The finer points of art appreciation – and some straightforward speeches – in ‘The Crown’

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Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look for regular publications offering a libertine perspective on art and museum histories

The crown is back for a third season, and Rakewell is as loyal a viewer as any other. The year in the first episode is 1964, but there are echoes of 2019: hints that a senior royal official is linked to a sex scandal and a Labor leader whose critics have cited rumors of past relationships. with the KGB. Rakewell hopes it doesn’t count as a spoiler to say that at the end of the episode, the Soviet mole turns out not to be Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), but Queen’s Pictures surveyor Anthony Blunt (Samuel West). and fourth member of the Cambridge Spy Ring.

As if to announce the artistic direction of the opening episode, within minutes Tony Snowdon (Ben Daniels) and his motorbike pass the Apollo offices on Old Queen Street, where a polling station is set up. Next we see canvases pulled from the royal walls: Sir Anthony (as he was then, before being stripped of his knighthood) getting ready for an exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery on the early portrait of modern Europe. Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) and Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) express a puzzled ignorance of the works of art in their collection. “Who is it by?” Philip asks, pointing to a large canvas on the floor. “Annibale Carracci,” Blunt replies. ‘Never heard of him. This one?’ ‘Artemisia Gentileschi.’ ‘Never heard of him either.’ ‘Her, Sir.’ The queen seems rather taken by a portrait hanging high on a wall, which Blunt informs him is that of Rembrandt Old man in military costume (vs. 1630-1631), a “wonderfully enigmatic character”.

An old man in military costume (c. 1630-1631), Rembrandt van Rijn. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

This painting becomes the focus of the Blunt Royal Collection exhibit at the Guildhall Gallery, which the Queen is forced to open even after discovering the truth about her identity as a Soviet spy (Blunt had been promised the immunity from prosecution in exchange for full confessions, and retained his role as curator of royal art for another 15 years). The fact that Rembrandt’s portrait hides another face “lurking beneath the surface,” as the Queen pointedly put it, makes the work a useful symbol for Blunt’s double play. (In Alan Bennett’s cunning play, A question of attribution [1988], the playwright puts Titian Allegory of Prudence and Triple Portrait for even better use.)

While Rakewell wouldn’t be stupid enough to seek The crown for an accurate representation of events and facts, he found it curious that, while Allegory of Truth and Time and Gentileschi Self-portrait as an allegory of painting are both in the Royal Collection (the latter currently hangs in the Cumberland Bedroom at Hampton Court Palace), Rembrandt’s Old man in military costume never has been. The Royal Collection includes five paintings by the Dutch master, but the portrait in question belonged to Sir Brian Stanley Mountain at the time and now belongs to the Getty Museum.

An Allegory of Truth and Time (circa 1584-1585), Annibale Carracci.  Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

An allegory of truth and time (around 1584-1585), Annibale Carracci. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

As for the Queen, the revelations about Blunt seem to have steadfastly steered her away from art – so we can expect not to see as many of them in future episodes. “Are you a man of art? she asks Harold Wilson at the show. “I’m happier with the numbers,” he replies. ‘There is no mystery, no deception […] You know where you are. What you see is what you get. ‘ “I totally agree,” said Her Majesty, in all approval.

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