Art reviews: Charles II: Art and Power, Queen's Gallery, Edinburgh | Robert Bloomfield: Edinburgh Street Photography, City Art Centre, Edinburgh

The Queen's Gallery shows how Charles II used art to re-establish the might of the monarchy, while Robert Bloomfield's images of 1950s Edinburgh show a city in transition

Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II, c.1674 PIC: Royal Collection Trust/ (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II, c.1674 PIC: Royal Collection Trust/ (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Charles II: Art and Power, Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh ****

Robert Bloomfield: Edinburgh Street Photography, City Art Centre, Edinburgh *****

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Charles II was the Merry Monarch. Devoted to the role of images in reestablishing the monarchy after the Restoration in 1660, the exhibition Art and Power doesn’t really dwell on this more colourful side of Charles II’s reign. There is however a charming engraving of Madame Ellen Groinne and her two sons. Naked to the waist, the king’s mistress, Madame Groinnne, one of many and better known as Nell Gwynn, is reclining on a silken bed among the roses while her two sons as winged Cupids draw back a curtain to reveal her naked glory. In another engraving she is entirely naked and has herself become Venus. A verse beneath suggests that had Paris encountered this Helen (Nell), he would have dumped the other.

Court painter Sir Peter Lely painted a whole set of “the Windsor Beauties,” ladies of the court with charmingly rumpled décolletage and what an anonymous contemporary called “sleepy” eyes, perhaps come-to-bed eyes in modern parlance. Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland, the King’s principal mistress for ten years, was according to the same author the model for this suggestive feature. Mary Bagot, Countess of Falmouth and Dorset, another of these ladies, is described in the catalogue as in a “fashionable state of undress.” They are all gorgeous and give a vivid sense of how Charles’s merriness influenced the atmosphere at his court. It is sad though that these wonderful baroque paintings, like many others in this show, are shorn of what must once have been glorious baroque frames. The replacements, very plain and neo-classical, stifle their glamour and make the poor Beauties look very forlorn.

Of course there was more to Charles than frivolity. He wasn’t handsome, but he had a striking appearance. It is best presented here in a terra cotta bust attributed to Edward Pearce. A mezzotint after his portrait by Peter Lely is also very powerful and as a print could have conveyed the royal image far beyond the confines of the court. Samuel Cooper was a wonderful miniaturist who worked for the king. A set of his delicate and incisive little paintings here includes a rather touching picture of Charles’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza, looking very young and vulnerable. Other notables include the kingmaker, General Monk. Cooper’s portrait here of the king himself is described as “after,” but it gives a lively impression of a forceful king all the same.

Charles was crowned king of Scotland at Scone in 1651, but the Scots proved no match for the army of the new republic and after a crushing defeat at the Battle of Worcester, he was first a fugitive and then an exile. As a fugitive, famously he hid from his pursuers in an oak tree. A beautiful delft plate of the Royal Oak shows how quickly this episode passed into popular legend. It was however a full decade until, after the failure of the republic, he was invited to return as king. His departure from Scheveningen in Holland for his triumphal return is portrayed here in a painting by Johhannes Lingelbach. An engraving records his deliberately extravagant coronation in 1661. He meant it to impress. In exile he had seen other European courts in action, notably that of his cousin Louis XIV of France. From Louis in particular he had learnt the importance of ceremonies that set the king apart from his subjects.

From Louis and others he also learnt the value of art in promoting the royal image and the idea of kingship. The state apartments at Windsor were decorated with an extensive baroque scheme of paintings by Antonio Verrio recorded here in a set of watercolours. A table, mirror and candlesticks made of silver, were not just extravagance. They too were intended to impress those who saw them with a sense that royalty was something apart from the lives of ordinary mortals.

The King was also determined to restore his father’s art collection. A sternly worded proclamation commands those who might be in possession of works belonging to Charles I, sold off by Cromwell, to return them and many did. A Sibyl by Orazio Gentileschi, a portrait of bearded man by Michael Miereveld, and a remarkable but anonymous tromp l’oeil painting of a boy looking through a window, for instance, were all recovered in this way. Supposing the king inherited his father’s taste for art, the Dutch Republic sought to ensure his friendship with a magnificent gift of paintings. This included among other renaissance works a fine Veronese of the Mystical Marriage of St Catherine.

The Restoration was not exactly a Renaissance however. Charles was genuinely interested in science and fostered the Royal Society. He also established the royal library. Christopher Wren, a mathematician and astronomer by profession, was a member if the Royal Society. He turned to architecture after the Great Fire of London and was both encouraged and patronised by the king, though his contributions to the royal palaces do not survive. (The reconstruction of Holyrood by William Bruce undertaken by Charles to provide a home for his brother Duke of York is still with us however.)

Charles’s patronage of Wren was an exception. The artists he employed, such as Antonio Varrio and Sir Peter Lely, came from overseas and were more workmanlike than inspired. One native artist who did flourish was the Edinburgh-trained painter Michael Wright, whose spectacular painting of Charles II enthroned now hangs in Holyrood, newly restored. (It is on the cover of the catalogue, but is not part of the exhibition.) Charles did also collect. A painting of St Jerome by Georges de la Tour, for instance, which he acquired is an unexpected treat here. If his collecting of paintings was sporadic, his greatest artistic legacy was the royal collection of drawings which he began with purchases of work by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Holbein, all represented here.

Public ceremonies could be part of this new sense of liberation and a painting of a fleet of magnificent boats and barges on the Thames in the Lord Mayor’s Water Procession suggests almost Venetian splendour. Nor was it just the king who was merry after the Restoration. Very much as in the Sixties, the end of decades of joylessness brought a collective sigh of relief. The theatre was reestablished, for instance, and an Exact and Lively Mapp of Shows and Humours upon the Ice of the River Thames shows people having a good time on the frozen river in 1684.

Had he been there, Robert Blomfield would have had a ball. He was a medical student in Edinburgh in the late 1950s and started to take photos of the street life of the city and these are now the subject of an exhibition at Edinburgh City Art Centre. His pictures of cheeky children playing in the street are memorable. Others, however, especially as they are in black and white, remind us how stark life still was then before the light and colour of the following decade. He photographed foggy, shadowed and often empty streets, like a stunning view of the Cowgate from George IV Bridge, and other streets shortly to be demolished like India Place and Arthur Street. He can be intimate and rather sad as in a picture of a child sitting by a broken window, but also monumental as he is in a magnificent view of the building of the Forth Road Bridge. Altogether his pictures are a wonderful record of the city at a moment of transition. When I was there the gallery was full too. People love them. - Duncan Macmillan

Charles II until 2 June; Robert Bloomfield until 17 March