If you want a summary of the last five hundred years of English history, here is just the thing: the nation’s story told through portraits of its monarchs. The exhibition starts with an insightful Flemish portrait of Henry VII which was intended to procure him a second wife (essentially his dating profile pic) and ends with Chris Levine’s huge lightbox print of the Queen with her eyes closed, looking, it must be said, quite exhausted.
In between there’s good, bad and mediocre monarchs, and their spouses, favourites and mistresses. I can’t think myself of a better corrective to the contemporary reluctance to do narrative, sequential history. This is an unsurpassed way of conveying what actually happened over half a millennium, because the rise and fall of kings and queens is the very stuff of history, the context for everything else. The panels at the start of each dynasty giving an outline of important people and events is about as useful a guide to the course of the story of England as you’ll get.
Many of the portraits are from the National Portrait Gallery – closed for refurbishment. Lots of the pictures are like familiar quotes – the images on the front of history books – but there’s plenty that’s unfamiliar, including coins, stamps and photos. We get the well-known portraits of Henry VIII and wives but also the later engraving of Henry at the end of his life by Cornelis Metsys, looking bloated and sinister. Elizabeth I is represented by the magnificent Ditchley Portrait – now that is power dressing – plus her favourites, Roberts Dudley and Devereaux.
It’s not just paintings either: there’s a poignant small suit of armour for Edward VI, echoed later by Edward VII’s little sailor suit. With the Stuarts, Charles I – the one genuinely great art patron among the monarchs – was fortunate in having Van Dyck as court painter. There’s also a posthumous picture of the king as martyr – a devotional image. We get Cromwell too, looking less of a bruiser than he was, but warts and all, in a copy of Samuel Cooper’s picture.
There are lots of mistresses – several of Charles II’s, then nice Mrs Fitzherbert, George IV’s secret spouse – Caroline of Brunswick, the official Queen, by contrast looks awfully plain. A selection of Edward VII’s girlfriends includes a photo of Mrs Keppel, Camilla Parker Bowles’s great grandmother. The parallels between Queen Alexandra and Diana are inescapable, right down to the photos of them, each piggybacking her son. There’s a curious resemblance too – honestly – between Wallis Simpson and Meghan Markle.
The most beautiful portrait is Mary Queen of Scots. The steeliest-looking is Kate Middleton.
Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits is at the National Maritime Museum, May 28 to October 31