Britain’s royal families have provided the world with endless drama for centuries now. But in those long-ago days before The Crown, the public had to rely on royal portraits for a glimpse of their rulers—if not the original paintings, at least prints of them.
Gather enough of these towering works of art together, and you’ve got a gallery of the men and women who’ve heavily influenced world events since the early 1500s. Approximately 150 such pieces are now on view in Houston courtesy of the MFAH’s “Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol.”
Many months in the making, the exhibition is the product of careful coordination between the MFAH and London’s National Portrait Gallery.
“Some of their finest things [are] traveling to America for the first time,” says David Bomford, curator of the MFAH’s Department of European Art. “It’s a show that highlights some of the really important parts of their collection.”
Represented here are the houses of Tudor (Henry VIII, Elizabeth I); Stuart (Charles I, Anne); Hanover (George III, Victoria); and Windsor (George VI, Elizabeth II). Artists tasked with capturing their likenesses include near-forgotten names such as painter Robert Peake the Elder and beloved modern masters such as photographers Cecil Beaton and Annie Leibovitz.
One particularly striking piece is a good example of the way these paintings reflect Britons’ perceptions of their monarchs and, by extension, their place in the world. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s Queen Elizabeth I depicts the Virgin Queen towering over the English countryside, one foot planted on Ditchley Park, the Oxfordshire manor whose lord commissioned the painting at the end of the 16th century.
“It’s an incredibly amusing but amazingly grand portrayal,” offers Bomford, who’s also chairman of the MFAH’s Department of Conservation.
Rounding out the exhibition are selected non-royals, from prime ministers—Lord Melbourne, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill—to royal mistresses such as Charles II’s paramour Nell Gwyn. “Where the social scene around the monarch is influential and important, we illustrate that too,” allows Bomford.
Americans should recognize a few names here, particularly if they’ve been watching hit TV series The Crown and Victoria. Bomford thinks those shows will “undoubtedly” help drive interest in MFAH’s exhibition, born of the same mystique that continues to fuel supermarket tabloids and Americans’ desire to don ritzy fascinators for daybreak royal-wedding brunches.
He doesn’t see this centuries-long bout of royal fever letting up anytime soon, either. “It is one of the most amazing family stories, or succession of family stories, you could possibly imagine.”
“Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol” Thru Jan 27. From $7.50 (non-members). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet St. 713-639-7300.