Court of Exiles

British art spanning 500 years was hung at the Ambassador’s Residence in The Hague following its major refurbishment. Having first visited when the house was still a building site in hard hat and safety boots, Government Art Collection Curator: Collection Services, Andrew Parratt returned in 2014 to oversee the new display of art.

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‘Seeing the house without protective coverings for the first time was a revelation, since each room has a distinct style’, said Andrew. ‘Black Italian marble, French panelling, Chinese silk and other historical architectural salvage is used throughout. We wanted to find art that would complement these fine interiors and explore relations between the two countries, past and present’.

Centrepiece of the house is the Ballroom, now hung as a portrait gallery of courtly exiles from the houses of Stuart, Orange and Hannover, revealing Anglo-Dutch ties of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Visitors can now mingle with great figures from a shared past such as King William III, Mary Princess of Orange, King James II, Lord Clarendon, King George I and his grandmother Elizabeth of Bohemia (here represented by Portrait of a Lady, once thought to depict The Winter Queen). Marble busts of King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell stand apart to place the exiles in context of Civil War era Britain. The complex interrelationships of blood, marriage and rivalry between the Ballroom exiles are exemplified by William III who was in one person nephew, son-in-law, usurper and belligerent to his uncle, James II.

‘When we were thinking about the new art display, we wanted to underline some of the personal relationships that existed between the sitters,’ said Andrew, ‘It’s fascinating to think of these people gathered together here and imagine the murmur of conversation between them.’

There is also an important full-length portrait of King Charles II showing him in exile shortly before Restoration in 1660 and described in Samuel Pepys’ diary as ‘… the most pleasant and the most like him that ever I saw a picture in my life…’

This portrait was a gift from Charles II to Admiral Montagu, commander of the warship that returned the exiled King to England, and itself emblematic of the times. Built in 1655 during the Commonwealth as the Naseby, its Cromwell figurehead was removed and the ship renamed Royal Charles before the restored King boarded at Scheveningen in 1660. In 1667 the same Royal Charles was captured in the Chatham Raid that ended the second Anglo-Dutch war (a disgrace that led to Lord Clarendon’s fall and exile) and broken up, though her stern remains preserved today at the Rijksmuseum.

The constitutional crises of revolutionary Britain were eventually settled with the accession of King George I (from whom the current Queen is directly descended), and who himself sailed from The Hague into exile on claiming the British crown in 1714.

Aside from the sitters in the portraits, many of the artists were themselves exiles. As historian Karen Hearn has written, Low Country artists had been arriving in England and Scotland since the mid-16th century either to escape religious persecution or advance their professional careers. Daniel Mytens, born in Delft around 1590, was one such émigré artist to the early Stuart court and his portrait of Lady Anne Montagu hangs in the Dining Room of the Residence. Mytens was the favoured portraitist of James I and later Charles I until supplanted by Anthony van Dyck (born in Antwerp), who arrived in 1632 from The Hague where he had painted a portrait of Elizabeth of Bohemia.

Another exile was Peter Lely, born to Dutch parents in Westphalia and trained in Haarlem, who arrived in England in 1641 and eventually achieved success as Principal Painter in Ordinary to Charles II. Lely’s portraits of John Stone MP and his wife Catherine Stone also hang in the Residence Dining Room. Other important 17th century Dutch artists on display at the Residence include Willem Wissing, Willem van de Velde the Younger and Frans Jansz Post, an artist who had lived in Brazil and became the first European to paint the landscape of the New World.

The Hague display also includes modern and contemporary British art from the Collection. Works by Laura Ford, Richard Long, John Stezaker, Richard Forster, Phillip Allen, Laura Lancaster and Richard Wentworth are in the Drawing and Conference Rooms. The Dutch still life tradition of vanitas is alluded to through the decaying blooms in Sarah Jones’ contemporary photograph The Rose Gardens, and the influence of De Stijl’s measured abstraction is clear in Sophie Smallhorn’s screenprints Colour Wheel 1 & 2.

With so many historic and contemporary Anglo-Dutch resonances in the display, it seems fitting that visitors to the Residence are greeted by Cerith Wyn Evans’ neon sculpture, Time here becomes space / Space here becomes time. Placed on either side of the Entrance Hall, these two cool white text phrases ‘call’ to each other and illuminate the domed ceiling.

The impact of this contemporary work on visitors was noted in a profile of Ambassador Sir Geoffrey Adams in Elsevier, the leading Dutch news journal:

‘Could it get more posh and traditional? Don’t be fooled. Adams is absolutely not a snooty, old-fashioned diplomat. You can see that immediately you walk into his beautiful Residence…lots of marble, sure: but on the right and the left in the hall hang two hypermodern neon artworks. Text: ‘Time here becomes space’, and on the other side, ‘Space here becomes time.’

In a sense, the Government Art Collection works of art on display in The Hague and other Foreign and Commonwealth posts are themselves exiles, displayed across the globe to promote British history, culture and creativity, and supporting wider diplomatic efforts in serving Britain’s interests abroad.