Velde — for all their quality, and the freshness of the work on show, they still represent exactly those aspects of Dutch art that Reynolds lamented and with which we are all slightly too familiar — a strange exemplary place where material prosperity was underpinned by sturdy bourgeois and mercantile virtues and leavened with a touch of pragmatic if well-contained naughtiness. Another part of the real excellence of Enchanting the Eye lies in the gentle way in which we are reminded that there was much, much more to the Dutch visual culture of the seventeenth century than these clichés. That there is more to the Netherlands as a place, then and now, than such clichés is a point I once made elsewhere at slightly worrying length, so forgive me, or in fact count yourself lucky, if I avoid doing so again here. The main point can be summed up as follows: when the British speak about the Dutch, more often than not they are simply speaking about themselves in terms of metaphors, mirror-images and admonitory hyperbole, and not actually about the Dutch at all. Enchanting the Eye underscores this. For here is the real range of Dutch art — including the classicism, the yearning after sunny Italy and elegant France, the aristocratic hauteur, the sleekly affective religiosity, the imperial ambition — all the things we tend to think alien to those apparently democratic, tolerant, iconoclastic, earthy, inward-looking cousins of ours across the Channel. We are reminded, in other words, how much mental editing it has taken to create the Golden Age Dutch art that we all think we know so well. And not only are these less famous works eye-opening at the level of art history — some of them are, clearly, arrestingly beautiful as well.
Some of the most powerful impressions left in the wake of this exhibition are delivered by lesser-known pictures. Jan Steen’s ‘Woman at her toilet’ appears, to the uninstructed eye, to be less a moralising image than a delightful piece of soft-core pornography, rendered all the more delightful not only by that Titianesque spaniel and the exquisite chandelier, but by the scene’s sheer oddity — was this plain face, barrel-like torso and chunky legs really what did it for early modern men? Gerrit Dou’s ‘Girl chopping onions’, an intense little work that is also full of sexual puns, is jarring, if only because the willowy blondness and come-hither look seems so at variance with what one can only imagine to have been the onion-suffused, gamey, probably sweaty reek of that kitchen. Frans Post’s ‘Village in Brazil’ is a sort of genre scene admixed with ethnographic curiosity then raised a level or two by its thin paint and luminous surfaces. The real show-stopper, though, is Adriaen van der Werff’s ‘Boy and a girl with a guinea pig and a kitten’. As the catalogue makes clear, van der Werff was a contemporary of Rembrandt, but in their own time the former’s work fetched higher prices than did the work of the latter; van der Werff’s enamel-like surfaces, in which any hint of brushwork is suppressed, were highly prized far beyond his own age. And whatever is happening in this scene, there is something in the combination of grandly-outfitted, pretty children, cute animals, lavish carpet and strangely menacing stonework that won’t quite allow itself to be forgotten. But it’s all a world away from what comes to mind when someone says ‘Golden Age Dutch Painting’, and all the more powerful for it.
All of this would be reason enough to make time to visit Enchanting the Eye — but it’s worth pointing out that the same ticket buys entrance to further rooms, extravagantly appointed, filled with an endearingly miscellaneous selection of items from the Royal Collection — paintings, furniture, sculpture, monogrammed china, regal jewels, miniatures, who knows what else? But this catholicity is precisely the charm of the display, where one can cast one’s eyes from some piece of distressingly garish Victoriana to a pair of magnificent Canalettos, or from some faintly alarming piece of ormolu-afflicted furniture up to one of Van Dyck’s loveliest and dreamiest works — an absolute assault, in other words, on preciousness, seriousness and worthiness. It’s something one sees all too rarely these days, and obviously only in private collections. Particularly arresting were a very famous, anonymous portrait of the young Elizabeth I, a tiny and haunting Clouet portrait, and a huge golden Cuyp featuring a black page, to surreal effect. All this comes highly recommended. Taste – funny old business, eh? I can think of few more pleasant places in which to contemplate, lazily and happily, its vicissitudes, triumphs and enormities.
De Neus van de Zalm
Finally, a word about the catalogue. There are plenty of ways in which other British art collections might be well-advised to emulate the Royal Collection. There’s the high morale of the staff, for instance, who from the security guard on the door to the coat-room lady to the Surveyor himself, come across as unfailingly welcoming, helpful and keen to make every visit a success — or the exhibition spaces, which from the formal entrance area to the galleries to the baby-changing room, for heaven’s sake, are well-designed, functional and aesthetically pleasing — or even the shows themselves, which, as with last year’s excellent George III exhibition, somehow work both as crowd-pleasers and as serious curatorial events. Indeed, while sour-faced republicans periodically make noises about delivering this collection ‘back to the people’ (presumably with as much success as Cromwell or the Paris mob, this being republicanism’s track-record in action) it would be far easier to frame an argument as to why more public collections should be offered to Her Majesty, if she could promise they would all be run as efficiently, effectively and as selflessly as her own Collection has been. But leave that modest proposal to the side for a moment, or perhaps longer. The catalogue for Enchanting the Eye, written by Christopher Lloyd, is quite simply, as with so much at the Royal Collections, a model of how such things ought to be done.
As a genre, exhibitions catalogues leave a lot to be desired. These days, serious exhibitions offer a simple if unpalatable binary choice to the visitor. On one hand, there’s a ‘free’ leaflet — which is to say, ‘free’ alongside his £8 or £9 single-entry ticket — or, on the other hand, there’s the ‘proper’ catalogue, which may or may not be scholarly but will certainly be weighty in the literal sense, and which will never, even in paperback, end up costing less than £25. The former, lacking detail and illustration, is no good if the visitor hopes to acquire some sort of record of the works exhibited; the latter is not exactly a desirable companion while wandering through the exhibition, and also frankly confines its audience to those with near-infinite disposable incomes, large homes and acres of reinforced shelf-space. Meanwhile in publishing terms, the exhibition monograph squeezes out other types of scholarly monographs, while all too often the lavishly-illustrated catalogues can’t decide whether to cheer the works their curators have managed to beg or borrow, or to be honest about their sometimes dubious merits. It’s all a bit of a mess. Yet with a stroke, the Royal Collection’s publishing arm has cut through this conundrum and provided a plausible and pleasing alternative. The catalogue for Enchanting the Eye is a great success. Running to 192 pages and priced at a modest £7.95, it is more or less fully-illustrated, briskly and brightly written, informative both on the level of a general introduction and regarding individual artists and pictures, and small enough to pop into a handbag or pocket. If the illustrations aren’t particularly brilliant and the text a little too keen on Svetlana Alpers and Simon Schama for my tastes — well, I’ve certainly paid far more for catalogues that were far, far less satisfactory. National Gallery, the various Tates and your ilk, please take note.
One of the many interesting points made in the catalogue is the extent to which some of the giants of modernism — Van Gogh, Matisse and Mondrian, not to mention (as the catalogue doesn’t) Braque and Picasso — looked back to Dutch painting. In doing so, they were following on from the nineteenth century critics who had increasingly read these works in purely aesthetic terms. Perhaps modernist sensibilities got a particular kick out of dissolving the perceived earthy particularity of Dutch art into a lingua franca of formal rhythm and counterpoint? But now the pendulum has swung the other way again. As that Schama reference suggests, these days art historians — and those who popularise their work — put great effort unto unpacking the symbolic and moralistic freight secreted away in the most matter-of-fact-looking domestic scene or modest portrait. The impulse to use these paintings as social-history-fodder remains, for some critics, less a guilty pleasure than a habit or a compulsion. And at the same time, books and films can’t quite leave the mystery of those crepuscular interiors, illegible maps and voiceless servant-girls alone — preoccupations that again mean forgetting quite a lot of what Dutch art actually was and did, and the ways in which it impressed itself on other ages. It really must be central to the greatness of the greatest age of Dutch painting that while each successive generation seems to love it for a different, if not a contradictory reason, the potential for love seems all but inexhaustible. Enchanting the Eye is a beautiful exhibition that not only reminds us, at the intellectual level, the extent to which this is the case, but positively incites us to connect with this work, ourselves, on whatever terms we can.