Is it possible to like royalty and be a republican?
The monarchy has shaped much of our culture – and some of our greatest art – so give the royals their due. Just think of Holbein. Hans Holbein’s daunting portrait of Henry VIII, with the wraith-like figure of his father pale beside him, is surely the greatest work of art in the National Portrait Gallery. It is a colossal drawing, rather than a painting: part of the final preparatory drawing or “cartoon” for a mural of the Tudor dynasty that Henry commissioned for his palace of Whitehall. The mural was destroyed, along with the palace, centuries ago – but Holbein’s portrait of the wide-chested king with his porcine pommel of a head, copied many times including in a fine painting in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, has defined the image of the ambitious, talented, ultimately tyrannical Henry VIII since. It is one of the oldest works in the National Portrait Gallery, as well as the finest, and it makes a fitting introduction to a museum that is full of royal faces. Holbein‘s works for the Tudor court are unquestionably among the best works of art ever drawn or painted in Britain. Since the Renaissance the idea of fine art and the cult of monarchy have mingled in our national imagination. Looking at works by Holbein on the same weekend that Ed Miliband denounced the idea of strikes on the royal wedding day this spring, I got to thinking. How as a self-styled republican ought I to mark that day – and is there any point in resisting it? So much of our culture down the centuries has been shaped by royal patronage, and this is not all sentimental patriotic tosh – it includes the genius of Holbein. Royal palaces and chapels enshrine a lot of our greatest decorative art and architecture. Does all that mean anything? Well, put it another way. Can you tell a dissident cultural history of Britain in which radical and anti-monarchist artists subverted the royalist aesthetic establishment? If you did, it would leave out Westminster Abbey as well as Holbein. Politics needs ritual, and art thrives on such ritual. Are the rituals of British royalty so bad? Is it really possible to have a coherent image of our culture that excludes all that royal jazz? It probably sounds as if I am saying that just because the British monarchy was associated with great art in the past, republicans should give in to its charms. Well, part of me suspects this may be a reasonable argument. Tradition is part of the fabric of human culture and healthy societies. Miliband is right to avoid the trap of politicising the wedding. In reality, the culture of monarchy in Britain is temperate, open, even empty – which means it can be used by modern people for what it is, a right royal entertainment, that happens to connect us for a moment with a history that includes Holbein’s Tudor court.
Source: The Telegraph