Popery and Politics in 21st Century Britain

It may be something of a surprise to the regular reader of these pages to learn that I have no interest in watching coverage of the British royal wedding this weekend. Certainly I wish Prince William and Catherine Middleton well in their marriage, but I cannot bring myself to be as enthralled by it as is virtually every pin and cog of the media juggernaut on both sides of the pond. I would never favor abolition of the British monarchy, much as I am quite happy not to live in a monarchical system. Yet as a Catholic I cannot help but turn up my nose a bit at it, since in its present form it represents the continued power of institutionalized British anti-Catholicism in the more than 300 years since Catholics were removed from the line of succession upon passage of the 1701 Act of Settlement.

Recently Deputy British Prime Minister Nick Clegg nixed the idea of abolishing the prohibition on Catholics, following pressure from Church of England leaders. As Peter Hutchinson reports in The Torygaph today Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scottish National Party, has called for Mr. Clegg to issue a formal clarification of the government’s position on the issue. The reader will no doubt note the curious fact that Mr. Salmond is not himself a Catholic but a member of the Church of Scotland; even more curiously, Mr. Clegg is an atheist who is married to a Catholic Spaniard, and whose children are being raised as Catholics. Make of this what you will.

The issue of the British succession came up last evening in the context of a discussion among friends regarding Prince William’s decision not to wear a wedding ring – a practice very widespread among the married Englishmen I knew during the time I lived in London. One of the gentlemen in our conversation was surprised that I did not really care either way whether he wore one. My response was simply to state that my position on matters related to the Saxe-Coburgs is one which I can only describe, for lack of a better term, as “Jacobite”.

Jacobite views were well-regarded in my family; indeed, one of my siblings has “Stuart” as one of his middle names for this reason. The attempt to try to get the Stuarts back on the throne is one of those great lost causes of history which still inspires the romantic, as indeed is the Carlist cause in Spain. In both cases, these wars of succession are still being fought, albeit off the actual field of battle, in the trenches of constitutional law, where the anti-Catholic reaction to the Jacobites came to be formally enshrined at the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason.

Subsequent attempts to abolish or reform the Act of Settlement in order to allow Catholics to succeed to the throne have been considered and dropped numerous times. This is partly due to the complicated legal maneuvering that would be required, and partly due to the continued opposition of politically conservative British Protestants. Thus the re-emergence of this issue in recent weeks has been more interesting to me than questions about whether Prince William ought to wear a wedding ring or whether the tune “Coal Miner’s Daughter” should be played whenever Catherine Middleton enters a room.

For unlike the romantic notions of putting a Stuart back on the throne of Britain or a Hapsburg back on the throne of Spain, the Act of Settlement is a blatant instance of institutionalized anti-Catholicism that is still enforced today. It remains the law of the land not just in England and Scotland, but throughout the British Commonwealth, since any attempt to change it must be passed by the respective governments of each of the members of the Commonwealth, from Canada to Australia, New Zealand to Jamaica, and so on. It is so ancient a prejudice as to be deeply embedded in the fabric of the entire empire.

Those in Britain, the U.S., and other northerly climes who look at the ongoing arguments between Catalonia and Castile in Spain as being anachronistic remnants of the Carlist and Bourbon conflicts of the early 18th century, have only to look at Britain’s own history for an example of deliberate policies of exclusion that date back to precisely the same period. The key difference, of course, is that in Spain religion did not directly enter into the question of succession. In Britain, by contrast, religion is very much at the heart of the matter.

The Church of England is very right to point out that to allow a Catholic to ascend the throne could create a potential constitutional crisis. That fact would seem to suggest, to a reasonable mind, that the flaw is not in the idea of opening the succession, but rather in the anti-Catholic language of the Act. To undertake what is difficult, but just, may result in tears or worse, but that does not mean that apathy or inaction are the better choices.

Portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart
by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1748)
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Reading press coverage this morning about Catherine Zeta-Jones receiving the CBE, I was struck by the fact that she always looks like a visitor from another, more glamorous age, when women enjoyed being well-dressed, rather than deforming themselves into some sort of infernal amalgamation of streetwalker and sideshow freak. I suspect that not only would she have felt perfectly at home in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but even in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is no stretch to imagine what a “Portrait of the Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, CBE” by John Singer Sargent might look like, or indeed, to stretch back even earlier and envision a portrait by the subject of today’s blog post, the great but often sadly under-appreciated Sir Thomas Lawrence.

The Yale Center for British Art has just opened a new exhibition entitled “Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance”, which will run through June 5th. Would that I might find myself among the ivy in order to enjoy this group of remarkable paintings by this equally remarkable painter. Though characterizing Lawrence as a painter of the Regency period, which gave us Jane Austen and John Keats among other notables, is a bit limiting with respect to understanding the sweep of his career.

Lawrence was born in Bristol in 1769 and died in London in 1830, which is important to keep in mind in looking at his art. Admittedly I write this often when discussing artists or architects, but when I provide correlations to general history my hope is to give my readers a general point of reference to the time in which the person lived. Too often art history tends to operate in some sort of vacuum, in which the viewer is not given an idea of what was taking place historically around the same time. Thus, when I point out that Lawrence was born roughly around the start of the American Revolution, was a young man when the French Revolution took place, was entering middle age when Napoleon reached his zenith, and died in the year that train travel between cities first became possible, it should give you some idea of the changes that he observed, first-hand, working during this age of tumult and great changes.

For someone so capable that he eventually rose to be President of the Royal Academy, back when that meant something, readers may be surprised to learn that Lawrence was basically a self-taught genius. Beginning as a child, his facility in capturing people’s appearances using pastels on paper gained him increasing attention, and apparently his accompanying good manners and self-effacing nature charmed many of the society people with whom he gradually came into contact. They in turn would allow him to study the Old Master paintings, drawings and engravings in their private collections, so that Lawrence created his own home-schooled academic experience in studying the history and techniques of great artists.

Lawrence arrived in London when he was 17, and enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy, but later left it because he was not interested in drawing and studying classical sculpture. He received his first royal commission, to paint Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, when he was only 20 years old; she didn’t like the picture, but the king did, as did the members of the Royal Academy. This launched his association with the royal family, which was to continue for the rest of his life, and brought him into close contact with many of the most famous and influential people of his day. In 1792, when the great Sir Joshua Reynolds died, he was made President of the Royal Academy when he was just 23 years old.

My Catholic readers may be particularly interested to know that in 1819, George IV commissioned Lawrence to paint a portrait of Pope Pius VII for the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. This may seem rather surprising at first, but King George wanted to honor all of the European leaders who had banded together to help defeat Napoleon. Erring on the side of fairness, he had to include the Pontiff, whose excommunication of Napoleon and subsequent imprisonment had inspired many Catholics to come to the aid of those allied against the little dictator.

Lawrence had a great talent for bringing out what was most attractive about his sitter, often managing to flatter them despite some of their worst features. This is what earns him the sobriquet of being a “society painter”, but too often that term is bandied about by art critics who think that Gilbert & George are anything other than a pair of peasantly perverts. It must be said that Lawrence had his failings as a painter – in particular some of his images of children are not quite right – but when he is good, he is very good indeed. His combination of capturing the personality of his subject and at the same time incorporating elements of landscape painting and details such as the drape of fabric or the texture of a flower through rapid, almost Manet-like brushstrokes, make his images irresistible to all but the most black-hearted of patrons of the arts.

As this blog’s patron Count Castiglione would certainly argue, it is a sign not only of personal self-respect but also of good manners to want to look one’s best, whether when with intimate friends or out and about in public. There is of course a tipping point beyond which we should not go, but Catholics sometimes need to be reminded that even when we are suffering through penance, Christ tells us to look our best:

When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.

But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.

(St. Matthew 6: 16-18)

I will freely admit that it is perhaps more than a bit of a stretch to turn from society portraiture to Christian thought, but when we are considering the purpose of art when at its best, I do not believe the connection is really so tenuous. Great portraiture can give us an insight into the character of the sitter, true, but it can also inspire us to be better than we may be at present. The painter who celebrates virtues such as heroism, grace, and intelligence in his art can, when he is good at what he does, cause the viewer to aspire to these virtues as well, even if there is some idealization going on.

And in celebrating these virtues in paint, Lawrence is not behaving in a way foreign to our natural instincts to put forth our best efforts. For example, are you a good cook? Then chances are, you make the food look attractive when you serve it to a guest, so that they will enjoy the meal more than if you simply slopped it out of a pot, even though it would taste the same either way. Because we are not creatures of pure spirit, presentation matters to us: it is a reason why iconoclasm never really makes sense in a full understanding of Christianity, and also why a simple but reverently celebrated mass is usually better at drawing our hearts and minds toward the Divine than either a slapdash “quickie” mass or some bacchanal of tambourines, drums, and hymns like “Rain Down”.

Lawrence may have prettied up his sitters a bit, but in so doing he also showed the people of his day, and indeed shows us now, that whether you are tall or short, fat or thin, handsome or not-so-handsome, you can still be attractive. No one of us is perfect, but putting your best foot forward, whether you are fasting during Lent or receiving an award from your government, is something that can draw people to us and to follow our example. Those of my readers called to be ascetics like St. Mary of Egypt can certainly ignore such advice, but for the majority of us who are not detached from the world, young Catholics need to be aware that we attract others to ask about our way of life if we are not only attractive on the inside, but also on the outside: the former is infinitely more important, but the latter is an opportunity that we can and should take advantage of.

Charles William Vane-Stewart, Marquess of Londonderry
by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1812)
National Portrait Gallery, London

The Duke and the Face of Christ

We often think of military men as being stern, cold-blooded creatures, for indeed they often have to be in order to do their job. There are times when we allow them to express emotion, but generally speaking I would assert that most rational people do not want military commanders making touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy decisions in the field when they are defending our lands or our interests. In Britain, this deeply ingrained attitude with respect to military officers is part of the legendary British virtue of the “stiff upper lip”, still embodied in people like Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

There can be few more archetypal embodiments of this personality than Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington. His legendary aloofness is reflected in virtually every portrait of him, as well as in biographies written by his contemporaries. However every man, no matter how tough, has his softer side, and in the case of a particular painting which was presented to him by the King of Spain, the object may have served as a means for Wellington to express some instinct of personal piety, as I will describe below. Why that is I can only speculate, but before we get to this, we need a bit of art history; bear with me, gentle reader.

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One of the prize works of Wellington’s collection was a small painting of “The Agony in the Garden” by the great Renaissance painter Antonio da Correggio, painted circa 1524-1525. It represents the familiar scene from the Gospels in which Christ, on the evening before His Crucifixion, is comforted by an angel in the Garden of Gethsemane. There is an old legend that this small, devotional work was painted by Correggio for an apothecary to whom he owed money. However to my mind it seems more likely that, even if it was presented in payment of debt to his pharmacist, the work was more likely done as a personal project by the artist for his own prayer and meditation.

The painting is known to have come into the Spanish Royal Collections via purchase by Philip IV, who paid 700 doubloons [N.B. about $11,000 according to two calculations I ran] for the piece. The first official listing of it as being part of the collections of the Spanish Crown is dated 1666, the year after Philip’s death, when his widow and regent for the future Charles II, Queen Mariana de Austria, commissioned a catalogue of all the art in the keeping of the Crown. In the annals of art history this effort on the part of the last Habsburg rulers of Spain has proven to be of immense importance, for it tells us, among other things, what was hanging in the royal fortress of the Alcázar in Madrid before it burned in 1734.

The painting subsequently remained in the hands of the Kings of Spain until the time of the Bonapartes. Regular readers of these pages will know that I am no fan of Napoleon and his band of heathens, who among other atrocities destroyed the Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat, the most holy shrine dedicated to Our Lady in Catalonia for over 1000 years. During the Peninsular Wars in Spain, led by the Duke in order to unseat Joseph Bonaparte as the usurper of the Spanish Throne, Joseph crated up hundreds of works of art belonging to the Spanish Crown and shipped them back to France. Even to this day, some of these looted works remain in France or elsewhere, while others were eventually returned to Spain.

This particular piece was part of a cache of over 200 paintings captured by Wellington in 1813 when he defeated the French troops at the Battle of Vitoria, in the Basque Country. These works were in a carriage full of pieces which Joseph was attempting to take out of the country. The haul included works by Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, and many other great masters. The paintings remained in British hands as the Napoleonic Wars waged on.

In 1814 a catalogue of the captured works was prepared by William Seguier, a picture restorer and art expert (and later the first head of the National Gallery) to send to the Spanish Crown, as part of the effort to figure out what was missing from what palace or church, and where the piece had got to as a result of the Bonapartes’ machinations. This effort was coordinated by the Duke’s brother, Lord Maryborough, who in preparing the catalogue consulted with Benjamin West, a great painter himself and then President of the Royal Academy (back when being the President of the Royal Academy meant actually having good taste and an understanding of art.) Lord Maryborough wrote to the Duke in February 1814 with the catalogue and told him that, in West’s opinion, the Correggio and another Renaissance work “ought to be framed in diamonds, and that it was worth fighting the battle” just for these two pieces alone.

In 1816, after Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne, the Duke returned the pieces to the Spanish Crown. Not to be outdone, the King returned the paintings to the Duke, and decreed that this collection of captured art should be kept by the Duke as a gift from Spain in thanksgiving for the liberation of Spain from the Bonapartes. The painting, along with the rest of the works captured from Joseph Bonaparte, has remained at the Duke’s London residence, Apsley House, ever since.

The original painting was partially damaged on its right side by a fire, and a subsequent cleaning and restoration in 1949 removed what at the time restorers believed to be subsequent overpainting. Unfortunately, with hindsight it appears that the overpainting had been done by Correggio himself, and the over-cleaning has led to the figures of the Apostles becoming somewhat muddled and obscured. An early copy now at the National Gallery in London gives us something of a closer approximation of its earlier appearance, although the composition of the sleeping Apostles is somewhat different.

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Wellington kept “The Agony in the Garden” locked under glass, which was a common practice in many old collections, though this can sometimes encourage the growth of mold, and the trapping of dust. Apparently, the Duke would not allow his servants to touch or clean this painting, and only cleaned it himself. On one occasion his friend and private secretary for many years, Colonel John Gurwood, asked the Duke if he could have the key so that he could dust the painting for him, and the Duke replied, “No. I won’t.”

There are also reports that, late at night after everyone had gone to bed, Wellington would occasionally come into the gallery where the painting was displayed, slide back the glass cover, and look at the painting as he dusted it. In doing so, he was spied to be paying particular attention with his handkerchief to the face of Jesus. Admittedly, the Duke himself is not available for us to question about it.

Yet if the Gurwood report is true, and we have no reason to believe it is not, then why did the Duke love this painting so much? Was it purely because of the high value ascribed to it in the report given to him by his brother and Benjamin West? Perhaps, although it was certainly not the most valuable piece in his massive art collection. Was there some reason for his unusually delicate attachment to this work of art?

This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder whether the ownership of this painting, given the Duke’s particular attachment to it, may have, even if indirectly, had a profound effect on the development of not only British, but Church history. Wellington served was Prime Minister twice, and during the first period he served, 1828-1830, he introduced and helped pass the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which granted (more or less) full civil rights to British citizens who were Catholics. This took place despite fierce opposition from within his own Conservative Party; indeed, he fought a duel with another Tory who accused him of plotting to bring down the country’s Protestant constitution.

The Duke was, of course, certainly no Catholic himself. His decision to push this bill had more to do with political agitation in Ireland than with any love for the Church. Indeed his speech on the second presentation of the Relief Act shows that there is no affection on his part for Catholicism, only a recognition that times have changed.

However, Wellington had been brought up in Ireland, and it is reasonable to assume that his interactions with the Irish people and his understanding of the place, in combination with his experiences in Spain, led, even if only slightly, to his adopting a comparatively more enlightened view of the Church than that manifest in the rampant anti-Catholicism of his day. At roughly the same time the Duke oversaw this development in the emancipation of Catholics, Blessed Henry Cardinal Newman and his friends began the Oxford Movement. And Catholics and Anglicans alike all know where that has led.

So again, I pose a question which we will probably never be able to answer: what did the Duke of Wellington see in this Biblical picture, painted by an Italian Catholic and given to him by His Most Catholic Majesty, the King of Spain? Was there some twinkling of the old Papist piety in his eye as he stared at the face of Christ? Did he meditate on Jesus’ sufferings as he wiped the face of the Lord delicately with his handkerchief?

Pure speculation and even fantasy on my part it may be, but it is interesting to think that this single work of art, among the hundreds and hundreds of paintings in Wellington’s collection, somehow stirred his soul and may have led, even if indirectly, to fostering the rebirth of Catholicism in England.

The Agony in the Garden by Correggio (c. 1524-1525)
Apsley House Collection, London