Art, Architecture: Women and Power

A new Insights into Art History study day in collaboration with the Queen’s House, Royal Museums Greenwich!

On Saturday 19 January the Courtauld’s Young People’s Programme embarked on an exciting new partnership with the Queen’s House, Greenwich, in order to learn about remarkable royal women from history who used architecture and other forms of cultural expression to self-fashion powerful identities.

Twenty young people from state schools and colleges across London started the day at The Courtauld Institute of Art (Somerset House campus) with an introduction to the Tudor and Stuart queens whose portraits we would later encounter at the Queen’s House.

Art historian Francesca Herrick presented images of Old Somerset House, which was the property of a succession of queens from Elizabeth I to Catherine of Braganza (this building was demolished in the 1770s to make way from the current structure – see here for the full history).

The talk was followed by a tour of the Somerset House site that emphasized the earlier Tudor palace’s connections with the river Thames (the most convenient way to travel in the 16th and 17th centuries). Students heard about the elaborate, and sometimes controversial, entertainments staged by Queen Anne of Denmark with the help of architect and set-designer Inigo Jones.

The choppy boat ride to Greenwich was a first for many of the participants. Our journey, which took us past the City of London and the Tower of London, would have been made countless times by the Tudor and Stuart queens, with key events in their lives marked by spectacular river pageants.

Like royals and visiting dignitaries of old, we disembarked near Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal Naval Hospital and made our way past the imposing Baroque architecture to Inigo Jones’ more modestly scaled Queen’s House.

Royal Museums Greenwich curators Matilda Pye and Allison Goudie helped the group to visualize the location in Tudor times when redbrick, timber framed buildings were the norm. The Queen’s House, with its perfect symmetry and pristine stonework, took inspiration from the villas of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and was the first Classical building in England.

The inscription above the entrance states that the patron who brought this innovative structure to completion in 1635 was Queen Henrietta Maria, following the death of Anne of Denmark in 1619.

Inside the Queen’s House, Matty and Allison guided discussion around the famous Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (painted in 1588), with a focus on its imperial and political symbolism. We learnt how seemingly extreme fashions conveyed important messages about the wearer’s social status and were a means by which women could test and challenge expectations surrounding gender and behavior. Some students were left a little startled by Mat Collishaw’s Mask of Youth; an animatronic portrait that approximates Elizabeth’s appearance at the age when the Armada portrait was painted.

There was further opportunity to explore portraits in the Queen’s House with a practical workshop led by contemporary artist Raksha Patel. Students were given a paper silhouette (revealed at the end of day to be the outline of Black Panther’s Queen of Wakanda) and asked to design a costume that expressed their own identity through reinventing representational devices in historical portraits. Contemporary photographic portraits by Bettina von Zwehl provided models for more contemplative forms of self-expression.

Amran, 2018. Courtesy of Bettina von Zwehl. Commissioned by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

At the end of the day students had just enough time to display and discuss their collaged creations in the Great Hall of the Queen’s House. Architecture and artworks came together brilliantly as the costume designs echoed those that would have been worn at the elaborate court masques staged by Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria.

Thank you to Matty, Allison and Raksha for enlightening us about these incredible women and giving us fresh perspectives on both architectural and national history.

Booking is now open for our next Insights into Art History study day – we look forward to seeing you there!

Francesca Herrick