Our island story at the Tate

Dynasties, a big show of Tudor and Jacobean painting, demands considerable intellectual input from the visitor


The Tate Gallery has made a bold choice in its big autumn exhibition which opens this month. "Dynasties: painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630" is a show which will demand some effort from the visitor.

Curated by Karen Hearn, curator of the Gallery's British collection, it includes over one hundred paintings from the age of Holbein to that of Van Dyck. However, while both these names are familiar to the general public, most of the artists in the show are not and some are distinctly obscure. In fact, the exhibition only contains a couple of early works by Van Dyck (who arrived in England in 1632) and one oil sketch by Rubens.

It was, of course, Roy Strong, who brought the art of the age of Elizabeth to light. According to Tabitha Barber who worked on the exhibition, Sir Roy's scholarship still stands but in the past few years a great deal more has been done, which has enabled his brilliant stylistic attributions to be backed up by documentation. Using the tools of historians as much as art historians, a number of students, particularly at the Courtauld Institute in London, have uncovered much new information. Genealogical studies, work on parish registers and inventories and research on art patrons such as the Earl of Leicester have all increased knowledge of the artists and their milieu.

Much fascinating work has been done on related areas relevant to portraits which formed the backbone of paintings produced in England in the sixteenth century. Costume and jewellery studies, by Janet Arnold and Diana Scarisbrick in particular, have enabled pictures to be redated: for example, the versions of the "Allegory of the Tudor Succession" in Sudeley Castle has been shown to be earlier than that in the Mellon Centre which has different costumes.

The Tate have been modest in their approach to the catalogue of the exhibition which is not by any means a ten pound block-buster. There are four introductory essays: by Neil Cuddy on the political background in England; by Susan Foister on the production and reproduction of Holbein's portraits; on British painting and the Low Countries by Christopher Brown; and on the methods and materials of three Tudor artists, Bettes, Hilliard and Ketel, by Rica Jones. There are detailed individual entries for the paintings, many of which have been loaned from other English public and private collections.

The Tate is currently seeking to expand its collection of sixteenth and seventeenth-century paintings. Elsewhere in London the National Portrait Gallery is obviously very active in this field and the Royal Collection has unparalleled holdings.

In many ways this exhibition, sponsored by the courageous Pearson, is probably most important for its emphasis on an aspect of the Tate Gallery's collection which is all too often ignored by the public and critics alike. Dynasties runs from 12 October to 7 January.


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