Visitors to Edinburgh in the summer of 2004 had the good fortune of finding the crème de la crème of the British Royal Collection’s Dutch paintings in the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The Queen’s Gallery, refurbished in 2002 by Edinburgh-based Benjamin Tindall Architects, was initially intended for showing works on paper. The space is essentially one large open room with a pitched timbered roof, and a second, rectangular space to the rear. Although the walls are hung in a peacock blue fabric that would suit drawings better than darker pictures, the Queen’s Gallery is in fact a fine venue for small-scale paintings because it manages to be both intimate and airy. The Queen’s Gallery has, with this exhibition, been transformed into a cabinet for the rarest of Dutch jewels.
Opening with Gerrit Houckgeest’s Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, and Charles, Prince of Wales, Dining in Public, the first part of the exhibition gathered a group of paintings associated with Charles I’s collection. The star of this area was, for many visitors, Rembrandt’s An Old Woman (‘The Artist’s Mother’), to this viewer rather unfortunately flanked by still lifes by Maria van Oosterwijck. From then on, the arrangement seemed to be more or less by genre and time period, moving sequentially from Haarlem painting, including the characterful Hals Portrait of a Man of 1630, to fijnschilders, with two pictures by Dou, to Delft painters De Hooch and Vermeer, to low-life genre scenes by the Ostades, Steen and others, to Dutch landscapes, to Rembrandt, represented by the recently-resurrected Selfportrait in a Flat Cap, to Italianate landscape, and ending with paintings made after about 1650, most notably the late Cuyp Evening Landscape and Steen’s sexy Woman at her Toilet. The Royal Collection is so strong that it is able to cover all these bases, and to do so with outstanding examples, most in excellent condition. Many of these pictures are familiar to us, either through reproduction or from recent exhibitions, but to see them all together at once leaves an indelible impression of the wealth and quality of the Royal Collection’s Dutch holdings.
Although the display seems to have been ordered roughly by chronology, some obvious exceptions must have been made for the unusual architecture of the Queen’s Gallery. This leads to some interesting consequences. Probably due more to the size of the walls than anything else, Jan de Bray’s Banquet of Cleopatra received pride of place on a large central wall in the centre of the show. This is perhaps an unintended, but felicitous, correction to the popular perception of Dutch paintings as dominated by genre scenes and landscapes, and places Dutch Classicism at the centre. Somewhat less fortunate was Rembrandt’s Selfportrait, tucked around a corner next to a door. But this is a minor quibble, because it was a rare treat to see these pictures, often in much easier viewing conditions than in their usual home.
Frankly intended as an overview of Dutch painting for the interested layman, Christopher Lloyd’s catalogue of the exhibition is designed in an attractive, small format, loaded with good color reproductions and well-priced at £7.95. The catalogue begins with a short chapter called “The critical eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age,” which gathers together quotes about Dutch painting by commentators from Van Mander to Simon Schama. Lloyd then provides an introduction, covering basic information about the history of the United Provinces, the development of Dutch painting in a very general sense, and its critical reception (particularly in Britain), closing with a brief discussion of the “recent upsurge in interest in Dutch seventeenth-century painting.” Succinct entries for the paintings on display, largely drawing on existing scholarship and with a reference to Christopher White’s catalogue of the collection, make up the rest of the book.
Lloyd’s clearly-written catalogue provides a useful introduction to the field. While the book is obviously not intended as a scholarly resource, it is a shame that for those who might have the energy to pursue some of the ideas Lloyd presents, there are no footnotes (not even for the quotes at the beginning of the catalogue), and only a very brief bibliography. The introduction is as distinctive as Lloyd’s own handwriting, which was used for the title on the cover of the catalogue. It is no mean feat to boil down such a broad field into thirty small, illustrated pages, so it is not surprising that the author chose to emphasize certain ideas over others. But this results in a slightly idiosyncratic balance. When reviewing the critical reception of Dutch paintings, for example, Lloyd places a heavy emphasis on British writers and artists (although he does include a generous nod to Fromentin and early French commentators). This emphasis might have been usefully related to collecting patterns in Britain, and particularly among the Royal Family, but this is not pursued. The survey of recent approaches to Dutch art history pauses at a discussion of scholars’ attempts to ferret out ‘meanings’ in paintings – focusing on De Jongh, Alpers and Schama – and then moves on quickly to conclude with novels set in seventeenth-century Holland, such as Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Although in such a format Lloyd could not possibly review all of the more recent developments in the field, one regrettable omission is any discussion of new findings concerning the Dutch art market and the use of Dutch pictures in the interior, topics that would surely interest the general reader. Even so, the catalogue admirably serves as a brief introduction to Dutch painting and to the riches of the British Royal Collection.
National Gallery of Scotland