Art Review: Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs | Grayson Perry | Derrick Guild

Tsars in our eyes: the art of royalty

Andriesz Bicker after van de Helst by Derrick Guild. Picture: Jed Gordon

Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs, The Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh, Until 3 November * * * *

Grayson Perry: Julie Cope’s Grand Tour, Dovecot, Edinburgh, Until 2 November * * * *

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Derrick Guild: Ever After, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, Until 24 August * * * *

The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887 by Laurits Regner Tuxen. Picture:Royal Collection Trust

Queen Victoria generally wasn’t very nice to her children. Nevertheless, she invested in them a whole imperial strategy; the conquest of Europe by breeding kings, queens, emperors and empresses. A family portrait painted by Laurits Tuxen for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1887 is one of the most remarkable objects in Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs in the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Part of the Art Festival, the show is devoted to the historical connections between the British and Russian royal houses.

The painter has done his best, but with 54 people gathered in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor, even the children look as stiff as marionettes. Nevertheless, the point is dynasty, not art. These are all members of Victoria’s family, but also of the royal houses of Denmark, Germany, Russia, Greece and others besides. Through these intimate, dynastic connections, the leaders of three of the principal combatant nations in the First World War – George V, Tsar Nicholas II, and Kaiser Wilhelm II – were cousins. (In a photo George and Nicholas standing together look almost identical.)

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The earliest links were exchanges of trade and embassies in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first major event, however, was the visit to England in 1698 of Peter the Great. He spent six months, partly incognito, studying shipbuilding at the dockyards in Deptford, guest there of the diarist John Evelyn (whose house, Evelyn complained, he and his companions wrecked). The visit is recorded more decorously in a full-length portrait of Tsar Peter by Godfrey Kneller presented to William III as a memorial of his visit.

Relations seem to have remained sufficiently important for Catherine the Great, to send a state portrait to George III. Painted by Vigilius Eriksen, it has all the trappings of power, though they sit rather ill on a rather dumpy person under a very large crown. A usurper in the eyes of most people, if this was indeed a gift to George III – its provenance is uncertain – the aim would have been to secure his recognition. Much more impressive is a half-length portrait of Catherine by Mikhail Shibanov. It clearly portrays both her intelligence and her undoubted toughness. The picture was bought by Queen Mary in 1929 from the sale of the collection of an exiled Russian princess and many of the items in the show have similar, emigré provenance.

Britain and Russia were allies against Napoleon. The celebrations after Waterloo brought many Russians to London, including the Tsar himself and a number of distinguished soldiers. The most impressive painting here is of General Feodor Uvarov, one of three by Thomas Lawrence from a set commissioned by the Prince Regent to commemorate the victory and now generally hung in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. A gentler side of these events is shown in a portrait of Princess Charlotte after George Dawe. She is wearing a beautiful blue Russian dress – the original is in a case nearby – and is wearing the Order of St Catherine, an order exclusively for women in the gift of the Empress and given to Princess Charlotte in gratitude for kindness shown to the Russians during their visit to London.

A surprise here is an unexpectedly sensitive portrait by Queen Victoria’s favourite painter, the usually oleaginous Franz Xaver Winterhalter, of the Queen’s Aunt Julia, Princess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. There is much else of interest in this show although as the relationship it traces was sporadic, it is inevitably a bit of a miscellany. One oddity is a very early photograph of the river in St Petersburg with, in the foreground, inexplicably a man in a kilt balancing on a log.

You couldn’t have a better contrast to Fabergé and what he stood for than Julie Cope’s Grand Tour by Grayson Perry at Dovecot. This is the story of a perfectly ordinary Essex girl told in a set of four tapestries, prints, accompanying narrative text and voice-over. The first tapestry shows Julie’s life from her birth in the midst of Essex’s forgotten catastrophe, the terrible flood brought on by a storm and tidal surge in 1953, through her romance with Dave, who drives an orange Capri with a two-tone horn, to her pushing a pushchair. “Default settings kicked in, roles adopted, no dreams were crushed, children were kind of had,” the narrative records. The second tapestry is a wedding portrait of Julie and Dave, but Dave had a roving eye. Julie becomes a single mother. Then she takes herself in hand, goes to university, and there meets and marries Ron. Their wedding portrait makes the next tapestry. The final one shows Julie’s ten years of happiness with Ron, but he has a heart attack. He recovers and they renew their vows by the stones of Callanish on Lewis. But finally in a fatal accident, she is knocked down by a scooter. Ron swears he will build a Taj Mahal on the Stour for her memorial and this vow becomes Grayson Perry’s Essex House, an odd mongrel sort of a building, mostly covered in ceramic tiles, some of them a kind of mother goddess image of Julie.

The tapestries are not hand-woven in the Dovecot manner, but made on a Jacquard loom which gives a very flat surface. This, Perry’s way of composing, some of the surface patterns, and – in the bleaker moments, as in the image of Julie lying dead but still wide eyed – the mood of his imagery, all recall Steven Campbell’s remarkable “tapestries”, pictures he made painstakingly with dyed string. If so, it is a compliment to a great picture- maker. The comparison also shows how Julie’s world is cosy, even if fragile; how Perry’s imagery lacks the darkness that surges just beneath Campbell’s pictures, or indeed breaks through to portray a world of incipient chaos. Campbell is less realistic, yet at another level closer to reality, and so makes Perry look a little superficial, though his work is certainly strongly designed.

There are some beautiful miniatures in the Romanov exhibition and, at the Scottish Gallery, there are miniatures by Derrick Guild, not portraits as in classic miniatures, but bits of familiar portraits by Raeburn, Velázquez, Batoni and others: eyes, lips, a row of pearls, a straining waistcoat button. Tiny ovals, framed in gold and with gold chains looped between them, they are like lockets as miniatures often were. As a variation, they are also painted on tromp l’oeil, tie-on labels which, when they are grouped to form a whole picture, have the unsettling effect of putting it behind bars. I am not sure that we are forced “to interrogate how we look and so what we learn” as the press release proposes, but these are certainly exquisite essays in the art of painting.