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1902 Royalty for a New Century

This summer, the Royal Academy Exhibition had to vie for attention with the coronation of Edward VII, the first man to sit on the British throne since 1837. Originally scheduled for 26 June, right in the middle of the exhibition season, the coronation had to be postponed because the king underwent an emergency operation on his appendix. It finally took place on 9 August, just after the close of the Exhibition, where the state portrait by Luke Fildes, executed in the artist’s Melbury Road studio over the previous winter, had been on display (Fig. 1). Inevitably, some critics were unable to see beyond the conventions and trappings of royal portraiture: the swaggering pose; the sceptre, crown, and orb resting on an extravagantly gilded neo-baroque table; the ermine-lined and gold-braided red velvet mantle that seems to replicate itself in an additional heap at lower right; the Field Marshal’s uniform bristling with medals; and—in a modern touch—the aggressively shiny tall black boots. Roger Fry, in only the second year of his career as regular art critic for The Athenaeum, observed drily: “We are in these days so much accustomed to believe … that the portrayal of royalty and the confection of a work of art are incompatible aims, that the picture in question will scarcely provoke astonishment.”1 Others, though, acknowledged the tact with which Fildes had responded to the potential political minefield of the royal command, not to mention what one critic called “the colour-problem”, the clashing reds of British royal pageantry.2

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The painting, measuring over two-and-a-half metres high, was placed on gold cloth on the end wall of Gallery III, in the exact position occupied in the previous year by Benjamin Constant’s sensitive portrait (1899), hung on purple and black, of the aged Queen Victoria, “etherealised”, as The Art-Journal put it.3 From mourning to magnificence, the stakes could scarcely be higher at a moment of both political and artistic transition. Fildes does not shirk the portly waist, the balding forehead, or the slight droop of the King’s eyelids—“It is just like him when he begins to feel drowsy”, commented Queen Alexandra.4 As Edward VII himself reinstated ceremonies and customs of the monarchy, Fildes’ portrait reinforces visual traditions of British kingship, acknowledging their European links: the pose and accoutrements refer unabashedly to Hyacinthe Rigaud’s coronation portrait of Louis XIV (1701), with Thomas Lawrence’s of George IV as intermediary (1821). At the same time, though, the portrait crystallises the persona of the Edwardian ruling-class male: capable of holding his position on the dais convincingly, but a touch stolidly, without excessive flair. The portrait offers the image of a new reign, reminiscent visually of the monarchies of the past, yet centred on a man who looks like a contemporary, someone of the new twentieth century.

For those who thought the state portrait predictable, another portrayal of the king pleased better: John Seymour Lucas’ Reception by King Edward VII of the Moorish Ambassador, Kaid el Mehedi el Mehebbi at St. James’s Palace, June 10, 1901, also a royal command, its ranks of white-robed Moroccan dignitaries offer a welcome relief from British red-and-gold. Unsurprisingly, royalty featured at the Academy in multifarious guises in this coronation summer. Jessie Macgregor represented the preceding holder of the new king’s monarchical name, the boy King Edward the sixth, a choice of subject likely to be deemed appropriate for a woman artist, while John MacWhirter’s Three Kings, Sherwood represented the landscape painter’s take on the theme, mighty English oaks in a royal forest.

The most impressive British royal figure of the year, however, was another Edward: the full-scale plaster model for Thomas Brock’s colossal equestrian statue of Edward, the Black Prince, a tour de force of engineering as well as artistry, still being erected in the quadrangle of Burlington House when the press viewed the Exhibition. The bronze statue, too large for a British foundry, was cast in Belgium and would be delivered in 1903, by boat and barge, to its final destination, City Square in Leeds (Fig. 2).5 The London critics, however, showed no interest in its civic credentials, instead comparing it to its most obvious Renaissance forebear, Verrocchio’s equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, and with good reason. Brock’s handling of such naturalistic details as the horse’s veins and the Prince’s close-fitting chain mail shows him adept at the latest techniques of the New Sculptors, and he invents for his Prince a dynamic arm gesture. Nonetheless, he relies on the traditions of equestrian statuary, just as Fildes relies on those of coronation portraiture.

In the new century, both the royal family and the Academy would often have to contend with the charge of being too dependent on tradition, too resistant to change. Yet both institutions also took their responsibilities to a wide public seriously, and most critics acknowledged that the images of royalty on view in the coronation summer of 1902 reached the highest standards of both technical aplomb and visual impressiveness. Perhaps Fry had a point, nonetheless, when he wished that Brock had left his horse riderless: “Every one might then have seated on the charger the hero of his fancy.”6

  1. [Roger Fry, anonymously published], The Athenaeum 3889, 10 May 1902, 600.↩︎

  2. The Times, 3 May 1902, 16.↩︎

  3. Frank Rinder, The Art-Journal (July 1902): 202.↩︎

  4. Quoted in the entry on the portrait, Royal Collection Trust website,, accessed 11 August 2017.↩︎

  5. John Anthony Sankey, “Thomas Brock and the Critics: An Examination of Brock’s Place in the New Sculpture Movement”, (PhD diss., University of Leeds, 2002), 180–186, (accessed 14 August 2017).↩︎

  6. [Roger Fry, anonymously published], The Athenaeum 3891, 24 May 1902, 664.↩︎

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Explore the 1902 catalogue