Tate Britain's 'British Baroque' exhibition featuring our 'Petworth Beauties'

A new exhibition on British baroque at the Tate features seven paintings from the National Trust’s collections, including two of the ‘Petworth Beauties’, which have been recently restored and returned to full-length portraits. ‘British Baroque: Power and Illusion’ at Tate Britain, London, runs from 5 February to 19 April 2020.

The exhibition

The exhibition, which is co-curated by David Taylor, the Trust’s Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, is the first to focus exclusively on baroque culture in Britain and looks at the connection between art and power in the period. As David Taylor explains:

'The exhibition explores the artistically-productive period between Charles II's restoration to the throne in 1660 to the death of his niece Queen Anne in 1714. This was a period of huge change in Britain, when the visual language of the baroque was employed by artists and patrons to display vital messages of wealth and power.'

The baroque era saw a dramatic shift in power from the opulent royal court, which had been at the heart of British cultural life, to the rising dominance of party politics. The exhibition shows how this shift can be traced through the lavish artworks of the time.

The 'Petworth Beauties'

Beauty Room at Petworth House, West Sussex
Beauty Room at Petworth House
Beauty Room at Petworth House, West Sussex

Two of the stars of the exhibition are portraits by Michael Dahl (1659–1743), which are part of a set of eight ‘Beauties’ commissioned for the Beauty Room at Petworth House in West Sussex. The women were friends and cousins of the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset, who rebuilt Petworth House into a baroque palace, and they had close links to the royal courts of William and Mary, and Anne.

Six of the eight paintings were originally full-length portraits and, as Richard Ashbourne, Assistant Curator at the Trust says, ‘would have dazzled visitors with their style, grace and power’. In the 1820s they were adjusted to three-quarter length by the then owner of Petworth House, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, who wanted to create space for new works of art. It was thought that the lower sections had been destroyed. However, in 1995 it was discovered that the cut pieces of the canvasses had been folded and tacked up behind the paintings.

Two of the paintings, those of the Duchess of Ormond and the Duchess of Devonshire, have been painstakingly restored and returned to their original full length for the exhibition. Tabitha Barber, curator at Tate Britain said: ‘The Dahls at Petworth are among the artist’s very best works and we always knew that we would want to include an example of them in our exhibition, hopefully in their original full-length format. That the National Trust has agreed to embark on this ambitious conservation programme is truly exciting.’

" The Dahls at Petworth are among the artist’s very best works and we always knew that we would want to include an example of them in our exhibition."
- Tabitha Barber, Curator for British Art, 1550-1750, Tate Britain

Their inclusion in the exhibition, as David Taylor says, 'means they can be seen in comparison with examples of the so-called "Windsor Beauties", the best-known set of portraits of female courtiers, painted by Peter Lely during the reign of Charles II. Like Lely’s portraits, the Dahls can be seen as giving a distinct “look” to the age in which they were produced.’

Restoring the 'Petworth Beauties'

Two of the 'Petworth Beauties' paintings being removed for conservation

The two paintings were carefully taken down and examined before being removed from Petworth House to be restored and returned to their original full length for the exhibition.

'Petworth Beauty' in the conservation studio

J. Dimond Conservation were given the intricate task of carefully re-attaching the cut portions and restoring the two paintings.

The two restored Petworth beauties

The two restored 'Petworth Beauties', returned to their full glory.

Video

The 'Petworth Beauties' gain their legs

Follow the remarkable journey of the two 'Petworth Beauties', from the walls of the Beauty Room at Petworth House, through the intricate restoration process and on to their installation at Tate Britain's exhibition, under the supervision of Christine Sitwell, our Paintings Conservation Adviser.

Other National Trust paintings in the exhibition

Conservation of the Petworth ‘beauties’ was funded by the National Trust with generous support from Philip Mould & Company.