LONDON — If you are culture hungry in London, and one of your life’s greatest wishes is to avoid the vulgar yawp and bustle of shoppers on Oxford Street, there is a ready answer. A couple of streets back from the Bond Street Underground station there is a lovely, sequestered spot called Manchester Square. You will find it by taking a turn off the north side of Oxford Street onto Duke Street, and then walking for a relatively short distance, having first passed by a house once lived in by Simón Bolívar.
What better place to scheme and to plot if you are a South American liberationist than a quiet, 18th-century residence in Mayfair?
At the back of the square you will spot a rather ugly Victorian townhouse of grandiose pretensions. This building, known back then as Hertford House, was once the home of Sir Richard and Lady Wallace, and it is now known as the Wallace Collection. Its entrance is flanked by a pair of Grecian urns. Once through the gate, you will see that the COVID-19 rules, displayed on a shrieking yellow sign board, are very particular to this place. Here is the one to which you need to pay attention: “If you need to cough or sneeze, use a tissue or the crook of your arm.” Have your arm crooked in readiness.
The house itself has been preserved in aspic, beginning with the Front State Room circa 1890: what a nonstop display of opulent clutter we have here! Admire the chandelier, the gilded, coffered doors, the portraiture, the busts on their elegant marble plinths, and, just outside the door, the grand flourish of the house’s main staircase — and, of course, the mild-mannered, ever-so-polite security guard who may be blocking your way as he gently rises and falls on the heels of his high-polished black shoes. In short, this place is almost entirely a journey back in time …
Except for the new gallery in the basement, where the exhibition under review is to be found. Has this gallery been created from some featureless understairs world where the servants might once have passed dutifully to and fro? In all its overstretched, box-like plainness, it rather resembles a very long, dingily lit ship’s container. Today it has been tricked out to welcome an exhibition by a master of the Dutch Golden Age. Quite oddly tricked out, though, it has to be said. The walls are painted a deep maroon for the most part, but sometimes the maroon is edged with — or fuzzily interrupted by — passages of gray, as if the walls are making a stab at recreating a Rothko. Why? Why? Ask me another.
Frans Hals: The Male Portrait brings together 13 of Hals’s greatest paintings of the movers and shakers (all male) of the Dutch port city of Haarlem, from the 1620s onward. Its central talking point is a very well known painting called “The Laughing Cavalier” (1624), which hangs pridefully on its own on an end wall. This painting was acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford (the main founder of the Wallace Collection) in 1865, and it has lived in this house ever since. What is more, its purchase and display helped to wrest Hals from obscurity. The name of the painting is a Victorian invention, too. This man is not a cavalier. He is not on horseback at all. There are no horsy accoutrements. There is a not a whiff of horse reek about it. And though the man could in a pinch be said to be smirking, no one in their right mind could ever claim that he was laughing.
It’s worth spending more than a little time in the company of this painting, and one of the reasons is because we know it too well, and we need to reflect upon some of the issues that arise from the curse (or the blessings) of overfamiliarity. Yes, so many of us have seen it too often, a thousand times over, in reproduction, without perhaps ever having really seen it at all. That is the curse of overexposure. “The Laughing Cavalier” is like an old, well-worn armchair into which we sink once again, breathing a sigh of mild pleasure without giving it more than a second’s thought.
What is more, this painting is Frans Hals. It is his representative. We know him by no other. Is it a good painting? Is it a bad painting? Is it a profound piece of work or not? Is its appeal mainly decorative? Could the hat be regarded as ridiculous or not? Is it on the way to becoming that “Quangle Wangle’s Hat” of which Edward Lear wrote so compellingly, in which all the birds of the air nested to their hearts’ content? Sweep all such questions away! They are irrelevant. We are beyond all such poker-faced piffle. “The Laughing Cavalier” is here, among us, as deeply embedded in our English soil as an ancient tomb, and he has always been here. Or at the very least since 1865.
Today is rather special though. Today we can see him in all his breathing likeness. Likeness to whom though? No one knows. Least of all the 4th Marquess of Hertford. Least of all he who blithely decided to call it “The Laughing Cavalier” in 1888 or so, more than 250 years after it was painted. So let us consider this question of entitlement a little more. There is no evidence from the painting that this man is a horseman. He is not, as we have already pointed out, laughing. The look is sidelong, slightly rakish, and nowhere near to being a rip-roaring, full-bellied outburst of laughter. This man is too restrained by all his fancy costuming to indulge in laughter. He is too intent on posing, you might say, in all that fancy lacework about the neck and the wrist, arm akimbo.
But, but … to be a Cavalier with a capital C is slightly different from being a cavalier with a small c. The title seems to suggest that this man should perhaps be regarded as an Englishman of the king’s party — and by that I mean one of those Cavaliers who fought in the English Civil War against the Cromwellians, who were, some may recall, known as the Roundheads. That Civil War was raging within 20 years of the making of this painting, and so it would not be at all preposterous to suggest that the circa 1888 title was a direct reference to the vanquished Cavaliers — after all, they lost, their king (Charles I) had his head deftly removed close to the top of Whitehall, and a glorious Commonwealth was declared. But is this Cavalier laughing because he has the gift of being able to foresee that the monarchy would rise again, that the republican experiment in England would be snuffed out within little more than a decade, and that a second Charles, a new and more dissolute cavalier altogether, would return from France in triumph?
Frans Hals: The Male Portrait continues at the Wallace Collection (Hertford House, Manchester Square, London, England) through January 30, 2022. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Lelia Packer.