Sex and the Gallery

Painted Love, Wedding Cake and Ugly Duchess

June is busting out all over, so love must be in the air. Or rather, it’s a less romantic version – coupling, whether conscious or unconscious.

Companionship, not passion: Jakob Fugger and Sybilla Artzt (1498).

Time to get out there and witness the overflowing coupledom on view. Time to get out there and think about potential conquests. Time to light one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s expensive candles that smells like her vagina whilst contemplating the advantages of inserting her rather expensive pale green jade.

Or is it velvet black onyx, or is it a soft rose quartz ball, into your own?

Well, maybe not that….

Thankfully, a few exhibitions are on hand to offer a helpful and handy guide to becoming a couple.

They cover the three most important questions: What does my ideal partner look like? Where can we meet? What is our future? Art for heart’s sake….

Painted Love: Renaissance Marriage Portraits is a wonderful and inventive show at the Holburne Museum in Bath.

We all know the story of the Hans Holbein portrait of Anne of Cleves that so enchanted Henry VIII that he decided that she was perfect for wife number four.

When the reality presented itself before him, he was less enamoured and found her far too plain for his tastes. The marriage was annulled. It is precisely this tradition that Painted Love is investigating across the European continent.

The Italian portraits are of beautiful men and women often seen in profile in luxuriously light summer clothes.

They’re all rather stiff and full of their own allure, except for a delightful painting from the National Gallery collection in the style of Domenico Ghirlandaio of Costanza Caetani, formerly a Medici.

It is a marriage portrait, and she looks at us as a blushing bride holding a sprig of orange blossom as a symbol of her chastity but also wearing a white cap, which could only be worn by married women.

She has that ‘dreamy lost in her own private world’ look of a young woman in love and blissfully happy. It is such a sweet and perfect image of youth and tenderness. Her joy is bursting out of the frame.

The German portraits are much less ethereal and are solid representations of bürger-like folk in their Sunday best, ready to improve their lot in life.

The double portrait of Jacob Fugger and his wife Sybilla Artzt by Thoman or Hans Burgkmair shows a couple perfectly at home with each other. The distance between them is bridged by his left hand resting on her right arm—a sign of intimacy and respect or perhaps possession.

It is a strangely quiet and modest painting. All passion may have been spent, but a cool, comforting sense of companionship emanates from the Fuggers in their gold-embroidered clothes.

Strangely it is the British couples who are the most romantic and unsettling. Not a nation known for our outbursts of poetry and romance, these couples are full of love and tragedy.

Steven van der Meulen’s portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is of a man in his prime and full of confidence and courtly love.

Dudley sports with a definite swagger, a sparkling white and silver doublet. He has the Order of the Garter, and that of St Michael, but his greatest trophy is the heart of good Queen Bess. The Earl was her great love, and she kept his last letter to her in a casket by her bed until the day she died.

This is poster boy love or Tudor teenage love writ large with all the sighs, racing heartbeats and swoons.

For me, the outright star of the show is the Flemish painter Hans Eworth. Not much is known about Eworth, but he probably came from Ghent and was a member of the painters’ Guild of St Luke in Antwerp.

He was a staggeringly good painter, and his four pictures of two couples are quite worth the price of admission alone.

The first couple is Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and his wife, Margaret Audley – gorgeous rich portraits set against magnificent silver thread tapestries with their heraldic crests and mottos.

Sadly Margaret died young, and Elizabeth executed Thomas after he tried to marry Mary Queen of Scots. Their portraits give no hint of their tragic destiny other than the notice of Thomas’ beheading hastily added to Margaret’s portrait.

The second couple are Richard Wakeman and his wife Joan Thornbury. These two portraits are being reunited for the first time in sixty years. They are more modestly attired and with less flamboyant colours than the Norfolks.

Their faces are so alive, and a verse on her portrait attests to the passage of time – that she is no longer young and her wanton days are behind her.

As if to emphasise this sad state of early middle age, in both pictures, you see the complete shadows of the sitters hovering to one side and reminding them that ‘time’s winged chariot’ is never far away.

It is a salutary note and left me wanting more than anything an exhibition on Hans Eworth alone.

Waddesdon Manor is a complete French fantasy in the middle of tweedy Buckinghamshire. It is owned by the National Trust and managed by its former owners – the British branch of the Rothschild family.

Built in 1880, Waddeson is a cross between a stately Loire chateau and a truly luxurious Cote d’Azur hotel. High Victorian municipal gardens and rolling countryside surround it.

Queen Victoria was an early visitor and always wanted to stay as it was one of the first places to have central heating, copious amounts of hot water and electricity.

Rumour has it she was so entranced by the switching the electric lights on and off that she commanded they be done non-stop. The Manor boasts considerable creature comforts and a magnificent art collection, including works by Gainsborough, Watteau, Reynolds, Romney and an exquisite Chardin.

It also has an unrivalled collection of Sevres porcelain that has inspired the latest building on its vast grounds.

Opening on 18th June is Wedding Cake, a huge Rococo pavilion close to the former Dairy by the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos.

It stands twelve metres high and is shaped like a three-tiered wedding cake. In Tiepolo colours of palest pink, pistachio green, vivid aqua and gold, it takes your breath away. A true 18th-century, almost Bavarian folly in a very English landscape.

Wedding Cake is made from ceramic tiles shipped from Lisbon, complete with electric candles and running water. It is like a huge Disney band stand from the cartoon sequence in Mary Poppins. You can climb to the top and get a view over the treetops. A very jolly holiday indeed.

The idea is that Wedding Cake can be rented out for actual wedding ceremonies and parties. It would be a most unusual and romantic place to engage in a spot of coupledom. It is unrepentantly kitsch in Barbie World colours with cupids, saints, dolphins, and stars, but it is so much more.

The exhibit is a testament to the romance between the current Lord Rothschild and the artist. Wedding Cake is the third artwork by Vasconcelos at Waddesdon and also, by far, her most ambitious project. It’s part of her wedding series, which includes a chandelier made out of 25,000 tampons known as The Bride.

Vasconcelos was resplendent with Bjorkish bunches at the press launch and dressed in chrome yellow, dark orange, deep fuchsia and acid purple pleated Issy Miyake vestments. She called her project a temple of love where visitors will have an experience they will never forget.

Vasconcelos also said that Lord Rothschild was the only person crazy and imaginative enough to help her give birth to her impossible project and that together they created a kind of magic.

Earlier, Rothschild called it a piece of Portugal amongst his home county’s rolling hills or his very own Andorra. It could have been as kitsch as the cake itself, but strangely it was a very touching moment between an artist and her benefactor.

The last exhibition was the marvellous Ugly Duchess exhibition at the National Gallery in London. It was rightly praised as a curatorial triumph and a timely look at the way older people and romance have always been mocked.

It has already closed, but it was an abrupt warning to men and women of a certain age. A sad but realistic note to end an article on romance.

An Old Woman by the Flemish artist Quinten Massys came into the gallery in 1947 and has been a firm favourite ever since. An elderly lady is painted against a vivid spring green background. She is wizened, and warts adorn the wrinkles on her extraordinary face.

The elderly lady is dressed in the fashion of her youth with a towering double wimple on her small head and tight bodice, emphasising far too much of her wrinkled bosom. She proffers a tiny pink rosebud to an unseen suitor. Old Woman is, without question, meant to be a figure of fun.

In this show, the old lady was at last reunited with her husband.

An Old Man is from a private collection and shows an elderly gaunt man with a pendulous nose and a sagging face. He has white hair protruding from his ears and a hint of black stubble on his slack chin.

Dressed against the cold of northern Europe, he wears a small black hat perched on his rather dirty head and a huge velvet and fur overcoat. Painted in profile, he is looking at his dame in a disparaging way and waving his hand at her as if to dismiss the offered tiny rose.

The symbolism is sadly only too obvious and shattering in its cruelty.

This splendid small exhibition pointed out that the Duchess was based on a series of drawings of grotesques by Leonardo da Vinci. They were immensely popular at the time and much copied, including by Dürer and Massys in Antwerp.

Based on carnival characters, they satirised the desperate quest for youth and the joys of childhood by the elderly.

John Tenniel was inspired by An Old Woman when he illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The painting was the basis for his loud and bad-tempered Duchess, who lived with her baby and the Cheshire Cat.

I once visited the National Gallery with the small son of one of my closest friends. I asked him whether he would like to see a portrait of the woman he was due to marry once he was all grown up.

Upon seeing the Ugly Duchess, he burst into tears and was inconsolable. My guilt was immense, and no amount of ice cream could help.

Thankfully he is now married to a very beautiful woman and has a son of his own, so maybe things do work out in the end.

Photograph courtesy of the Holburne Museum. Thoman or Hans Burgkmeier, 1498 (c) Schroder collection.