How did the magnificent PR machine of historic Royal Court portraiture reinforce class structure before the 20th Century?

An artist’s tour of the National Portrait Gallery with Bird la Bird
NPG 29th June 2012

“How refreshing in this Diamond Jubilee year to hear someone who is offended by the Royal sense of entitlement and the reverential imagery that resides in the National Portrait Gallery as a tribute to their ‘greatness.”
Jane Czyzelska, Diva

To celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I was invited by the NPG and the one and only Timberlina to do an artist’s tour of the gallery. This is one of the best events I’ve done so far as it gave me an opportunity to ridicule the royals and indulge the audience in my passion for decoration and pre-20th century art.

It was well attended and the audience loved it. I even got a review in Diva Mag!

Preparing pomp

I was really, really eggcited when Tim suggested the theme to me cos it was pre-19th century, my favourite. I visited the gallery several times, including seeing the The Queen, Art and Image show. I wanted to find a way to respond to the gallery space that wasn’t me presenting as an art historian or becoming like a BBC art documentary. I love the NPG, it’s free and you can get up close to the art, the portraits are eerie, beautiful and compelling.

Here’s what I was thinking about as I created the tour.

Why I get my knickers in a twist

I noticed that whenever I visited the gallery I felt angry as soon as I got to the building and looked up at the beautiful classical facade. I used this as the premise of the tour, to unpack what provoked the anger.

Many times when i visited the gallery it was full of kids, having a day off school and a great time. The schoolkids of London reflect our multicultural city, I wondered about how Brtish history can be taught to 21st Century schoolkids. What kind of national portrait does the collection present when many of the people in the portraits were architects of, or at least benefitted from the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and class exploitation? How does an institution curate images like “The Secret of England’s Greatness”?

And should it have a public health warning? I think it should.

The secret of England's Greatness by Thomas Jones Barker, 1863. An African king kneels at Queen Victoria's feet as she presents him with a bible! Purlease!

In the Jubilee year, I wanted to to explore the tyranny behind the pomp and swag. For example, there is a trilogy of portraits of King Charles II with his wife and mistress that really compelled me. You can see a couple of the images in the next photo. Just out of the view is a portrait of Charles II’s future wife Catherine of Braganza. I read this as a trilogy on colonialism and the slave trade. The first portrait of Louise de Kéroualle, Charles’ mistress depicts her with a young slave girl. At the time it was fashionable for the nobilty to be painted with house slaves as a mark of wealth and prestige. This is even more chilling when you ponder that the portrait was commissed by the man who set up the “Royal Africa Company”, the slave trade was a lucrative royal enterprise from the beginning. What compelled me about Catherine of Braganza is that her dowry included Bombay – like it belonged to the Braganzas in the first place!

Just before the tour, TV historian Lucy Worsley had presented a program called Harlots, Housewives and Heroines on the lives of Stuart women. As per usual with Worsley’s programmes it failed to engage with the hierarchies amongst women and instead opted for a frothy representation of the past as costume drama. I wanted to create a counter point to this, it amazed me that Worsley could get 3 hours of air time on the subject and not once address the source of the court’s splendour.

Bird in front of King Charles II in all his swagger. The portrait of Louise de Kéroualle is in the background.

I won’t go into much more detail in case I get do the tour again but here’s a reading list if you’re interested.

If you work in a gallery or museum and you would like a parrot fashion queer populist exploration of your collection please contact me cos I want to do more.

Presenting Pomp – Galleries, books and places


The National Portrait Gallery

It’s an amazing collection, the cafe isn’t bad either. The NPG probably do more queer events than any other museum in London so keep checking theevents page.

I also spent some time in the archive. It’s free but you have to make an appointment.


Slavery and the Culture of Taste

Simon Gikandi
This has been the best book I’ve found so far which connects European high culture with the transatlantic slave trade. Simon Gikandi explores how the culture of taste and manners could flourish when it was funded by the barbaric slave trade.

The Long Story

Andrea Levy
This powerful and important book is the story of July, a black house slave in a Jamaican Plantation at the end of slavery. July tells the story of life inside the house, in the kitchen and on the plantation. The book chronicles the fortunes of July’s children and her legacy.

When I was looking at the portraits of the white ruling class I kept thinking about July’s descriptions of her inept and cruel mistress who enjoys the trappings of aristocratic living. There are amazing descriptions of the interior of the plantation house and the clothing of all the central characters. Here, the rub between “manners”, “refinement” and “taste” and brutality explored in Gikandi’s book is explored up close.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Andrea Levy.

I can’t recommend this enough.

Britain’s Empire, Resistance, Repression and Revolution

Richard Gott
I’ve been dipping into this history of rebellions against the British Empire. It’s hard going but some useful info.

God save the queen

Johann Hari
Superb exploration of the institution of the British Royal Family which outlines the damage the hereditary monarchy can do to individuals caught up in it. It also debunks common defences of the monarchy such as “The monarch is merely a figurehead who has no political power” or “The royals are good for tourism”.

Picturing Imperial Power

Beth Fowkes Tobin
Great introduction about painting, cultural history and empire. The chapters / parts on portraits of servants and slaves are particulary revelant. A bit dry but worth it.

Waxing Mythical: The Life and Legend of Madame Tussaud

Kate Berridge
I love this book because it helped me understand a bit about representational art and how it functioned in the late 18th century and early 1800s. It also has amazing detail about entertainments at the time. Madame Tussaud’s life spans the French Revolution and the industrial revolution. If only the waxworks in the museum were the old ones.

I feel it’s relevant here because Tussaud often created her waxworks after portraits and it strongly reminds us that ordainary people didn’t get to see the big swish portraits. They didnt get to see Tussaud creations either as she liked to keep the hoi polloi well away from her spectacular creations.


The Domestication of Majesty: Royal Family Portraiture, 1500-1850

Simon Schama

Some good starting points for understanding the purpose of royal portraiture and how it evolved to appease the middle classes. Simon Schama managed to write a whole book on the Dutch Golden Age (The Embarassment of Riches) without acknowledging where the money came from to fund it. So take it with a pinch of salt.



The NPG have almost their entire collection online. Highly recommended.

St Martin’s workhouse

Lots of background info about the workhouse that existed on the site of the gallery including the map used in the talk.