Double vision and Blenheim Palace

WITHOUT DOUBT, Blenheim Palace (at Woodstock in Oxfordshire) is both impressive and grandiose. Built in the first decades of the 18th century, the Palace was designed by the dramatist and untrained architect John Vanbrugh (c1664-1726) in collaboration with Nicholas Hawksmoor (c1661-1736), who was a trained architect. The result, though magnificent in a monumental way, lacks the fine aesthetics and delicacy of, say, the Palais de Versailles or the Palazzo Pitti. The interiors of Blenheim Palace outshine the building’s rather charmless monumental exterior. That said, a visit to this palace is a must.

My interest in Blenheim Palace was immediately enhanced when, on arriving, I noticed the coats-of-arms adorning the gates to the visitors’ entrance. I was struck not only by their complexity but also by the presence of the two heads of a double-headed eagle (‘DHE’) prominently peering out of the coronet above the shield on the crest. Although over the years I have casually researched the distribution of the use of the DHE, I had not realised that it also appeared on the crest of the family of which the late Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was a member, and whose life is greatly celebrated at Blenheim Palace and its gift shop. Sir Winston, who was born in Blenheim Palace, was also briefly a member of the Bangalore United Services Club, now the Bangalore Club, of which I am a member.

Getting back to the DHE, which, incidentally, is the symbol of the Indian state of Karnataka in which Bangalore is located, I was curious as to why the Churchill family has it incorporated into its coat-of-arms. Wherever you look on the inside or the outside of Blenheim Palace, you can spot the DHE. It is on external walls, internal furnishings, wall decorations, and even embossed on leather book covers. But why? I asked an official wearing a facemask and transparent plastic visor about it. She explained that it was because of one of the military exploits of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), for whom the construction of Blenheim Palace was commissioned. John Churchill was a son of Sir Winston Churchill (1620-1688) and an ancestor of Sir Winston, the 20th century Prime Minister.

Without going into much detail, John Churchill was an important commander in the Battle of Blenheim (in Germany; 13th of August 1704), during which the armies of the Elector of Bavaria and of Marshal Tallard were defeated. This victory during The Spanish War of Succession helped to save the Holy Roman Empire (including Austria and Prussia) from defeat by the armies of Bavaria and France.  For this and other important military assistance, John Churchill was made a prince of The Holy Roman Empire by the Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705). It was because of this, that the DHE can now be found on the arms of the Churchill family.

Another DHE also found its way into the Churchill family by marriage. There is a portrait of Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin (1678-1766) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) hanging in Blenheim Palace. Son of Sidney Godolphin (1645-1712), the first Earl of Godolphin, Francis married Henrietta Churchill, 2nd Duchess of Marlborough (1681-1733), a daughter of John Churchill, the hero at the Battle of Blenheim. The Godolphin family were based in Cornwall. Their coat-of-arms contains the DHE. Unlike the Churchills’ use of the DHE, the Godolphin family had been using it heraldically (possibly, much) before the 18th century (www.british-history.ac.uk/magna-britannia/vol3/lxxviii-lxxxix). I do not know for sure but speculate that the DHE that appears in Cornish family crests, like those of the Godolphin and Killigrew families, might have some connection to the fact that for a while Duke Richard of Cornwall (1209-1272), second son of King John of England, was King of the Germans. He was holding that exalted position whilst he was a candidate for becoming the Holy Roman Emperor (he never did achieve that). So much for eagles with two heads and a total of four eyes. Now, I will remark on an exhibition held at Blenheim Palace that makes the viewer look at two disparate sets of images with only one set of eyes.

Blenheim Palace regularly hosts exhibitions of artworks by ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ artists. The curators juxtapose the recently created art with the fantastic collection of much older pieces that adorn the rooms of the palace. We had come to see the works of the British artist Cecily Brown, who was born in London in 1969. I must admit that I had never heard of her until our daughter, an accomplished young art historian, said that she was keen to see Brown’s works being exhibited in Blenheim Palace. Cecily Brown, so I have learned, specialises in producing paintings that both reinterpret older artworks and also remind the viewer of the appearances of the originals.

Having spent some time studying the palace and its artworks, Cecily Brown created several (about 25) paintings that in her mind echo what she experienced while looking at them. The paintings and some of her sketchbooks were then arranged amongst the paintings and other objects that decorate the rooms of the palace. Was this a successful idea? My answer is both ‘yes’ and slightly more ‘no’.

The placing of her sketchbooks amongst delicate Meissen and other precious works made of porcelain was highly effective. The placing of her paintings beside paintings of established great masters of European painting was less successful for several reasons. Her paintings are fine examples of semi-abstract modern art, pleasing to the eye and capable of intriguing the viewer. Seen against the plain white walls of a commercial gallery, they would be very impressive.

However, problems begin to arise when these works are placed in rooms full of paintings and other objects of great artistic value. For example, in the Red Drawing Room there is a large picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) entitled “The 4th Duke of Marlborough and his family”, painted in 1777-78. This painting includes portraits of male and female family members. Cecily Brown has created her own interpretation of this, calling it “The Children of the Fourth Duke”. It is an impressionistic version of the original in which she has omitted the male figures that appear on the original painting by Reynolds. As a painting, Brown’s image is lovely and cannot be faulted. Placing her picture next to a work by the great Reynolds is both interesting and at the same time disappointing. It is interesting to see her interpretation but her painting pales into insignificance next to the original. That said, this is one of the most successful juxtapositions of Brown’s work in the whole exhibition; the others are less so.

There are two problems I have with the exhibition. First, I found that the placing of many, but not all, of Brown’s paintings distracted me and other visitors from seeing the older artworks that live permanently in the palace. Secondly, although it is brave of Brown to place her artistic creations besides those of long-established artists who have stood the test of time, I am not sure that is entirely wise because the average viewer, and that includes me, might find that her works pale in comparison with those of great masters.  Maybe, that is the case, but it has become popular to juxtapose contemporary art and far older works to stimulate the observer into new ways of looking and thinking. I cannot yet decide whether this is a good idea. To be fair, I can think of one successful exhibition where artworks of widely differing eras have been put together harmoniously, and that is in the Cartwright Gallery in Bradford (Yorkshire).

Just as the DHE can look in two directions, or maybe four, at the same time, the exhibition (and previous similar shows) at Blenheim Palace force us to look simultaneously at at least two eras of artistic endeavour separated by time – a kind of double vision, you might say. 

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