Viewers around the world—but particularly in the royal-obsessed U.S.—can’t get enough of regal entertainment.
We binge-watch the latest season of The Crown on Netflix, we curtsy to Dame Helen Mirren on the big screen as The Queen, and we gobble up the deadly antics of Henry VIII in Showtime’s The Tudors.
As a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH) proves, when it comes to the British monarchy, the real-life stories are even juicier than the painstakingly directed fictionalized versions.
As soon as visitors enter Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol, they are greeted by a giant Queen Elizabeth I. She is attired in the best finery of her day, including a white gown that puffs out to span nearly the entire width of the portrait. The queen is regal and dainty, striking a formal pose with a fan gently clasped in one hand.
But don’t make the mistake of underestimating the virgin queen. This is a portrait of power. Queen Elizabeth stands on a map of the English empire she was beginning to create as she stares down at the viewer—her subject—with an unwavering gaze. It is the perfect image to kick off this romp through British history. In the Brown galleries at the MFAH, it’s the queens who reign supreme.
The exhibition, created in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery of London, provides a comprehensive survey of portraits of the British monarchy spanning 500 years and four royal dynasties up to the present Windsors (including Meghan Markle, who squeaked into the title of “Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex” just in time to have a single engagement photo included in the show).
More than 150 objects fill several gallery spaces, offering visitors a glimpse of many portraits that have never previously been seen outside of England. The MFAH is the only American stop for the traveling exhibition.
The exhibition moves largely in chronological order, offering a deep look at the history of royal portraiture, and an entertaining—and accurate—history of the British crown.
From the end of the medieval period to the modern age, the story of the British monarchy has been filled with drama, political plot twists, romantic scandal, and more than a few beheadings. Come prepared to read; the thorough wall captions add a depth to the tale that only heightens the intrigue being played out in oils.
The soap opera aspect of royalty is given a boost by the playful hanging of the show.
Staid portraits of kings are conveniently hung next to their wives and mistresses; a quick sweep will confirm your suspicion that a large number of the characters on view ultimately lost their beautiful heads (including Lady Jane Grey, whose unfortunate demise is depicted on a giant scale by 19th-century painter Paul Delaroche); and there are more silk stockings present than one might think possible.
One particularly entertaining room dedicated to the Stuarts begins with King James I, who hangs on a wall across from his lover, George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham.
Their affair was not approved of by the English court, but the painting of James’s paramour (attributed to William Larkin) is a favorite with visitors.
Villiers pompously poses in an outfit that makes one believe this court must have been fun to dress for. Red velvet and white robes flow down his shoulders as he stands, hand on hip, in an outfit that features a dramatically ornate high neck collar attached to a tunic that ends in a very short pouffed skirt that shows off his long, stockinged legs and frilly shoes.
“To us, it’s sort of comic because there’s this dandy with a tiny head and not a very large body and these enormously long legs with these sort of silk stockings on,” David Bomford, the co-curator of the exhibition, tells The Daily Beast. “We sort of laugh at this image, but at the time that would have been the height of handsomeness. Men wore their fashions very short at the top of their body so that these beautiful long legs could be admired.”
Across the room from James and George is King Charles II, who in two separate portraits, goes from “beautiful young boy to a grumpy old man,” as Bomford describes the transition. But how can he be so surly hanging next to three of his favorite mistresses, one of whom is depicted in the style of a traditional Madonna and Child?
Charles’s illegitimate children numbered in the teens, but none of them was considered a proper heir, which is a recurring theme throughout the show. The history of the British royals is a tale of “what ifs”—what if an heir had been born or had survived to ascend the throne—and one that shows the resilience of the crown, even when there is no heir apparent.
The difference between the Brits and their European cousins in royalty, like the Hapsburgs, was that the British staved off extinction by learning to be flexible.
“Every time they ran into a problem, they simply reinvented themselves with a different line, with a different person, with a different faith,” Bomford says. “So there’s this astonishing knack of survival that the British monarchy has had, and it’s getting stronger and stronger. Actually, it’s in a very healthy state.”
Survival may have been helped along by their willingness—often under force of revolution, and, yes, the aforementioned beheadings—to go from Tudor to Stuart to Hanover to Windsor, but the real strength of the British crown lay in the women who took control.
The exhibition is bookended by the two Elizabeths, with a good amount of space in between dedicated to Victoria. It’s the ceremonial portrait of Elizabeth I by Flemish painter Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger from around 1592 that opens the show, while a 2004 cutting-edge hologram of Queen Elizabeth II by light artist Chris Levine bids visitors adieu. They are not only incredible works of art, they also make an important statement about the British crown.
“The whole role of women in the British monarchy is extraordinary and it’s really quite unique in European history,” Bomford says.
“There’s a whole string of male kings who really had very little impact at all. But when you actually come to Queen Elizabeth I, even Mary Tudor and her short reign, then William and Mary [and] the Glorious Revolution, then Anne, who achieved the union of England and Scotland, and then Victoria, who created—or had created in her name—this giant empire, and then Queen Elizabeth II, who has really made the monarchy incredibly stable by force of example—they all achieved astonishing things.”
Far from being a stuffy story of official depictions of royalty, Tudors to Windsors shows that the real-life history of the British monarchy belongs in the pantheon of the Real Housewives and the Kardashians (with an extra dash of political power that one hopes the other two will never achieve).
In this the Year of Our Royal Highness Meghan Markle, we may be regaled with crazy tales of ridiculous Buckingham Palace protocol and questions about the role the new generation of royals will play in the years to come. But the final segment of the exhibition dedicated to the Windsors continues the theme of a monarchy adapting to, and embracing, change.
Portraits of Queen Elizabeth II surround visitors in one of the final rooms of the show. But rather than suggesting an untouchable sovereign, the depictions of her reveal an openness to experimentation and innovation.
Here, she is portrayed by groundbreaking artists that are some of the biggest names of the last few decades, including Lucian Freud, Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, and the final light piece by Chris Levine that not only presents the queen as a hologram, but shows her crowned and closed-eyed in something of an unintentionally unguarded moment.
“People in the past have tried to insist that you’re depicted in a certain way, [but] the queen has just allowed artists to depict her,” Bomford said after being asked how royal patronage of the arts has changed. “She doesn’t comment, she doesn’t edit, she doesn’t do anything other than to allow these [works] to happen. And that’s part of her amazing sort of inscrutability, which I think is admirable.”
Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Jan. 27, 2019.