Why should the English aristocracy hold back on hyperbole about itself? There’s so much, in its opinion, to boast about. Every last lover of Downton Abbey in New Jersey learned that one.
And so, unsurprisingly, there it is, shouting at you as you turn through the great double gates from the Woodstock Road, a sign stating the obvious: England’s Greatest Palace!
We’re at Blenheim — Blenheim! — where Sir Winston Churchill (a family member) frisked and gamboled and war-mongered in the meadows as a child, to ask ourselves how a modern artist, a lone painter called nothing but Cecily Brown, can possibly measure up against the gilded triumphs of the past.
Here’s the challenge then. Brown has been invited to respond to the fact and the very idea of this place — who built it, why it’s here, what it contains, all that it represents — both as a building and as a symbol of Englishness.
What a burden!
Who had it built then? And why? Fortunately, its story is written in stone on a great gateway, high in the air, just before we enter the palace itself.
A grateful monarch called Queen Anne made a gift of it to John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, for his many tremendous victories against the French during the War of Spanish Succession in the early 18th century. So it’s the story of triumphal English triumphalism against a sniveling and pathetic gang of incomprehensibly bandy frogslegs.
And evidence of all that is everywhere, inside and out, from the brace of dinky cannons which flank the steps of the main entrance to the palace, to all that’s on display in the Great Hall itself: breast plates (as gleaming as ever), swords, martial pennants, etc., etc.
Go to it, Cecily!
Cecily Brown is a painter, and fortunately there are many paintings at Blenheim to measure Cecily’s up against (though not quite as many as there used to be because some of the best of them had to be sold off during the 19th century to keep the wolf of penury from the door).
Ancestral portraits are everywhere, but especially so in the longest Long Library you are ever likely to stride down unaided. They are high on the wall, these roaring boys and girls, well out of reach of fingers or malice of any other kind. They were painted by the likes of Sir Godfrey Kneller and other well-upholstered court painters who originally hailed from other countries.
Now, acknowledged Great Ones such as the Churchill clan always want to see their greatness reflected back at them, calmly, magisterially, all-conqueringly, and that happens here, repeatedly. Hand on hip. Leg thrust forward. Jaw set.
There is a calmness about these images, the resolutely finished calmness and orderliness of the very superior person, a species of rarefied being who has never been seen to defecate or blow its nose or kick out at a defenseless court spaniel.
Here then is the first problem for Brown, because she is a very, very uncalm painter. Is this because she has lived in New York for the past quarter of a century? Wait a minute now… There is much more to be said about her than this, and all this much will greatly complicate what she has done here…
Cecily Brown was born in Boxhill, Surrey, in 1969, and she has been happily self-exiled for as long as she ever lived in the Old Country. So she comes to it perhaps as a slightly wary returnee, wondering what she is going to make of all this ancient razzmatazz, how much nostalgia will begin to flow through her veins for what she left behind, how she will judge all that old storytelling — fadingly familiar perhaps from her school days — about the fabled greatness of the English past. In short, what can Blenheim possibly mean to her now?
Yes, all very complicated… So she begins by pouring out the truth of it into a giant vitrine plonked down in the center of the Great Hall (it’s almost the first thing we spot as we enter), a huge tabletop onto which she has spilled, seemingly willy-nilly, many of the images that came flooding back to memory as she returned here (several times) and began to let her mind and her heart work on all that she was seeing and re-seeing: old film stills, paintings, posters. Hogarth. The Beatles. Barry Lyndon as filmed by Kubrick. Paintings of The Hunt (a favored genre in great country houses such as this one). What a welter of stuff passed through her as she imagined her way into some kind of a visual response to this place!
In the end she made 26 paintings, some drawings, and a rug, and they are all embedded in a peekaboo fashion in these corridors and staterooms as we wander through, wondering at the crazed make-believe of it all, how much stuff this family acquired, and how stiffly and proudly they lay it all our for our dreamy delectation. (This house has been open to the public for 70 years.)
Cecily Brown bobs and feints and weaves her way through, and always in a bit of a mood of frenzy, that feeling of having to measure up, and also to fend off, to do something the equal of all this crushing pomp and absurd self-glorification.
She manages it. She fights back. She often plucks out small things and skewers them on the end of her brush, obliterating the central figure, for example, when she copies a copy of a portrait by Reynolds. The glorious Hunt, she reminds us, is not so much to be lauded as a necessary, timeless country rite as to be condemned for being a horrible, blood-soaked bath — as is the truth of war itself of course, when all that sticky red stuff has been mopped away, and the unfortunate dead (not the Duke himself, of course) laid under.
Being the guest of this place, there is an indirectness in her response — but the largest painting of all, in that Long Library to which I have already referred, inspired by “The Triumph of Death” (1446), a fresco in Palermo, shows that skeletal horseman thundering across the landscape, tossing aside all human frippery. So it must ever be.
Cecily Brown continues at Blenheim Palace (Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England) through January 3, 2021
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.