Kings, Queens, mistresses and loverboys – some 500 years of monarchy is on display as part art and part history lesson at the National Maritime Museum.

Today we’re almost excessively familiar with what the Royal Family look like, in official clothes and casuals, but go back just a century or so, and royal portraits were as rare and expensive as the Monarch themselves.

Most were created for political purposes, to remind the little people who was in charge, but a quantity on display here in the exhibition were marriage proposals. Sent abroad to persuade another King that an English King would be a good husband to their daughter.

Swipe right to become an English queen.

The exhibition opens with such a dating portrait, of King Henrey VII who was seeking to wed Margaret of Austria. She swiped left.

A selection of Henry VIII’s range from the fit handsome young man to the bloated corpulent old man he was to become. The oft-overlooked Edward VI is included, but dominating everything is the huge Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth I, which was to set the style for Elizabeth’s reign.

So large is the portrait, that they’ve sensibly put it facing an open arch where you can see it again later around the exhibition, from a decent distance.

Although the exhibition is mainly about the Monarch and direct family, in Elizabeth I’s case it’s impossible to overlook the court, and her possible boyfriends, and later possible James I’s boyfriends.

Laid out in chronological order, the interregnum is not overlooked, with the death mask of Oliver Cromwell on display. It’s not entirely inappropriate as he was effectively a King in all but name.

About half the exhibition is big bold colourful portraits, but then something much more interesting starts to happen.

The rise of mass printing, initially of drawings, then later of photographs changes how we see the Royal Family, and just as early photographs are tiny, the air of majesty starts to shrink with them.

The very earliest portraits to be sold as souvenirs are here, starting a trend in royal souvenirs that keeps many a tourist tat shop in business today.

Having had eyes burned by the richness of the colours of the past, the new modern world is entirely monochrome, a far cry from the bright colourful past.

Apart from photography bringing the monarch closer to people through newspapers, the other big change is also on show – postage stamps. That Victorian invention put the image of the monarch in every home as a receipt for payment of postage, which when you think about it, seems quite an odd thing for a monarch to agree to.

The exhibition returns to colour with the current Queen and future Kings, showing the mix that we’ve become familiar with, of ordinary people at times, and yet when dressed, the embodiment of the State and its power.

The exhibition ends with a Jubilee portrait of a unique style, of the Queen in 3D. It’s by Chris Levine from 2007, and the Queen while resting between a number of long exposures that had to be taken, closed her eyes for a moment.

It’s monarchy all-powerful, and yet still human.

Throughout the exhibition, are some helpful family trees to help position who goes where, and some interactive displays if you want to explore further.

It’s an exhibition that has artfully blended a display of art history and educational history about the long reign on the monarch in England and later Britain.

The exhibiton, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits is open now at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich until the end of October.

Tickets need to be booked in advance from here.

Exhibition Rating

★★★★★

National Maritime Museum
Romney Road, London
SE10 9NF

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4 comments
  1. ChrisC says:

    So a temporary home for some portraits that would otherwise be locked away in the National Portrait Gallery whilst it’s closed for renovation.

    • ChrisC says:

      And of course Greenwich would have been home – and birth place – to many of them as well.

  2. Sheila Page says:

    But why pay to see them in Greenwich when you have already seen them, and will be able to see them again, free at the NPG? I can wait a year or 2 to see these again.

    • ianVisits says:

      Setting aside the altruistic “supporting a museum” aspect, many of the portraits on display at the moment won’t go on public display when the NPG reopens, so you can’t see this exhibition there for free.

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