Conscious Coupling in ‘Love Stories’, now at the Worcester Art Museum
The National Portrait Gallery in London is closed for refurbishment until 2023 and so sent this traveling show on the road. Worcester is the first stop. Sure, beautiful people captivating audiences is nothing new. Consider the story of Lady Emma Hamilton, a low-born maid and actress, mistress of the aristocrat Charles Greville. In 1782 Greville commissioned George Romney to paint it. She fascinates the portraitist who represents her hundreds of times. In a painting from 1785, the curvature of her body and her gaze over her shoulder invite delight; his white coat evokes ancient Greece or Rome. Romney’s paintings made Hamilton a celebrity.
Like many relationships of desire, that between artist and muse can be nurturing or damaging. Hamilton lost no agency in his connection to Romney; she was a performer and knew how to embody a soft, chic and feminine look. Their collaboration gave it cachet. His talent for the theater undoubtedly influenced the course of his life.
In time, Greville grew weary of his mistress and passed her on to his uncle William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples and Hamilton’s 35-year-old widower. They married and lived together. Then Hamilton met the British war hero, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, seen here in a heroic portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott.
Hamilton went to greet Nelson as he sailed victoriously to Naples after the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
“Emma took her own boat, sailed alongside hers, and got on deck,” writes author and historian Kate Williams in the show’s catalog. “All glamorous and flowing hair, much taller than Nelson, she said ‘Oh God, is it possible’ and passed out in his arms.”
He was smitten and moved in with William and Emma, much to the amusement of the British press. Unfortunately, after her husband’s death in 1803 and Nelson’s in 1805, Hamilton was unable to maintain her sparkling aristocratic lifestyle. Rejected by the society she had seduced, she died in poverty in 1815.
‘Love Stories’ – which is curated by Lucy Peltz of the National Portrait Gallery, Head of Collections Exhibitions (Tudor to Regency) and Senior Curator, 18th Century Collections, and Claire C. Whitner, Director of Curatorial Affairs at Worcester Art Museum and Curator of European Art – is jam-packed with these thrilling stories. Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex cuddle in an official engagement photo of Alexi Lubomirski. It’s a stark contrast to the physical distance between Charles and Diana, Prince and Princess of Wales, in Patrick Lichfield’s wedding portrait, which foreshadows the chasm of their marriage.
Official and commissioned portraits present an image suited to the outside world: this is who we are. They often convey nuances that the couple may not be aware of. In a pair of portraits by Michele Gordigiani, the poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose courtship and marriage were conducted in secret, appear side by side. Robert is insightful and serene; Elizabeth, who was more frail, is intense and dark.
In Ford Madox Brown’s 1872 portrait of Henry and Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the Victorian politician, who was blind, is seated with his suffragist wife.
They are clearly partners working together. She transcribed. One hand, holding a pen, rests on his shoulder, and the other holds a paper in front of him. His gaze expresses volumes on this relationship: discerning, attentive to him, reading him.
Composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears, partners for nearly 40 years, pose side by side in Kenneth Green’s 1943 portrait, Britten’s shoulder nestled against Pears’. It’s more than just friendly, if unromantic, and painted 24 years before homosexual acts were decriminalized in England. Their story is happier than that of Oscar Wilde and poet Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas—Wilde was imprisoned for gross indecency.
The Bloomsbury group of avant-garde artists, writers and social reformers flouted these restrictions in the first half of the 20th century, indulging in open marriages and polyamorous partnerships. Writer Lytton Strachey, who was gay, lived with artist Dora Carrington. In his warm 1916 portrait of him reading in bed, he is close enough to be touched, but lost in his book.
Portraits have always been a means of intimate communication; Henry VIII wooed Anne Boleyn by sending her a miniature of himself. As photography, film and video became more accessible, they fueled a public thirst for images of love and the steamy stories behind them.
Ras Prince Monolulu’s 1931 wedding to Nellie Adkins in London sparked rabid media coverage. He was a black race track tipster, she the white daughter of a helmet maker. The attention was perhaps as much for the groom’s dramatic flair as it was for their union. Ras Prince Monolulu was born Peter Carl Mackay in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and his life story was a tale he told. He claimed at times to be from Ethiopia, to have been shipwrecked, and to have been married six times, although evidence points to three marriages. He was a man in the public eye, creating an image that satiated the public imagination.
The portraits express a desire to be seen, to be accepted, to be loved. We all go after this in our own way, some flamboyantly, others cautiously. “Love Stories” invites us to experience the satisfactions and upheavals of romance in the safest way – vicariously.
LOVE STORIES FROM THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON
At the Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, until March 13. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org