Yesterday was bitingly cold but the bright sunshine demanded that we take a walk somewhere so we headed across the river to the Holbourne Museum to see their latest exhibition ‘The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics’, a collection of contemporary portraits of the Tudor monarchs and other key players in their dynastic struggles,
It was only when we arrived that we discovered that there was a second, quite different exhibition, using life-sized cartoons to take a humorous look at the history industry. That exhibit was a lot of fun. It started before we’d even made it into the museum, with a signwriter on a cradle and a group of archaeologists digging up the grounds.
I loved the slogan on the archaeologist’s t-shirt:
‘My Career Lies In Ruins…’
Inside, the exhibition continued with life-sized painted theatre flats of a Georgian House (which was odd as we were in a Georgian house) and life-sized cartoon characters making a history documentary. It was disorienting but amusing enough to make me smile.
The main event, the Tudor exhibition, didn’t make me smile. It left me impressed and annoyed. It consisted of about twenty contemporary portraits of the Tudor monarchs, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I and their courtiers. The portraits had been borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery and National Museums Liverpool and were displayed in an intimate, artfully lit gallery that literally brought you face to face with each monarch.
The art was impressive. It was old but still vibrant. The oldest portrait in the collection was painted more than 500 years ago. It was of Henry VII. and was done in 1505, when he had been on the throne for twenty years. Looking into those unflinching eyes and seeing those grasping hands, I found it easy to match his portrait to my mental image of the man who seized the English crown, though he had only a small claim to it, ran a sophisticated PR campaign, pushing his red and white rose logo to convince the country that he represented unity and stability after the war between the houses of York and Lancaster and established a dynasty that ruled England for 118 years.
All of the portraits seemed to display strong personalities. They have something to say about the people. To me, it seemed that the men tended towards the thuggish but dominant. They were about power rather than polished good looks.
I was struck by this one of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex.
Looking at this portrait, it’s easy to see the strong-willed belligerence that enabled him to ride the English Reformation to rise from commoner to one of the most powerful and most feared men in the country – until the King had him killed.
It was the portraits of the woman that I liked the most. They were very individual. Real portraits, not fashion shots. The portraits of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour were set side by side and seem to me to show very different women.
It was fascinating to move around the gallery and see two contrasting portraits of Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth one painted in 1560, when she was twenty-seven and had only been Queen for two years and the one painted in 1588, when she was fifty-five and had been Queen for thirty years.
My enjoyment of the exhibition was marred by the potted history that had been written on the walls, to explain who the portraits were of. I know it’s not easy to explain 118 years of history, covering a time when so much change occurred, but It seemed to me that I was still feeling the heavy hand of Whig history, in the way in which the Tudors were presented as a positive force, leading England from the dark days of medieval Catholicism to a modern, Protestant nation with imperial ambitions with the East India Company being founded in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign.
The words on the walls gave me no sense of the ruthless greed of the men who used the Reformation to grab land and wealth that their descendants still hold today, no notion of state-led fundamentalism that stirred religious hatred to the point of murder and war, no mention of Elizabeth’s sponsorship or piracy on the high seas. The writing on the walls described turbulent times that laid the foundation for a modern Britain we can be proud of. I look at these portraits and see mostly people who would do anything, kill anyone, break any oath, for power and I see their legacy as being one of the most aggressive, entitled empires of modern times.