Anyone with any interest in art will most likely have heard of Raphael! One of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance, painter of magnificent murals and brilliant portraits in the early 1500s. His talent made him famous in his own, all-too-brief lifetime, director of a workshop employing perhaps as many as fifty other artists, and orchestrator of artistic projects for European royalty and the Pope. His reputation survives today, one of only four artists, after all, to have a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle named in their honour.
Antonio Verrio, on the other hand, is an artist unfamiliar to most. Despite being the most influential decorative mural painter working in England in the late 1600s, his name – like the style of art he championed – has been ignored, destroyed or derided, ever since. Writing in the 1950s, the art historian Ellis Waterhouse described Verrio as ‘one of the worst’ painters in the whole history of British art. He does not have a Ninja Turtle, or indeed any other latter-day superhero, named after him.
Yet, back in 1700, works by both artists comprised an integral part of the decorative scheme designed for William III and his new palace at Hampton Court. Was this a complete failure in aesthetic taste and judgment by the King? Having recently completed a short research assignment looking into the commissioning and reception of art at the late Stuart court, I can offer a more subtle explanation …
Raphael was long dead by 1700, but seven of his most celebrated artworks had found their way into the British Royal Collection, purchased in 1623 by Charles I, that great collector of artistic treasures. These were the ‘cartoons’, life-size designs for tapestries commissioned by the Pope for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
By the late 17th century, interest in the cartoons embraced not just their usefulness for creating resplendent tapestries, but their value as important works of art in themselves. William III ordered that his new gallery at Hampton Court should be designed to accommodate them, and on 12 September 1699 William Talman, the Comptroller of the King’s Works, informed the King that “the gallery for the cartoons of Raphael is so forward that I shall fix up the pictures in a week”. The ‘Cartoon Gallery’ became one of the first purposely designed art spaces in Britain.
Raphael’s cartoons tell the story of the ‘acts of the apostles’, the New Testament adventures of St Peter and St Paul as they battled to establish Christianity in the first century A.D. William’s ownership of them reflected the King’s cultural kudos, but were also a symbol of his leadership of a new type of British monarchy, one that pledged to protect the Anglican state against the forces of Catholic Europe, especially Louis XIV of France.
Protestants looked directly to the Bible as a source for the ‘pure’ Christian message, unsullied by what they saw as the vices and corruption of the latter-day Catholic Church. Raphael’s cartoons were the artistic equivalent of this untarnished connection to the apostles and to Christ himself. It was only right, said the Protestant propaganda-writers of the early 1700s, that such pious paintings were owned by the greatest and most pious sovereign in the world!
At the same time as Raphael’s cartoons were installed at Hampton Court, William III commissioned Verrio to paint the walls and ceilings of the most important state rooms of his new palace with suitably Protestant statements of his power and authority, and after the King’s death in 1702, Verrio continued the commission for Queen Anne. The complicated stories depicting the loves and lives of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome often have hidden messages and allusions to the ‘virtue’ of Britain and its rulers compared to the ‘vice’ and superstitions of Catholicism.
This is all a bit difficult to appreciate today, and, as we stare on what the 18th-century satirist Alexander Pope described as Verrio’s ‘sprawling saints’, we might be forgiven for viewing them as the rather garish artistic creations of a bygone age, and we wouldn’t be alone. Even by the mid-1700s, this theatrical ‘baroque’ style of painting had given way to the more restrained neo-classical style: more graceful ornamentation and less naked cherubs! Queen Caroline covered up some of Verrio’s wall-paintings at Hampton Court with green wall-hangings.
So, Raphael and Verrio seem like an odd couple at Hampton Court because of the way history has treated the reputations and artworks of both artists. Raphael – and his cartoons specifically – came to occupy a central position in British art historical education, and were the aesthetic climax to a visit to the 18th and 19th-century picture galleries at the palace, taking over many pages of the official guidebook. The cartoons were considered so important that, eventually, in 1865, they were removed from Hampton Court (where they were considered susceptible to the twin threats of damp and fire) to take centre-stage in the new Kensington galleries of what would become the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Verrio’s murals, on the other hand, became unloved embarrassing older relatives, frequently in need of costly repair, retouched by generations of unsympathetic artist-restorers whose impact was so successful that a myth became established that Verrio had produced second-rate work for William III, as – being a Catholic – he had never fancied working for a Protestant king.
But this is all beside the point! As far as William III and Queen Anne were concerned, Verrio’s murals and Raphael’s cartoons were providing similar services, projecting an image of pious magnificence – or magnificent piety – that helped validate their monarchy and ultimately drive the emergence of a British 18th-century identity as a confident imperial power based on constitutional common sense, rather than the absolutist decadence of the old Catholic regimes of Europe.
Today, Raphael may have left the palace for good, but Verrio’s murals still survive (even the ones Queen Caroline covered up in the 18th century!) With the Palace’s interiors back open to the public on Friday 17 July, we can’t wait to welcome you back to enjoy them once again.
Historic Royal Palaces