If you choose to partake of the Yale Center for British Art’s current exhibit, Romantics and Revolutionaries — and you should — you will be in for an exhilarating and enlightening history lesson, minus the large lecture hall and disgruntled Teaching Assistants. And you might even have fun.
The exhibit, composed mainly of paintings on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London, features portraits of famous personalities from the Regency period in English history (1790-1830).
From Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of George IV — who was the “Regent” himself when his father, George III, went crazy — in the first corridor to a thoughtful retrospect of Benjamin Franklin in the last room, the persons represented in the exhibit vary as widely as the mediums they represent. Organized not chronologically but according to subject — Royalty, Science and Reform, Society and Style, Politics and War, Artists, Writers, and Poets and Visionaries — the portraits provide a fascinating journey through this complex and incredible period in history.
To quote Charles Dickens and borrow from the exhibits’ description of the Regency period, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Dicken’s words embody the complex nature of the Regency period: among the destructive and turbulent forces of war was also the creative outpouring of extraordinary individuals.
Within the landscape of the Napoleonic Wars, the French Revolution, and the declining English monarchy are major intellectual and creative achievements. Thomas Paine wrote his revolutionary tract “Common Sense,” not for America’s sake, but to protest England’s own political strife in reaction to the Terror in France. John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s insightful romanticism seem more profound when one examines the environment of violent societal upheaval in which they were written.
The exhibit facilitates the expression of the complex relationship between conflict and creation with sensitivity and incredible depth; portraits of the English royalty are juxtaposed with pictures of entrepreneurs in philosophical theory, followed by portraits of artistic giants.
Notable highlights include the famous portrait of George, Lord Byron painted by Thomas Phillips, which shows the notorious and brilliant writer garbed in Mediterranean fashion. In fact, Byron is arguably the center point of the exhibit as a whole: in this one man resides excess, violence and genius, characteristics of the time period in which he lived.
Near the portrait of Byron are two other examples of the sensitive organization of the portraits. A portrait of Lady Emma Hamilton hangs seemingly innocently by one of her husband, Sir William Hamilton. If one follows her penetrating sensual gaze however, one finds it rests on William Beechey’s unfinished oil sketch of Admiral Nelson, Lady Hamilton’s lover.
These subtle yet effective interpolations are evident yet again when one views the portraits of Benjamin Robert Haydon. His Napoleon Bonaparte staring off into the distance seems to gaze on his other work, immediately to the right: his portrait of the Duke of Wellington.
Add to the portraits the corresponding collection of manuscripts meant to complement the portraits — including handwritten notes by Wordsworth and Coleridge on two separate editions of their works — and one gets a thoroughly engaging slice of these otherwise two-dimensional persona’s lives.
And so, with organization and careful selection, Romantics and Revolutionaries more than does justice to its title, portraying both the savage revolutionary aspects of this remarkable period and its romantic underpinnings.