Gilbert & Somerset

Anne Gardom visits two Exhibitions under the same roof

Four hundred years ago England and Spain signed a treaty which brought to an end nearly a hundred years of hostilities. James I and Philip III wanted an end to the costly and protracted wars of their predecessors and so the Somerset House Conference was called. The treaty is commemorated in a special exhibition at the Gilbert Collection in Somerset House.

There are three splendid full-length portraits of the monarchs involved. Philip III sent one of himself, one of his wife and one (now lost) of his daughter to the English King as a gift. Every inch the powerful Spanish monarch, he stands in beautiful damascened armour with the ruff framing his long Hapsburg face. However, he is outshone by the magnificent portrait of his Queen, also a Hapsburg, with the very noticeable Hapsburg jaw, a characteristic that almost became a deformity in later generations. She is wearing her wedding dress of white silk elaborately embroidered with castles (Castile), lions (Leon) and the black double-headed Hapsburg eagle. Her ruff is trimmed with exquisite lace and drop pearls, the book she holds shows an image of the Virgin, emphasizing her devotion to the Catholic faith. It is an iconic image full of symbolism and resonant with dynastic power.

James I, who came from Scotland to succeed Queen Elizabeth, is an altogether more tentative and perhaps interesting figure. He is dressed in heavily embroidered white silk, with the Garter Jewel about his neck, a magnificent diamond ornament in his hat, and furred cloak about his shoulders. He wears a lace collar rather than a ruff and presents a much less martial image than the King of Spain. The artist, though painting an official portrait that was to be much copied, has contrived to give the King an air of despondency and resignation. Not so his sprightly and bejewelled Queen, Anne of Denmark, who is shown in a delightful miniature by Isaac Oliver with jewels, lace, ribbons and rosettes. Somerset House belonged to her and she took an active role in hospitality to the delegates.

The Conference was ratified in two splendid documents, one in Spanish and one in English, and both on display here. The exchange of gifts was costly and lavish, the Constable of Castile even being presented with a medieval gold cup which had been part of the Crown Jewels.

The Conference and Treaty was commemorated in an extraordinary picture unlike anything that had ever been painted before, showing the delegates ranged down two sides of a long table. The scene is set in a room of great magnificence, with tapestry-hung walls and splendid velvet chairs. The table is covered with beautiful Turkish carpet with a complex design of reds, blues and black. The table stretches from the front to the back of the picture with the perspective of the carpet design carrying the eye to the far end where the bars of the window form the shape of a cross. Down each side of the table are ranged the delegates to the Conference, five Englishmen and six people representing Spanish interests. These included two delegates from the Spanish Netherlands and one from Brussels. Their solemn bearded faces are surrounded by ruffs, their sober black garments enlivened by the orders and decorations they wear, their eyes, with the exception of two in profile, fixing us with a grave regard. They resemble the groups of donors so often painted beside the saints in religious paintings. But perhaps the most curious thing about this picture is that it is duplicated – we have two of them. One of them hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and one in the National Maritime Museum – they hang opposite each other in this exhibition, and nobody really knows who commissioned them, or why there were two of them, although research has revealed tantalizing glimpses of their history. Perhaps one day we shall know, but at the moment these remarkable paintings pose a lot of unanswered questions.

The exhibition is shown in an annex to the very much larger Gilbert Collection, which has its own gallery at Somerset House. This is a large collection of silver and gold, jewels, and semi-precious stone inlaid work (pietra dura) which is almost overpowering in its size and range. It was collected by Sir Arthur Gilbert, an Englishman who went to California and made a fortune in real-estate, and was given to the nation in the 1990s, to be housed in specially designed galleries at Somerset House.

It contains a large collection of cabinets, tables and pictures inlaid with semi-precious stone mosaics. The skills of the craftsmen, many of whom came from Florence which was famous for this pietra dura work, are phenomenal. The early examples are usually designs of flowers and birds, or charming scenes of romantic ruins and castles, sometimes peopled with tiny figures. The use of the colours and markings on the stone are endlessly varied and ingenious. The later work becomes more flamboyant and often less attractive. The micro-mosaics – which are so fine that they look to have been painted rather than inlaid, are extraordinary examples of the skills of these artists and craftsmen.

One room contains the magnificent silver-gilt Gates of Heaven, the iconostasis, given to a church in Kiev by Catharine the Great. They must have been breathtaking in their original setting and are still profoundly impressive. There are examples of church furnishings which are exceptionally rich and elaborate. A chalice, with exquisite enamelled plaques of saints against minutely painted flower-filled backgrounds, was made for Astrakhan Cathedral and is a monumental piece of gold-work.

The gold and silver displays, including Indian silver, are organized so that changes of style and influences can be studied and understood. It is a very large collection, with impressive monumental and presentation pieces. The very large Tweeddale Testimonial, showing an ancestor of Lord Tweeddale defeating the Danes more or less single-handed with the assistance of some ferocious dogs is rather enjoyable.

The collection of snuff boxes and bonbonnières is dazzling – beautifully displayed and lit, each one a sparkling treasure. Some are enamelled with tiny pictures, some are made of precious or semi-precious stone, some are diamond-encrusted with foil placed under their settings to give the diamonds delicate shades of rose and gold. Frederick the Great was reputed to have had three hundred such snuff boxes, and six of them were on display here. They are very elaborate and much too heavily decorated for any real use, but formed part of the Crown Jewels of Prussia.

This glittering treasure trove of a collection has many beautiful (and some quite ugly) things in it, but they are all of the highest quality and afford a wonderful opportunity to see and learn about precious and valuable objects.

The Gilbert Collection at Somerset House is open every day. £5, concessions £4.

Talking Peace, 1604 – the Somerset House Conference runs still 25th July.

Return to Home Page of This Issue

Return to Trushare Home Page